Poop is gross. Or at least we think so; Fido would beg to disagree. Our dogs love to roll in it, sniff it, and some of the hard core crew even like to eat it. What in the world is the appeal? Dogs love to use their noses, and sniffing the poop of other dogs seems to be one of their favorite activities. Is Fido just naturally drawn to offensive odors? There is no corresponding behavior in human nature, so it is difficult for us to understand. Yet, most dog behaviors are deeply rooted in logic. By taking the time to understand natural instincts which have been bred into our modern dogs over the years, we can gain powerful insights into just what makes them tick. While this activity seems bizarre to us, we see it often enough in our dogs to realize that for Fido, there is more to it than just enjoying a particularly unpleasant smell. What is it that Fido is getting out of sniffing poop?
The Root of the Behavior
Scientists estimate that dogs possess olfactory senses that are 10,000 to 100,000 times more powerful than our own. If poop smells bad to us, what does it smell like to our dogs, and what is it that keeps drawing Fido back to it time and time again? Since dogs primarily explore their world through their noses and mouths, scent is a powerful tool that conveys information to our dogs about our world and the creatures that inhabit it. Human beings are equipped to compartmentalize information on the basis of sight. We are able to determine components of a whole this way. Dogs don't share this same ability. Since dogs have limited color recognition, they rely on their sense of smell to help them understand the things they encounter on a day to day basis. Their noses are capable of disseminating smells into parts to help them properly comprehend their world. This is how they gather information. In this sense, the act of sniffing is like "canine journalism." When dogs discover dead animal carcasses or poop, they investigate it with their noses, but many of them also roll in it. Why? Is the smell so alluring that they want to take it with them?
Rolling in pungent smells is a common dog behavior that traces its roots to when dogs lived primarily in the wild. Wild dogs needed to find prey as a food source for them and their young. Yet at the same time, they needed to keep from becoming prey for other predators. Rolling in dead animal carcasses or feces served a purpose for these dogs. Since animals possess powerful scent capabilities and also give off their own unique scent, disguising the smell that identifies them was important. Rolling in feces or other 'fragrances' served as a form of camouflage to throw predators off the dog's trail. This would play an important role in the dog's ability to hunt and to keep from being hunted. Dr. Stanley Coren says of this seemingly strange canine phenomenon, “My theory is that dogs roll in stinky stuff for the same reason humans wear loud Hawaiian shirts. It’s a matter of their dominant sense of smell, whereas for humans, the dominant sense is vision.” With that said, is there a specific purpose for sniffing poop?
Encouraging the Behavior
There is! Dogs obtain information with their noses. An animal's feces tells your dog a great deal about that animal. Though to us, poop just smells like poop; to your dog, it is like reading the biography of a new friend. Poop tells your dog all about that animal's diet, emotional state, home environment, favorite walking place, health condition, and so much more. Everything your dog needs to know about that animal is contained in that poop! It's the canine way of getting to know the pets in your neighborhood. Interestingly, our dogs are also interested in sniffing the urine of other pets and will even inspect their own. Why is this?
Dogs convey messages to other dogs through their urine and feces. Many refer to this as 'pee-mail.' Urine marking communicates to other dogs where your dog has been. It is quite common for dogs to repeatedly urinate in the same location on a walk to reinforce the scent. You may also notice that Fido will go and check those spots to see if any 'mail' has been left for him and to refresh fragrances that he might not have visited in a while. While poop sniffing is a normal canine behavior, it is not something that we should allow our dogs to do on a regular basis. Because not all dogs have access to regular de-worming and vaccinations, a disease can easily be spread via feces. Dog feces is the perfect vehicle for many types of worms including hookworm, tapeworm, and ringworm. Whether your dog is on a proper preventative to control the spread of disease or not, they can be affected. But dog feces is not limited to containing just worms. It also has the potential to transmit salmonella, E. coli, giardia, parvovirus, and roundworms. These diseases are not only harmful, and potentially fatal, for dogs and they can infect human beings as well. Studies report that a sample of canine feces can house up to 23 million E coli particles per gram. That is a powerhouse punch of bacteria!
Other Solutions and Considerations
To do your part in the fight against the spread of disease via feces, there are several things that you can do. The best way you can help is by promptly cleaning up and disposing of Fido's feces. Should you come across feces that has been left behind by other dog owners, and you have sufficient poop bags on you, it would be thoughtful to remove it as well. Disposing of all evidence of canine feces is a means of protecting yourself, your environment, and your dog. It is a simple act that can have far-reaching benefits. Secondly, when Fido encounters feces on his daily walks or romps through the woods, do not allow him to sniff it. The risk of disease is far too high. Fido doesn't need to know all of the information he would like to know about all of the animals who frequent the same places that he does. All it takes is one exposure to some of these illnesses to make your dog seriously ill, and many of them carry the potential to kill.
After dog walks, make certain to always wash your hands thoroughly to ensure the removal of any bacteria particles remaining on your hands. Take care to inspect Fido's feet as well in case he has stepped in any feces. Dogs contain sensitive glands in their feet through which bacteria could be absorbed into your dog's system. While it is not necessary for your dog to wear boots for his walks, keeping a soft towel and a bucket of warm, soapy water handy for a quick wipedown is always a wise idea.
Fido's feces sniffing habit make you feel a little ill? While it is quite normal for him to be drawn to this activity, it is best to direct his sniffing habits elsewhere to keep him safe and healthy. Help fight the spread of disease by doing your part to keep your environment clean and always keep poop bags on you for safe and easy removal and disposal.
Written by a Parson Russel Terrier lover Jason Homan
Veterinary reviewed by:
Published: 03/08/2018, edited: 01/30/2020