dog wilderness

How dogs can find their way home

Research conducted by the Czech University of Life Sciences and Virginia Tech tracked the navigation abilities of 27 dogs from over 10 breeds across a period of three years.

The dogs were given a GPS collar and a small action camera before being allowed to freely roam in forested areas. After a short while, the dogs were called back by their owners (who they couldn’t see) and had to work out how to find them.

  • All dogs began their return trips to owners with a ‘compass run’ (along the north-south geomagnetic field axis). Researchers believed this helped the dogs orient themselves for the return trip.
  • When returning to the owner, dogs either followed their outbound track (‘tracking’) or used a novel route (‘scouting’).
  • Around 59% of the dogs switched to scent-based navigation (tracking).
  • Another 32% relied on landmarks or visual information to help them (scouting).
  • 8% of dogs used a mix of both to make their way back through the forest to their owners.

Our findings clearly show the importance of further research on the role and involvement of magnetic cues in canine navigation,” explains the study. “The research suggests that the magnetic field may provide dogs 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 dog behaviour and cognition.

Over the past few years, there have been some heroic tales of dogs finding their way home over rugged terrain and great distances. Famous films, such as Homeward Bound, show just how dogs can cleverly work out how to get home. And now we know how they do it…