How do lost dogs mysteriously find their way home?

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

dogs finding their way home

Story at-a-glance -

  • Dogs are uniquely positioned to use scents to find their way — especially scents of their familiar humans; dogs’ brains light up when they smell the scent of a familiar person
  • Dogs may use landmarks as odor guideposts to potentially track their owner over the course of miles
  • Dogs are also sensitive to Earth’s magnetic fields, and have a light-sensitive molecule called cryptochrome 1 in their retinas, similar to the one used as a magnetic compass by migrating birds; researchers suspect it may be used in the perception of magnetic fields
  • While dogs do have a sometimes-uncanny ability to find their way home, even travelling over great distances, it’s important to remember that dogs often get lost, too

Incredible stories abound of dogs who travelled even hundreds of miles to reunite with their owners. In one of the most fascinating, Bucky, a black Labrador retriever, reportedly walked about 500 miles from Winchester, Virginia to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, after his owner moved there. While Bucky had been left with his owner's father in Virginia when his owner moved away, Bucky turned up in his owner's subdivision — 500 miles away and months later. A microchip confirmed it was, indeed, the same dog.1

In another case, a Great Pyrenees set out from his foster home in Prague, Oklahoma, and walked about 20 miles to Seminole, Oklahoma, returning to the home of her previous owners. This happened not once, but twice, as the dog sought out her old family.2 There are countless other anecdotal tales of lost dogs finding their way home — so how do they do it? One of the key secrets lies in their sense of smell.

Dogs' amazing sniffers help them find their way home

Often, what propels dogs to travel great distances is the desire to find their home. The bond between dogs and their owners, when strong, can be a powerful motivating force for a dog who's lost his way. Further, dogs are uniquely positioned to use scents to find their way — especially scents of their familiar humans.

When researchers used MRI imaging to evaluate activity in dogs' caudate nucleus, a brain region linked to reward expectations,3 they found that activity was strongest when they smelled the scent of a familiar person. In fact, dogs were given scents of a familiar dog, a strange dog, a strange human and a familiar human, and the latter came out on top. Researchers explained in the journal Behavioural Processes:4

"While the olfactory bulb/peduncle was activated to a similar degree by all the scents, the caudate was activated maximally to the familiar human. Importantly, the scent of the familiar human was not the handler, meaning that the caudate response differentiated the scent in the absence of the person being present.

The caudate activation suggested that not only did the dogs discriminate that scent from the others, they had a positive association with it. This speaks to the power of the dog's sense of smell, and it provides important clues about the importance of humans in dogs' lives."

Dogs navigate through life with their nose

Dogs, which have up to 300 million olfactory receptors in their noses compared to about 6 million in human noses,5 use scent to explore the world around them. To get an idea of just how powerful your dog's nose actually is, Alexandra Horowitz, author and researcher of canine cognition, likened it to dogs "seeing" with their noses.

When your dog walks by a tree, he can smell not only the tree but also the birds and insects in it, along with what direction they're moving in. In the video above, Horowitz explains that your dog can even smell events that have happened in the past or those that will occur in the future.

"Landmarks like fire hydrants and trees are aromatic bulletin boards carrying messages of who's been by," she says, helping to explain how a dog could potentially track its owner over the course of miles, using odors as guideposts.

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Dogs are sensitive to magnetic fields

Adding to their navigational prowess is an impressive sensitivity to small variations of the Earth's magnetic field. Researchers came to this conclusion after measuring the direction of the body axis in 70 dogs while they urinated or defecated. Over a two-year period, it became clear that dogs typically preferred to do their business with their body aligned along the North-South axis.6

However, this only held true when magnetic field conditions were calm. When they became unstable, "this directional behavior was abolished," according to the study, proving magnetic sensitivity in dogs. Dogs may even be able to "see" magnetic fields, similar to the way birds use their magnetic sense during migration.7

In birds, the magnetic field activates cryptochrome 1a in the retina. Cryptochrome 1a is a light-sensitive molecule; the equivalent molecule in mammals is cryptochrome 1. Dogs, along with other dog-like carnivores like wolves, bears, foxes and badgers, have cryptochrome 1 in their retinas, and researchers suspect it may be used in the perception of magnetic fields.8

Dogs can get lost, too

While dogs do have a sometimes-uncanny ability to find their way home, even travelling over great distances, it's important to remember that dogs often get lost, too. As such, you shouldn't assume that your dog will always meander back home if he wanders away.

If your dog gets lost, start searching for him immediately. According to a survey conducted by The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), among dog owners, the most common method that led to their dog's safe return was searching the neighborhood (for cats, however, most of them did end up returning home on their own).

"Searching immediately when one knows the pet is lost, and searching within the neighborhood first through visual searches as well as posters and internet opportunities proved to be key," ASPCA noted.9 Prevention, of course, is always best, so take care to keep your dog securely on a leash or in a fenced backyard, and teach him the "come" or recall command, so in the event he gets loose, he'll come back to you when you call.