Dog sniffing ground

Yesterday my littlest dog, Gaston, came inside smelling like a combination of ten-day-old garbage and seven kinds of stool. Nasty — but so like him. Anytime Gaston gets the chance to flop his tiny Miniature Pinscher self onto something long dead (and maybe eat it, too), he’s in heaven. 

But just because my dogs have a sense of smell 10,000 to 100,000 times better than mine doesn’t mean they have better taste. Sure, they may be able to whiff out a drop of blood in a gallon of water, detect cancer cells using their noses alone, and generally make humans’ sense of smell seem rudimentary by comparison, their penchant for the pungent is, well, disgusting.

A Predilection for Poop

Foul as they are, animal feces (especially those of wild carnivorous mammals such as raccoons, badgers and bears) offer dogs a scent sensation they relish and we can’t abide. So, too, for cat poo, a delicacy few dogs reject when it’s on hand.

But it’s not just poop. Rotting corpses and fetid bodily fluids elicit similarly delighted reactions. Why else would my dogs adore my clothing after I’ve had an especially challenging day replete with postmortem exams, impacted anal glands and gooey, infected ears?

This inexplicable behavior begs the question: Are our dogs just “nasty” creatures who don’t know any better? Or is there a good reason for their revolting conduct?

A Possible Explanation

Turns out there’s almost certainly a biological rationale for our dogs’ disgusting manners. It’s been suggested by scent scientists and wildlife biologists that they relish stinky smells as a way to mask their own canine scent.

Here’s why: The strong aroma of carcasses and decay creates a sensory explosion for animals who rely on their snouts for sustenance. Rolling in dead stuff means other animals can throw predators off their trail and keep prey in the dark about their doings. All so they can eat well, unencumbered by the competition of other carnivores.

People Do It, Too

Interestingly, a recent article in The New York Times corroborated these findings but gave them an unexpected twist: We humans also love the eau-de-nasty. Turns out we’ve been masking our own sweat-scented selves not just with roses and jasmine, but with whale snot, feces and anal glands, too.

Yes, the history of modern fragrance is full of examples that show just how attracted we humans are to scents we ordinarily deem rank and fetid. In fact, some of the world’s famous perfumes include ingredients that may sound nice, but when smelled independent of their floral accompaniments are highly unpleasant. Civet (anal glands of an Asian cat) and ambergris (hardened whale snot) are just two common examples.

Gross, right? But it makes sense. After all, both plants and animals have been covering themselves in other plant and animal scents forever. Whether it be for protection or to confer another sort of evolutionary advantage, the bottom line is that scent is useful for subversion and survival — no matter your species.

If you still can’t wrap your head around your dog’s poopy predilections, here’s another thought: Maybe he’s rolling in it to prove to you, his beloved, how impressive he can smell when he really, really works at it. Or maybe it’s true: He’s just being a gross dog.

I’d much prefer to think my dogs have a better reason for doing what they do than being disgusting. And now that science is offering me cogent explanations why even humans deserve a spot on the list of the aromatically challenged, I’ve got another reason to respect my pets. As if I needed one.