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Dogs Finding Home

18 Mar 2021

Have you ever wondered how dogs find their way home when they’re lost?  Well, so have scientists!  


I accidentally came across an interesting paper on this subject and decided to jump down that rabbit hole to learn more.


This study looked at 27 hunting dogs over 600 trials!  They attached GPS devices to their collars and allowed them to roam free in a forested area.  To return home, dogs either followed their tracks to get back, or they scouted a new path back home.  Tracking home seems pretty self-explanatory.  However, the dogs that scouted a new path home did so by first performing what the researchers called a ‘compass run’.  They started off by running a short (20 meter) run along the north-south geomagnetic axis.  It didn’t matter which direction ‘home’ actually was, they started off their ‘scouting’ with this run.  The researchers wrote: “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.”


In reading the introduction and discussion in this paper, it seems that ‘magnetic pole’ alignment is a topic that has been researched and proposed in multiple other species of animals.  We also know that migratory species utilize this ‘internal compass’ as a way to navigate migration.  We know that bees have navigational superpowers in finding pollen sources, returning home and telling the rest of the hive.  However, this paper is rather novel in its study of domesticated dogs.


As a bit of background, I’ll share some of the salient points that caught my attention.

“Homing, broadly defined as the ability to return to a known goal location (e.g. breeding grounds, shelter sites) after displacement, has been shown in a taxonomically diverse range of vertebrates that rely on a multitude of cues, for example visual, olfactory, acoustic, celestial, magnetic, and idiothetic.”


In World War I, dogs were used as couriers to deliver sensitive messages across battlegrounds.  Nearly 100 years ago, the first studies looked at the ability of dogs to return home even if displaced to unfamiliar sites.  Decades later research noted that dogs often homed using novel routes and/or shortcuts, ruling out reverse tracking strategies, and making scent-driven tracking and visual scanning unlikely.  


The best summation is the final paragraph in the discussion section.  

“Our findings clearly show the importance of further research on the role and involvement of magnetic cues in canine (and more generally mammalian) navigation. More specifically, the research suggests that the magnetic field may provide dogs (and mammals generally) with a ‘universal’ reference frame, which is essential for long-distance navigation and arguably the most important component that is ‘missing’ from our current understanding of mammalian spatial behaviour and cognition.”


So, I’ll leave it with that and simply add, “Aren’t dogs amazing?!”




1.Benediktová K, Adámková J, Svoboda J, Painter MS, Bartoš L, Nováková P, Vynikalová L, Hart V, Phillips J, Burda H. Magnetic alignment enhances homing efficiency of hunting dogs. Elife. 2020 Jun 16;9:e55080. 



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