Dogs use Earth’s magnetic field to navigate themselves

Studying magnetic field sensing in dogs.

A past study has shown that dogs tend to orient themselves in a north-south position when urinating. The research has suggested that scientists conducted two experiments to study the magnetic field further sensing in dogs and whether they use it for navigation.

Now, a new study by the Czech University of Life Sciences, Virginia Tech, and Barry University shed light on dog navigation and what they learned from it. A study found that dogs may use Earth’s magnetic field as a navigational aid.

Scientists conducted two experiments to study the magnetic field further sensing in dogs and whether they use it for navigation.

The first experiment involved four dogs, and the second had 27. In both experiments, GPS sensors were attached to multiple dogs, taking them out into a natural environment and releasing them to run about. In all cases, the dogs soon returned to the person who had freed them.

In studying the routes the dogs took, both when heading out on an expedition and when returning, the researchers found they used one of two types of return. The first was called tracking, which meant a dog made its way back by following the same path it had taken out—presumably using its nose.

The team called the other type of return scouting—because the dogs followed an unfamiliar path to get back to where they had begun their adventure. The researchers also found something else—for a large percentage of the scouting returns, the dogs first engaged in odd behavior. They ran north-south along a 20-meter length a few times before heading back to their starting point—doing so appeared to help the dogs get their bearings, as those that did it were more efficient in their return.

Scientists suggest that north-south running is evidence of the dogs using the magnetic field to orient themselves in unfamiliar surroundings. It helps them find their way home.

Further testing involved the owner hiding as the dog made its trek, testing wind direction and speed and noting the gender of the dog. No other factors made a difference in improving navigational efficiency, further supporting the idea that the dogs were able to use the Earth’s magnetic field to navigate.

Journal Reference:
  1. Kateřina Benediktová et al. Magnetic alignment enhances the homing efficiency of hunting dogs, eLife (2020). DOI: 10.7554/eLife.55080

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