It has to do with magnetic fields.

By Meghan Overdeep
July 28, 2020

A few days before a Kansas dog made headlines for turning up 57 miles away from home on the front porch of her family’s old house in Missouri, researchers published the results of a breakthrough study about the science behind a dog’s ability to always find its way home.

Across a period of three years, scientists from the Czech University of Life Sciences and Virginia Tech tracked the navigation abilities of 27 hunting dogs representing 10 breeds.

The dogs were outfitted with a GPS collar and a small camera and allowed to freely roam in forested areas. After a short while, the dogs were called back by their owners (whom they couldn't see) and had to work out how to find them. The dogs completed 600 total runs.

What they found is that all pups began their return trips to their owners with a “compass run” to align themselves on the north-south magnetic axis of the earth.  Researchers believed this indicates that dogs use their ability to detect magnetic fields to navigate their environment.

Once the dogs completed their compass runs, they relied on one of two ways to find their way back to their owners. About 59% retraced their outbound route via scent (a method researchers call “tracking”) while 39% relied on landmarks or visual information to forge a novel route (a method called “scouting”).  Only 8% used a mix of these methods.

"Our findings clearly show the importance of further research on the role and involvement of magnetic cues in canine navigation," researchers propose. "The research suggests that the magnetic field may provide dogs with a 'universal' reference frame, which is essential for long-distance navigation and arguably the most important component that is 'missing' from our current understanding of dog behavior and cognition."

Science aside, we’re just glad our beloved pups will always find their way back to us.