Can My Dog Find His Way Home If He Gets Lost?

Better than Google Maps? 🗺🧭

dog with a map and compass

Everyone’s heard those incredible stories of dogs getting lost and traveling hundreds of miles to find their owners. But how do those dogs manage to find their way home?

Dogs actually have a strong sense of direction, and they use a bunch of methods to navigate uncharted terrain.

The Dodo spoke to Dr. Corinne Wigfall, a veterinarian spokesperson for SpiritDog Training, to find out how dogs use their sense of direction.

How do dogs find their way back home?

Dogs have a pretty impressive sense of direction, and they actually combine a number of techniques to help them navigate.

Sense of smell and scent markers

Dogs’ sense of smell is way stronger than humans’ (about 10,000–100,000 times stronger, to be exact), and they use it to help them navigate.

“It’s well-recognized that dogs have a great sense of smell,” Dr. Wigfall told The Dodo. “Their scent ability allows them to ‘track’ their way around — for example, retracing their scent to find their way back home.”

Dogs even have a special organ in their nose to help them smell, called Jacobson's organ (vomeronasal organ). This organ opens into the roof of the mouth, and its nerves lead to the brain.

“The nerves from Jacobsen’s organ lead directly to the brain and are different from the other nerves in the nose in that they do not respond to ordinary smells,” Dr. Wigfall said. “This superior organ allows them to navigate their world via their sense of smell. This can be demonstrated in newborn pups that migrate towards their mother’s milk source.”

Adult dogs also use this organ when smelling animal pheromones, such as those used to mark territory.

“Dogs mark to show other dogs of their presence and to claim territory and resources,” Dr. Wigfall said. “They use urine and feces, which contain pheromones, to convey information about age, gender, health and reproductive status about the dog doing the marking.”

Dogs leave scent through their paw pads too, so if you take your dog on daily walks, he leaves his scent along the route every day while also becoming familiar with other smells along the way.

So dogs are able to use their amazing sense of smell to recognize areas that they have marked, areas other dogs or other animals have marked, and other familiar scents in their neighborhood to find their way.

Visual cues

Dogs will use visual cues to help them find their way in the same way humans do. So if you walk your pup on the same walk every day, he can probably walk it himself because he’s so familiar with it.

Magnetic fields

Similar to cats, dogs seem to be able to use the Earth’s magnetic field to navigate, although how they can do this isn’t well understood.

“It has been researched recently that they also use ‘scouting,’ which is a method that uses the Earth’s magnetic fields as a compass, allowing them to run along a north-south axis to figure out which way they are, using a completely new route to find their way home,” Dr. Wigfall said.

So your dog basically has an inner compass.

In a study, researchers attached GPS trackers to dogs’ collars and released them from their owners in the woods to roam freely. When returning to their owners, some of the dogs followed the same route they took out by following their own scent. But others did a “compass run,” or “scouted,” which means they aligned themselves to the north-south axis to find their way back.

How to prevent your dog from getting lost

While dogs are excellent at finding their way, they can still get lost sometimes if they travel too far away from home.

Here are some ways that you can help prevent your dog from getting lost.

Teach your dog to come and stay

It’s a good idea to teach your dog to come and stay in general, but it can also be super helpful to prevent him from getting lost.

To teach your dog to stay, tell him to sit, then walk away. If he stays for a couple of seconds, give him a treat. Then once he’s able to repeat the action a number of times, you can add in the verbal “stay” command.

To teach your dog to come, start a short distance from him with a treat in your hand. Say “come” and your dog’s name. It can be helpful to pat your legs or clap while you call him. Use a happy tone of voice, and try to avoid calling your dog for things that he might see as negative, like going into his crate.

Once he’s a pro, you can start calling him from greater distances.

Keep your dog on a leash when outside

When walking your dog outside, it’s best to keep him on a leash. Even if your dog isn’t the type to wander, he could get spooked by something or see a squirrel and run off, and you might not be able to find him.

You should also think about using a harness with your leash. Dogs can easily slip out of their collars, and a harness helps prevent that (and it can help prevent pulling on your dog’s neck, which is more comfortable for him).

You can get this leash and harness set that received The Dodo’s Paw of Approval from Wild One for $98.

Fence your yard

If you like to give your dog outside time, make sure your yard is fenced and that there are no gaps or other areas where your dog can dig to get out.

Spay or neuter your dog

Dogs who aren’t spayed or neutered (especially males) are more likely to wander off because they’ll go looking for a mate.

(Spaying and neutering is also super important to prevent unintended litters, so it’s a good idea to have your dog spayed or neutered in general.)

Put an ID tag on your dog’s collar

You should always have an ID tag on your dog’s collar that includes your dog’s name and all of your information. That way if someone finds your dog, they’ll know he belongs to you, and they’ll be able to contact you.

Try this dog ID tag from Amazon for $3.99.

Get your dog microchipped

Getting your dog microchipped is super important. If your dog gets lost and winds up in a shelter, they’ll most likely check for a microchip, and if your dog has one, they’ll be able to get him back to you.

And make sure to register the microchip!

Put a GPS tracker on your dog’s collar

You can also get a GPS tracker for your dog’s collar to track him.

You can get this GPS collar from Fi for $149.

So dogs are pretty amazing at finding their way home. But they can still sometimes get lost, so it’s important for you to follow these tips to make sure your pup stays safe.

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