In July last year (2020), we could read something surprising and heartwarming in American newspapers about a stray dog that walked 80 kilometers to get home to its owners. The story reveals how little we still know about dogs’ ability to orient and remember.
How could the dog walk so far to get back home? What psychological processes do dogs use to find their way back? If you want to know the answers to these questions, read on.
On July 12, 2020, a stray dog was reported, a four-year-old Labrador bitch who had disappeared in the city of Olathe, Kansas, USA. To everyone ‘s surprise, the brave dog was found in her former home in Lawson, Missouri, almost 95 miles away.
The Daily Star reports that the new owners of the house (who had lived there for two years) found the dog in the garden, and after taking the time to gain the dog’s trust, they took it to the vet. The dog, named Cleo, then had to return to its owners, who were over 80 km away.
The news about the stray dog Cleo was not only surprising because of the long distance she had traveled to get back to her old home, but also because she had to cross streets and also trafficked bridges and a river to get there there.
How does a stray dog get home again?
This is not the first time that a stray dog has traveled a long way to get home, or other animals for that matter. In 2014, for example, a cat named Holly walked over 320 km to get home. She had run away about two months earlier during a vacation with her owners.
Another example is Hank, a dog that walked over 15 km to find its way back to its previous owner after he was moved to a foster home.
How dogs and other pets manage to orient themselves over such long distances is, to some extent, a mystery. However, this extraordinary ability seems to have to do with their effective sense of smell. Dogs have between 220 million and two billion odor receptors in their noses, resulting in an incredible ability to detect and follow the slightest trace of odor.
In addition to tracking odors directly, they also have the ability to connect a series of odors to reach a specific point. By this we mean that if they do not directly find the smell of their home, they can recognize the smell of a sign or a trash can located at a certain distance from their home. In this way, they can gradually get closer to their goal.
It’s not just the sense of smell
According to the scientific journal Science, dogs can also use the earth’s electromagnetic field to orient themselves in a three-dimensional space. This allows them to create shortcuts in unknown locations, which takes them faster and more efficiently to their destination.
This is based on scientific studies such as the one mentioned above. To perform these studies, GPS devices were placed on dogs to find out how they got back to their owners by following a clear trail over long distances. The results showed that the dogs could use the earth’s electromagnetic field to plan their route. However, this requires more in-depth research.
A happy ending to a story that unfortunately does not always end happily
For every Cleo, Holly or Hank, there are thousands of cases of stray pets that never come home again. It has to do in part with the fact that smells do not last forever. Due to e.g. rain and wind, these odor particles eventually disappear. This makes it difficult for a stray dog to find a home.
Therefore, it is important that all pet owners are careful when taking their animals outdoors. Although stimulating curiosity is good for dogs, you need to keep a close eye on them to avoid unfortunate events.