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Can Lost Dogs Find Their Way Home? What Science Says

Nicole Cosgrove Profile Picture

By Nicole Cosgrove

lost dog

Dogs are truly incredible animals, although we sometimes take it for granted just how incredible they are. Most people know the story of Hachi, the Akita that visited the train station his owner used to get on and off at for 9 years after his death. And there are multiple stories of dogs that have found their way home from many miles away, sometimes even after several months or even years. It is true that dogs have an incredible sense of smell and that they can use this sense to help them find their way home.

But research suggests that they may also have the same magnetoreception that birds use when migrating. They almost have a built-in compass that helps them determine the direction they need to travel to get back to their desired position. This particular method of geolocation is most likely used when the dog has no means of sniffing its way back home.

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Sense Of Smell

Dogs have an incredible sense of smell. In fact, it is up to 100,00 times more acute than that of a human.1 Depending on wind conditions, breed of dog, and other factors, dogs can smell their owners up to a distance of 12 miles away. As such, they can follow their own scent and retrace their steps to find their way home even after a particularly long walk. Because they can follow their own scent, rather than having to sniff out their owner or their home, a dog could find its way back hundreds of miles using just their sense of smell.

A dog’s sense of smell is also more acute, which means it only needs to pick up a very small amount of scent to be able to follow it. This sense of smell is how Bloodhounds and other scent hounds can be used to locate missing people and how some dogs are so effective at sniffing out drugs, explosives, and other items. It is also why they can be used to detect illnesses in people.

Photo Credit: AvinaCeleste, pixabay


However, even this incredible sense of smell doesn’t necessarily explain how some dogs find their way home even after they didn’t make the initial journey themselves. According to recent research, dogs may have the ability to detect magnetic fields. They effectively have a natural compass, so they know which direction they have headed and which direction they need to take to get back home.

The research looked at hunting dogs, fitted them with tracking equipment, and then monitored how they located their owners when they got lost. Most did use their sense of smell, but about a third used what scientists believe to be this magnetoreception. They set off in a north-south direction for a short time before using the navigational information they gather to find their way back. The same study also shows that the dogs that used this technique found their way back to their owners quicker than those that used their sense of smell and tracked scent.

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The 3 Other Incredible Facts About Dogs

1. Dogs Have a Dominant Paw Side

In the same way that people are either left-handed or right-handed, dogs are left-pawed or right-pawed. You can find out which is your dog’s dominant paw by giving it a toy and seeing which paw it uses first to grab at it. If your dog uses one paw over another when giving you their paw, this is likely to be the dominant one, too.

close up of a Dalmatian Dog Paw
Image Credit: Yvdalmia, Shutterstock

2. They Have Incredible Hearing

Dogs can hear higher-pitched noises than humans. While people can hear noises at frequencies up to 23,000 Hertz, dogs can hear up to 45,000 Hertz. They can also hear up to four times as far as people, which is why dogs can hear approaching mailmen much sooner than their owners.

3. Their Nose Prints Are Unique

Dog nose prints are as unique as people’s fingerprints. Their nose print does not change through their lives, except through injury, and thanks to the advance of digital photography, it is possible to get a clear enough image of a dog’s nasal patterns without having to use an ink pad and blotter.

dog's nose
Image Credit: PICNIC-Foto-Soest, Pixabay

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Dogs are incredible animals that we sometimes take for granted, but while most pet dogs never really need to make full use of their amazing senses of smell or hearing, let alone their apparent ability to detect and essentially read magnetic fields, they do still have these capabilities. Plus, they could all combine to help explain how some dogs manage to find their way home when they get lost, even in cases where they make cross-country trips back to their humans.

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Featured Image Credit: gemphoto, Shutterstock

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