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Study Shows How Dogs Find Their Way

By Christy True
February 9, 2021 • 2 min. read
Dog with GPS

Stories of lost dogs showing up at home or locating their families after a long and perilous journey have been making the rounds for decades.

The movies and TV show “Lassie” that aired from the 1950s to the 1970s have recurring themes of Lassie making incredible journeys to find her way home or locating her pal Timmy, who always seemed to be falling in holes spurring the “Timmy fell in the well!” expression.

During World War I, highly trained “messenger dogs” were used as couriers to deliver sensitive information across battlegrounds or locate injured soldiers, and then return to their home base.
Dog tracking
And then, there are more recent reports of dogs traveling incredible distances to find their pet parents, such as a four-year-old Labrador in Kansas who trekked 57 miles to her previous home in Missouri. Her family had not lived in the house for more than two years.

Recent study finds ‘special’ canine navigating skill

Dogs running in grass

Despite many anecdotes and mythologies about dogs’ unique ability to find their way home, their homing strategies are still not fully understood. A recent study sheds some light on this, concluding that some dogs have a remarkable ability to navigate using the Earth’s magnetic fields.

For the study by both Czech researchers and scientists at Virginia Tech in the U.S., they equipped 27 hunting dogs – 10 different breeds — with GPS collars and a small camera and let them freely roam in forested areas. After a while, the owners, who the dogs couldn’t see, would call them back, and the dogs had to figure out how to find them. The dogs completed a total of 622 runs at 62 different locations.

The researchers saw that the dogs used one of two tactics, or a combination, to find their way to their owners. The dogs either:

  • Followed their outbound track (tracking)
  • Used a new route (scouting)
  • A combination of both

The dogs that looked for a novel path did something extraordinary. Before they started toward home, they ran about 20 meters along the north-south geomagnetic axis, even if that was not their way back. It’s as if they are taking a compass reading before deciding which way to go. Doing so significantly increased their speed in finding home, as they could take shortcuts.

This means these dogs perform true navigation without the benefit of landmarks or smells they may have detected on the way out. While most dogs returned using the tracking strategy, 33 percent used the scouting approach, and 8 percent used both. While faster, the scouting approach is riskier if the dog should get lost.

“We propose that this run is instrumental for bringing the mental map into register with the magnetic compass and to establish the heading of the animal,” the researchers said.

The Earth’s magnetic field is a useful navigation tool as it provides a stable, always available cue, regardless of seasonal variations, the availability of visual cues, or weather conditions.

Hunting dogs, particularly the so-called scent hounds, are especially skilled at navigation as they’ve been bred for generations to detect and pursue tracks of game animals and, if not followed by the hunter, return to the place the pursuit started.

The researchers conclude by suggesting further studies on the role of magnetic cues in navigation for canines and other mammals as there are still many unanswered questions.

Of course, dogs don’t always find their way home for various reasons.  If your dog ever gets lost, here are some tips for finding them, and here is a story about a real-life pet detective who finds lost pets.

Christy True and Tomas
By Christy True

Christy has been writing about pets for Healthy Paws for 21 dog years. She previously worked in journalism, hence her penchant for writing about offbeat animal studies and the latest viral pet trends. She has been owned by several dogs, and right now, Tomas, a Mexican street dog rescue, is staring at her because he wants a walk. Outside of work, she can usually be found sliding down a mountain near her home in Bend, Ore.

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