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Can dogs find their way home?

We’ve all heard those tales of dogs lost miles from home, only to turn up on the doorstep days later. Even Homeward Bound is inspired by the real-life journeys that our canine companions make just to get back home.

But is there any fact in the fiction? Can dogs really find their way home?

The simple answer is yes. The not-so-simple answer is, it depends. 

It depends on the dog themselves, the intensity of their desire to get home, the environment they need to travel through, the distance and much more.

Following their nose

Our dogs’ sense of smell is incredible. It’s about 10,000 times stronger than ours, and it’s how they navigate the world around them. 

When we go on a walk with our dog, we’re admiring the pleasant surroundings. Our dog, on the other hand, is sniffing up a storm. They’re sampling a veritable smorgasbord of scents from other dogs, wildlife, people, vehicles, machinery and much more.

Studies show that our pups also recognise the specific scents associated with humans and dogs that they know. That means, if they ever lost track of you, they would be able to pick up your scent and follow it home.

Of course, this may be more difficult for them if you’ve driven to a location for a walk, or you’re far from home. That’s why if you lose your dog, it’s recommended that you leave out clothes that smell of you so they can navigate to those instead.


Magnetoreception sounds like something from a popular superhero movie, but it’s actually a little-acknowledged sense which allows an animal to detect the earth’s magnetic field.

Homing pigeons may be the best example of this, but what about dogs? Surely not?

Well, maybe. Studies from the Czech University of Life Sciences found that dogs finding their way back to their handler used one of two methods: ‘tracking’ returning via their outbound track or ‘scouting’ which involved a short run along the North-South axis followed by a return back via a new route. The authors suggested that the short ‘compass’ run is necessary for the dogs to bring their mental map in line with the magnetic fields.

They know their way back

Just like us, if your dog is out and about in a familiar area, the chances are they already know their way back home. Not only will they be able to follow their own scent back, but they can also use landmarks to help navigate themselves toward home.

Vizsla wearing a PitPat GPS

How can you help your dog find their way home?

If you lose your dog out and about, you’ll want to do all you can to help them find their way back. We’ve written a comprehensive guide on ‘What to do if you lose your dog’ with loads of tips for helping to locate them. 

Of course, prevention is better than cure. If you’re letting your dog off lead you need to make sure they have a solid recall and that they stay within a safe distance of you at all times. 

For the unexpected moments when a squirrel catches their nose before you can grab them, make sure they’re wearing a PitPat Dog GPS Tracker, so you can find them in two taps. That way, you’ll get to them long before they start needing to find their way home!

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