By Dr. Wailani Sung
There are plenty of amazing stories about how certain dogs are able to find their way back home after being lost on a trip or after wandering away.
How do they do that? Do dogs have a good sense of direction like some people do? Do they navigate by watching the stars like sailors in the past, or have an internal compass? Are they in tune to the magnetic fields of the earth?
Although there is no research on the homing ability of dogs, there is speculation that dogs most likely rely on two of their five dog senses: their sight and sense of smell.
Dog Sense of Smell and Scent Markers
The dog sense of smell is more highly developed compared to a human’s sense of smell. Dogs have more olfactory neurons than humans—about 220 million to 2 billion, versus the measly 12 to 40 million that humans have.
Every time you take your dog on a walk in your neighborhood, he gets more familiarized with the sights, sounds and smells distinctive to your house and the streets around you. And every time your dog takes a step, he leaves behind a distinct scent from his paw pads. Each of these scent deposits that your dog leaves behind creates a bigger chemical signal that essentially says, “Rex was here.”
If he travels the same paths over and over again, he renews the scent markers on his trail and probably picks up other scent markers that other people and animals leave behind, which may help with his orientation.
Dog Visual Acuity and Visual Markers
On your walks, you may have noticed that your dog does not walk with his nose directly on the ground the entire time. Although there are a ton of lovely aromas for his sensitive nose to pick up, he may also be looking around, doing some visual orientation.
This helps dogs create a mental map of their visual surroundings. Research on wolves has indicated that they use visual landmarks to help guide their way around their territory. Researchers have also found that some wolves have taken shortcuts to get from one point to another.
Even though a dog’s visual acuity is about 3 to 4 times worse than humans, they can still recognize and remember visual cues that they may find meaningful.
When I walk my dog down my street after exploring our local neighborhood, he perks up as he gets closer to our house. When I have dropped the dog leash, he has gotten right up to the front door on his own. If I try to walk past the house when he is tired and he wants to go inside, he has pulled back on the leash to indicate where he wanted to go—home.
What does my dog clue in on? Does he recognize the sight of the house or the smells that our feet and his paws have left behind? It is probably a combination of both.
Maximize Your Chances of Your Dog Finding His Way Home
After extolling the marvelous senses our dogs have, let’s not forget that, in reality, many pets get lost each year that never make it home. Whether they were picked up by other people, suffered a tragic accident on their way back or are unable to orient themselves through their dog senses, the chances of them making it back home safe are low. The best chance you have of reuniting with your dog if he ever gets lost is by making sure he has a microchip and a dog ID tag and collar.
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