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The Surprising Way Dogs Find Their Way Home, According to Experts

This might act as a compass for our lost canine companions.

For most dog owners, their animal is part of the family, so learning that their fur baby has gone missing is devastating. But just like Lassie was able to travel hundreds of miles to find Joe in the Hollywood classic Lassie Come Home, there are many real-life stories of dogs reuniting with their owners after finding their way back home—even from far distances. According to researchers and experts, this might be the result of a surprising skill that our canine companions possess. Read on to find out how dogs can find their way home.

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Millions of pets go missing in the U.S. every year.

Lost Dog Poster. Missing Puppy Pet Ad Paper

Having their four-legged friend go missing is most pet owners' greatest fear. Unfortunately, many are likely to end up experiencing this. According to the American Humane Association, one in three pets will become lost at some point during their life. This equates to approximately 10 million dogs and cats being lost or stolen in the U.S. each year.

Fortunately, the odds of being reunited with a furry family member are high, especially depending on the type of pet you have. A survey from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) found that 85 percent of lost dogs and cats end up recovered. But dogs are much more likely to be reunited with their owners, as 93 percent of lost dogs are recovered while only 74 percent of lost cats are.

This might have something to do with the surprising way in which experts say dogs can find their way home.

Dogs have a unique ability to find their way home.


While there are many famous stories about dogs miraculously reuniting with their owners, it's not always clear how this happens. But recent research out of the Czech Republic has shed more insight into what might be playing a part.

Researchers conducted an experiment with 27 dogs from 10 different breeds, all fitted with cameras and CPS collars. They were monitored while finding their way to their owners through more than 600 trials in the forest. The findings, published in a 2020 eLife study, show that in one-third of the cases, the dogs appeared to use their innate ability to detect the Earth's magnetic fields as a way to navigate.

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They can use this skill like a compass.

Photo of a wire haired terrier mix breed dog pausing to look for her owner.

Magnetic tracking has largely been researched in other animals. "It has been well established that a broad array of organisms have a 'magnetic sense,' ie. magnetoreception, which is used for spatial orientation and navigation," Czech researcher Kateřina Benediktová told the American Kennel Club (AKC). "Pigeons and migratory birds [are especially well studied] as well as sea turtles, amphibians, and insects."

According to Benediktová, dogs have been underrepresented in the field of research surrounding magnetic-based navigation. But Brian Jones, a dog expert and founder of Best in Edmonton, says dogs "can utilize the earth's magnetic field and bright stars like the North Star and Betelgeuse as a compass." He adds that this could "explain why some dogs may travel hundreds of kilometers to return home."

Dogs also have other ways of finding their way home.

Close up nose and tongue of beagle dog in the park.

While the ability to detect the Earth's magnetic fields is certainly a unique technique, it's not the number-one way dogs find their way home. According to the Czech study, around 60 percent of dogs used a tried and true method to make their way back to their owner: sniffing.

"Canines have an excellent sense of orientation, and the way this works is through scent. Since dogs have such an incredible sense of smell, they are able to hone in on certain familiar scents, following them for long distances," Jacquelyn Kennedy, a canine behavioral specialist and founder of PetDT, tells Best Life. "They are able to find their way home by using overlapping familiar scents, to slowly hone in on the right direction, kind of like a compass of scents. These scents can belong to people, animals, trees or parks, objects, and the dog's own urine."

But unlike the magnetic field method, there can be space for error when a dog is using its nose to find its way home. "The exception is when dogs end up being too far away and there are no familiar scents in the area to guide them, or when scents get mixed up with others, leading them astray," Kennedy explains. But still, the animal expert says that most dogs are typically able to find their way home through one of these methods.

Kali Coleman
Kali Coleman is a Senior Editor at Best Life. Her primary focus is covering news, where she often keeps readers informed on the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and up-to-date on the latest retail closures. Read more
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