How do lost dogs find their way home? It’s an age-old question without a definitive answer.
There are many incredible and heartwarming stories out there about dogs who made their way across long distances to reunite with their owners. Here are a few extraordinary examples:
- Bucky walked over 500 miles — from Virginia to South Carolina — to reunite with his owner, who’d had to relinquish him due to housing restrictions.
- Pero traveled 240 miles back to his home after being moved to another farm.
- Georgia May traveled 35 miles to return home after going missing on a hike 9 days earlier.
- Hank left his new foster family and walked for 2 days and 11 miles to reconnect with the foster parent he’d bonded with just days before.
These stories are the exception, not the norm. The reality is that many lost dogs don’t ever find their way home, and it’s up to you to protect your beloved pets (but more on that below).
But for dogs who do manage to find their own way back home after getting lost, here are some of the best supported theories for how they do it.
They Follow Their Nose
Dogs have a keen sense of smell that helps them to discern their surroundings. In fact, a dog’s sense of smell is actually 10,000 to 100,000 times sharper than a human’s! It’s likely that this plays a part in helping lost dogs find their way back home.
Some scientists think dogs’ sense of smell works similarly to a cell phone signal — different scents send signals to dogs in an overlapping-ring pattern.
“Dogs extend their scent range by moving among overlapping circles of familiar scents—much the way cell phone coverage relies on interconnected footprints from different cell towers,” one science writer theorized in a Time magazine article.
“A dog that wanders out of its own immediate range might pick up the scent of, say, a familiar dog in the next circle,” the writer continued. “That might point it to a circle that contains a familiar person or tree or restaurant trash can, and so on.”
They Use Visual Memory
Dogs use more senses than just smell. They also visually observe their surroundings, which allows them to use visual memory that helps them to recognize familiar landmarks and locations.
When out and about, dogs take the time to make a mental note of their surroundings. Being familiar with some locations, even away from home, could help a dog find its way back to its human — thought it should come as no surprise that this will be most helpful to a dog that gets lost somewhere close to home, like in an area where he or she often goes for walks.
They Look to the Stars
OK, so dogs aren’t little astronomers who are literally using the stars to find their way home — or are they?
According to National Geographic, some animals (including dogs!) are able to use the earth’s magnetic field and bright stars — such as the North Star and Betelgeuse — as a compass. This ability, combined with their powerful sense of smell and ability to recall visual markers in their surroundings, might explain why some dogs are able to travel hundreds of miles to return home.
In an interview with National Geographic, zoologist Hynek Burda put it this way: “The emerging picture of the analysis of the categorized data is as clear as [it is] astounding: Dogs prefer alignment along the magnetic north-south axis, but only in periods of calm magnetic field conditions.”
We already knew that dogs are in tune with the planet’s magnetic fields (because they align with them to poop), so it’s not too much of a stretch to theorize that those invisible forces might also help give them a better sense of direction.