Butt sniffing, investigating dead animals, and rolling in smelly things – how should you handle these gross but normal dog behaviors? Learn when to let your dog go for it, and when not to.
Dogs have so much in common with us. They form strong social bonds. They live in our houses with us. They keep us company and play with us. Much of their body language resembles ours closely enough that, with care, we can communicate our emotions back and forth.
All those similarities – and then bang, our dogs do things that upset us and freak us out, reminding us that Zippy really does belong to a different species. This week’s article is dedicated to three doggy behaviors that give many people the icks, and to what, if anything, we should do about them.
1. Smelling Poop, Pee, and Other Dogs’ Anuses
This is one for the Just Get Over It Department. It’s normal and appropriate for dogs to sniff each other’s anuses and genitals in greeting. It’s normal and appropriate for them to investigate other dogs’ urine and feces. Dogs live in a world of smells, and they are not judgmental about the sources of those smells; they mine smells for information. For instance, dogs seem to recognize their own urine and will spend more time investigating the urine of unfamiliar dogs than of dogs they know.
Use the opportunity to sniff as a reward for attentiveness to you when you’re practicing polite leash walking. And remember that a meandering, sniffy walk can be more relaxing for your dog than the kind of forced march many humans think an exercise walk has to be. Finally, notice when your dog has the urge to sniff. You may find that Zippy sniffs the ground when passing a dog whose posture is tense and high. Zippy may be signaling non-hostile intent, or the sniffing may be what’s called a “displacement behavior.” These are normal behaviors done at odd times or in odd contexts, and they’re thought to be a sign of conflicted motivation or of stress.
We often tend to urge dogs along or even yank them away from an absorbing sniff. Sure, sometimes you have to get from Point A to Point B and there’s no time to dawdle. But when you’re not in any big rush, let your dog investigate the world in the way that’s most informative and interesting to him. So it’s a little dull for you to stand around while he takes a detailed smell inventory of the shrubbery; now you know how he feels when you spend a century and a half shooting the breeze with a neighbor!
2. Investigating Dead Things
I walk my dog in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park most mornings. We have found dead squirrels, dead birds, dead rats, dead raccoons, dead cats, and a dead rabbit. Once we found an opossum that I think was dead. Most dead animals fascinate Juniper, as they do many dogs. Dogs sniff them, paw at them, turn them over, and sometimes pick them up. A dead animal may grow more interesting after it’s had a few days to ripen.
Sniffing and nosing at a dead animal, even one that’s well rotted, is unlikely to do a healthy dog any harm. The two big things to worry about if Zippy actually takes a bite are poison and infectious disease. A dead animal may have been poisoned by something toxic to dogs – warfarin is commonly used against rats, for instance. Or the animal may be carrying bacteria such as those that cause the disease leptospirosis. Lepto is curable with antibiotics but can kill your dog if not caught early. Many wild animals carry lepto; it’s especially common in rodents.
There are a couple of ways to keep your cadaver-inspecting dog safe. One is a well-learned, heavily rewarded “Drop it!” cue; check out this video by the English trainer Chirag Patel for a teaching method that’s both brilliant and easy. Another helpful tactic uses the “Premack principle,” named for the psychology researcher David Premack.
The basic idea is that you use something your dog wants to do as a reward for his doing something you want him to do. I’ve taught my Juniper that backing off from a dead animal on cue will usually get him permission to go back and sniff some more. Whenever I see him getting ready to pick up a dead animal, instead of just smelling it and pawing at it, I cue him to back off. Then, once he’s done so and gotten a little less amped about his find, I okay him to go back to it. A surprising result of this training is that he loses interest in the dead animal much sooner than he used to.
I’ve explained how to use the Premack principle in earlier articles. If you plan to work with your dog in this way, practice first with something much less enticing than Dead Squirrel Friend. This is the same rule as for any training – kindergarten-easy first, and work your way slowly up to grad school. Dead Squirrel Friend definitely qualifies as grad school.
3. Rolling in Things
Juniper loves to roll on the ground; honestly, most of the time I can’t tell whether he just likes the texture and scratchiness on his back, or whether he’s responding to a patch of some scent. Sometimes he does roll next to, or even on, one of those fascinating dead things we just covered. Thankfully, he doesn’t roll in feces, but many dogs do.
There’s all kinds of speculation about why dogs roll in smelly things. Their wolf ancestors may do it to bring information back to their packmates, who will investigate the smell on them and may then go check out the source. Incidentally, wolves will roll in Old Spice and Chanel No. 5 as well as in animal scent.
Rolling gives dogs such obvious pleasure that I encourage you to allow it whenever possible. If you have a short-coated dog, a brisk toweling plus a going-over with a curry comb will clear out any dirt, leaf crumbs, or even dried mud still hanging around by the time you get home. For a longer coat, try a slicker brush.
Much as I advocate letting dogs enjoy the things that dogs enjoy, I will not tell you you have to let Zippy roll in feces or rotting flesh to meet his behavioral needs! This is the time to use that carefully taught, well-rewarded “Leave it” cue you’ve been working on: a how-to is here. And if you do have to bathe your dog because you object to the info he brought back to his packmate, check out my tips on how to make the experience reasonably pleasant for both of you.
As always, send comments and questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. I can’t answer individually, but I may use them as the basis for future articles. And you can talk to me on Facebook, where I’m The Dog Trainer. Dogalini is me on Twitter. Thanks for reading, have a great week, and by all means let me know how you got over your gag reflex!