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The Science Behind How Dogs Find Their Way Home

We’ve all seen those amazing stories of dogs finding their ways back home after months of being gone. New research is helping shed the light on animal navigation, and giving us a better understanding of how different animals are able to find their way back home.

How Scientists Believe Dogs Find Their Way Home

When dogs go missing one suggestion that’s often made is to leave out a piece of clothing or bedding for them; something with a familiar smell.

New research has found that dogs rely on familiar scents to find their way back home, and those scents can lead them a long way. A 10 mile distance isn’t that far for a dog to follow a scent as long as the wind conditions are right.

Dogs are able to hone in on one specific smell (a familiar person, animal, pee marked tree) and follow it for long distances. They rely on overlapping circles of familiar scents to find their way back home, much like we can rely on cell phone pings on towers to find specific locations.

A dog that wanders out of its own immediate range might pick up the scent of, say, a familiar dog in the next circle. That might point it to a circle that contains a familiar person or tree or restaurant trash can, and so on. – The Amazing Science Behind Pets That Find Their Way Home

While leaving out some familiar clothing can help your dog find his way home it’s sadly not a guarantee. Scent trails don’t last forever. For the few stories we hear on the news of dogs finding their way home after months there’s hundreds that don’t.

“If you lose your dog or cat, don’t forget to place their bedding, your bedding, your pajamas, the dog’s blanket, or your blanket, outside. It could be the thing that brings them home.” via No Dog About It

How Cats & Other Mammals Navigate

Cats, like many other mammals, are likely relying on magnetism to find their way around. Some studies have shown that many mammals contain iron in their ears, and that may help cue them into the magnetic direction in the ground.

One of the most remarkable animals with great navigation skills is the pigeon. It used to be believed that they found their way back home via the iron in their beak, but later studies found that the iron was related to their immune system, not navigation.

In 2013 a geologist found that pigeons are likely using low-frequency sound waves to navigate their way back home – even over hundreds of miles. And this theory also helps to explain why they occasionally get lost when there’s interruptions such as high winds or jets.

The idea is that pigeons use these low-frequency infra sound waves to generate acoustic maps of their surroundings, and that’s how they find home even when they are released miles from where they dwell. – How Homing Pigeons Find Their Way Home

Seabirds are believed to use the sun and stars as their compass since they tend to get lost when it’s overcast. Deer, cattle & voles are likely using magnetism since seem to orient in a north-south direction.

When it Comes to Animal Navigation We’re Still Learning

Scientists still don’t know how dogs (especially trained search dogs) are able to hone in one scent and follow it without getting distracted. And while we believe cats are using magnetism like birds do to find their way home it’s possible they’re using mental maps.

There’s still a lot of unknowns in the world of animal navigation, and some scientists believe that evolution has given animals numerous ways to sense magnetic fields, many of which we still haven’t discovered.

What we know is that animals have the ability to navigate long distances without the use of maps, but we’re humbled to say we still don’t know exactly how they’re doing it.

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