How Dogs Find Their Way Home

Do dogs really have an uncanny sense of direction?

It’s not unusual to see an article in the news, on the Internet, in a newspaper or magazine about a lost dog who has found his way back home over unimaginable obstacles—sometimes hundreds of miles. Many of these dogs were lost in unfamiliar places or found their owners somewhere the dog had never been.

There seems to be little question that some dogs have indeed traveled great distances over unfamiliar territory to be reunited with their owners. But how they’re able to do so is still something of a mystery.

Pick a Direction and Run With It

Random chance can play into it. There are only four cardinal directions a dog could go from any spot, so there’s a 25% chance that he’ll head off in the direction of home.

Sense of Smell

Also, the sense of smell in dogs is legendary. If a dog finds a scent he recognizes, he will follow that scent. Even if he takes off in a random direction, there’s still a chance he’ll find a recognizable scent.

And that scent isn’t limited to his owner. He might find the scent of a dog or cat that he recognizes. He may smell a butcher’s shop, restaurant dumpster, or a dry cleaner that’s familiar.

If he catches a familiar scent, he can follow it until he finds another scent he knows, which leads him to another, and so forth. He can follow the different scent trails until he finds one that leads to his favorite scent—that of his owner—which he can follow home.


Dogs’ ancestors in the wild had to hunt for their food and these hunts could take them many miles from their pack. They had to be able to return to their pack for safety. Since a certain amount of a homing instinct was necessary for survival, it’s a gene that would have been passed down through the generations.


Some believe dogs have a mental map of their terrain. Many dog owners will agree that their dogs recognize landmarks. Dogs might not know one building from another, but they’re apt to recognize a park, vacant lot, or a specific tree as being close to home.

These explanations are plausible for dogs who find their way home from across town, but how do dogs find their way back to their owners from other states or across the country?

The simple answer is…

Scientists don’t know. Speculation abounds.

The bond between humans and dogs can be very strong. Some believe there’s a psychic or telepathic bond that allows a person to actually guide a beloved dog back home. Some animals are able to follow the electromagnetic pull of the earth. There is some thought that perhaps dogs have this ability as well.

Another thought is that the hearts of dogs and their humans beat in rhythm. When the two are separated, the rhythm is thrown off. By finding his way back to the correct rhythm, the dog is able to get back to his owner.

No one knows for sure how some dogs find their way home. But it’s also well known that not all dogs do find their way home. And even for dogs that are on their way home, natural and man-made perils can block their way to a happy reunion.

Your dog may have an incredible homing instinct. Then again, he may not. Your best bet is to keep him in a fenced yard or on a leash whenever he’s outside. Make sure he has a tag with his name and your contact information on his collar so if he should get loose, you never have to depend on his psychic ability to find his way home to you.

Meet the Author: Pam Hair

Pam Hair is a pet industry copywriter with Fuzzy Friends Writer, where she combines her three passions: a love of animals, a strong desire to help other people, and the joy of writing. She has been a pet parent over the years to dogs, cats, and a variety of rodents. Currently she and her husband share their home with two guinea pigs.

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