4 min read


Why Can Dogs Find Their Way Home



4 min read


Why Can Dogs Find Their Way Home




There are many heartrending stories about lost dogs that find their way home. These stories show how amazing dogs are when they rely on their senses and their inborn abilities to find the right direction leading them to the place they want to be. The well-known story of the Incredible Journey was also made into a film. Two dogs and a cat found their way home facing all sorts of dangers and challenges. How do dogs manage to set off and search for the way home? They don’t have a GPS or a conventional map, but they do have some really fine-tuned senses and a desire to be reunited with their human families. If you watch carefully, you will see dogs are marking their personal space at every opportunity. This is another way of ensuring they can find their way home. The greater the distance, the greater the challenge, but it can be done, and dogs do find their way to their homes under unusual circumstances.

The Root of the Behavior

Dogs are born with very proficient senses of smell, sight, and hearing and these senses have enabled them to track their way back if they have strayed away from their home. In the ancient wolf hunting days, these were the senses that set dogs on the homeward bound trail back to the pack. It is more challenging in the life of the urban dog, but dogs today have shown scientists that they have more than just their immediate sensory detectors to depend on. Dogs also have something called ‘magnetoreception’ which is the ability to perceive direction based on magnetic fields that are part of the earth’s magnetism. Scientists are still investigating this phenomenon. There is evidence that dogs have a light sensing molecule called cryptochrome that can regulate circadian rhythms and is present in dogs, foxes, wolves, badgers, and bears. The detection of this molecule is closely related to the same molecule present in migrating birds who find their way across oceans and countries to be part of different climatic conditions. 

Dogs and their ancestors before them were also able to make mind maps of the area they lived and hunted in. Dogs take note of different landmarks and scent mark the various trees, bushes, and poles along the way. Scent marking and visualizing the direction and the familiar landmarks make your dog very aware of the territory he lives in. Added to this ability to know his surroundings, dogs have an incredible sense of smell. They use this sense of smell to pick up the different scent messages left by you and the other animals in the area. When you go out on your walk, your dog has his nose to the ground sniffing out the daily news of who has been walking where and when. All these signals are stored up in your dog’s memory bank. Dogs have a very interesting way of tracking and will be seen to move over an area in overlapping circles. This helps them to imprint their scent, along with others, to cover the area completely. Your dog can detect different scents over a ten-mile radius. If ever your dog is lost, and you want to call your dog's attention to where home is, try putting some smelly socks or sweaty trainers on the gate. Your dog will use that scent to get tracking and find his way home. 

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Encouraging the Behavior

The amazing stories of how dogs have found their way home, over vast distances, have led some behaviorists to believe that dogs have a sixth sense. When there is a need to just use their psychic abilities, dogs are able to detect how to find their loved ones from a great distance. Dogs are so finely tuned to their families they can navigate their way across great distances and over long periods of time just to be reunited with their family members. Added to that dogs are very keen on getting rewards for good behavior. If your dog remembers that you are the one carrying the treats and the kind words, then finding you is a very important factor in your dog’s life. Dogs are social animals and it is important for them to be with their pack or with their family group. A domesticated animal is more dependent on the food and care received from people than ever before and that is a good reason, if you are a dog, to find your way home! It is also true to say that the dog’s family is making a great effort to find their canine companion and so with the search and rescue team and the dog’s instinctive behavior there is a good chance that dogs can find their way home.

Other Solutions and Considerations

Although dogs don’t have a homing device, they have various resources that they can draw on to help them find their way home. They have their instinctive and highly tuned senses and it has been suggested that dogs can tap into PSI, the art of parapsychology. This would account for their ability to locate their homes after traveling long distances in difficult circumstances. Parapsychology studies the relationship between living organisms and the external environment. PSI uses the ability to combine mind over matter and survival skills along with telepathy and precognition. Dogs have been known to anticipate their owners return without any warning, they just know when that doorbell is going to ring. Your dog has amazing senses and intuition and can find his way home. The combinations of sensory detection, mind mapping, tracking, and survival skills all contribute to helping dogs find their way home. 


Stories, movies and songs have been written to celebrate the amazing tracking ability of dogs. In ‘Dog Talk’ it is said that a dog was seen placing his nose into the shallow dampness of a deer’s hoof-print. The dog closed his eyes as if he was listening and the author felt that the dog was listening, but not to the surrounding area. The dog was listening to the ‘wild, high music of smell’ and we know so little about that. Reading of this level of sensitivity is sure to humble our human abilities in comparison to canine capabilities. Their level of sensitivity towards their surroundings is amazing and this helps them find their way home.

By a Rhodesian Ridgeback lover Christina Wither

Published: 03/07/2018, edited: 01/30/2020

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