You’ve made the mistake of dropping your sweaty workout clothes on the floor. The next thing you know, your puppy has made off with them. When you finally track down the stolen items, you find your pup gleefully rolling around and rubbing their body on them — or, worse, licking and chewing them. Apart from being thoroughly grossed out, you now have a stinky puppy on your hands, and your favorite workout bra is toast.
Why is your puppy so obsessed with your dirty laundry? While this behavior might seem perplexing, there are actually a number of reasons why it makes perfect sense to your pup, most of which have to do with a dog’s sense of smell.
Decoding the World, One Smell at a Time
A puppy’s sense of smell is one of their first functional senses at birth, weeks before the eyes open or hearing starts to develop. It’s through smell that puppies are able to seek out their mother’s milk, and, for the first two weeks of their lives, scent and touch are their primary ways of interacting with and understanding the world. Even after hearing and eyesight develop, a puppy’s sense of smell is far stronger than their other senses, somewhere between 10,000 and 100,000 times stronger than the human sense of smell, depending on breed. Scent hounds, such as Beagles and Bloodhounds, tend to be at the top of the range.
While dogs generally have excellent hearing, their eyesight isn’t great, with a limited capacity to see colors or make out details. But what dogs lack in vision, they more than make up for with their ability to sniff out information. For dogs and puppies, smells carry data that helps them navigate the world, and even serve as a form of communication.
Why Dogs Love Dirty Laundry
How does this relate to your puppy’s laundry theft? The real culprit is the scent of pheromones covering your dirty laundry. All mammals, including humans, possess sweat glands known as apocrine glands. These glands release pheromones that your pup finds irresistible and because it tells them all kinds of information about you via their enhanced sense of smell. Not only can your sweaty clothes tell your puppy about your age, gender, and mood, but also whether you’re menstruating or whether you’ve had sex.
Since these glands are primarily located in your genitals and armpits, clothing that comes in direct contact with these areas are likely to be the most attractive to your pup — which is why it’s most often your underwear, T-shirts or sweaty workout clothes that your little thief makes off with. Humans also possess apocrine glands in the nipple region of the breast, so your bras aren’t safe, either.
While this explains why dogs sometimes steal away with dirty clothes, it doesn’t quite explain their tendency to roll around on them or rub themselves in your stinky scent. This goes back to the tendency of dogs to roll in smelly things in general. Why they do this is open to speculation, but most dog-behavior experts agree that the tendency is evolutionary in nature, inherited from pre-domesticated dogs and their wolf ancestors.
One commonly held theory is that dogs cover themselves in strong smells to hide their own scent and make it harder for prey, or for other predators, to detect them. Another theory that is gaining traction is that this is an evolutionary hold-over from wolves, who roll in interesting smells that they discover so that they can carry them back to their packs. These scents typically convey information that the rest of the pack might find useful, such as where to find a potential food source.
Other researchers theorize that members of a wolf pack may all roll in the same smell in order to create a sense of pack unity. If this is the same reason why dogs do it, then it may be that your pup simply wants to smell like you as a way to feel closer to you — still gross, but kind of sweet.
But why do you sometimes catch your pup licking or chewing on your dirty underwear? As disturbing as this may be, it’s likely not because dogs enjoy the taste.
More likely, it’s because licking and chewing both help to release more of the smell, enhancing their ability to take in and process all of the information your scent has to offer.
How to Keep Your Puppy from Stealing Your Laundry
Of course, the most effective way to make sure your pup doesn’t run away with your best underwear and destroy it is to keep it in a hamper or shut up in a closet and not on the floor or in a low basket where it’s easy pickings. But once wash day rolls around, things might not be so simple. Here are a few tips to save your delicates and avoid having to add a smelly puppy to your wash list.
- If possible, cut off your puppy’s access to the area where you sort your laundry. This might mean doing it in the bedroom with the door closed, or using a pet gate to cordon off the laundry room.
- If that’s not possible, try distracting your pup with a toy or a puzzle game while you do the sorting.
- Keep sorted laundry out of your pup’s reach.
- If your pup still manages to nab an item of clothing and run off with it, it’s important not to react. Don’t chase the puppy down — this will make them think it’s a game, and will reinforce the behavior. Approach the puppy calmly and offer a treat or toy to distract their attention while you retrieve the garment.
- Avoid scolding your puppy or reacting emotionally — even negative attention can still reinforce the behavior.
The good news is that some puppies outgrow their laundry obsession eventually, and some never develop one at all. Scent hounds are more likely to be drawn to dirty laundry than other breeds. Engaging them in a sport like AKC Scent Work, which gives dogs a fun outlet to exercise their sense of smell, can also help to quell the fascination they have with your dirty clothes.