Do Dogs Have an Internal Compass?

Discover how your dog can navigate using an internal compass that allows it to “see” the Earth's magnetic field.

May 20, 2024By Donna Hobson
do dogs have internal compass

We all know that dogs are phenomenal hunters; most of us know just how incredible their sense of smell is, but did you know that’s not the only sense a dog relies on for orienteering?

Ground-breaking research uncovered the fact that dogs can sense Earth’s magnetic field and use it to navigate unfamiliar territory. Continue reading to find out how they use this particular skill.

How Do Dogs Remember Routes?

dog walking direction
Credit: Image by Donald Clark on Pixabay

When a dog goes missing, the most common advice is to leave something out for them which possesses a familiar scent (such as an item of clothing or bedding).

Dogs rely on their sense of smell to understand the world around them, so it is no surprise that they can use this incredible sense to find their way home. In perfect conditions, dogs can pick up scents from as far as 20km away!

If a canine gets lost, they most commonly rely on a sense of overlapping smells to find their way back to their owner. Still, there are some circumstances where smell alone is not enough; scent trails don’t linger forever, so dogs need other skills to help them navigate their way home.

Do Dogs Have a Sense of Direction?

dog and cat walking
Credit: Image by rihaij on Pixabay

Dogs possess an incredible ability to find their way home, which is often attributed to their keen sense of smell and gift for tracking. But scientists have discovered another reason dogs may have such an incredible sense of direction.

Research published in the scientific journal eLife suggests that dogs can use the Earth’s magnetic field to navigate their way around. The study found that regardless of distance and unfamiliarity with the territory and surrounding landmarks, dogs could still find their way home.

In the trial, scientists dropped 27 dogs in a variety of forested areas for scouting runs. (Scouting means that the dog finds their way back via an entirely new path, while tracking allows the dog to follow their own trail home).

What was interesting during the tests was that most dogs “scouting” their way home began by running 20 meters along the north-south geomagnetic axis, regardless of where their owners were located. Scientists conclude that this could be a dog's way of establishing its bearings before starting its journey.

Other factors - including weather conditions and the position of the sun - seemed to make no difference to the dog’s progress. This suggests that a dog’s sense of direction stems from its ability to use the Earth’s magnetic field as a reference frame.

What Is Magnetoreception?

dog earth magnetic field
Credit: Image by Lindsay66 on Pixabay

Magnetoreception is a sense which allows certain animals to detect Earth’s magnetic field; the main application of this ability lies in navigation and orienteering and could help animals such as dogs to form a kind of internal map.

Humans do not possess magnetoreception, and we still don’t fully understand how this sense works. We know that Earth works as a giant magnet and generates a magnetic field, and some animals and organisms can use this magnetic field to improve their sense of direction.

One theory that could explain why mammals, such as dogs, possess this unique ability is cryptochromes. These blue light photoreceptors in animals allow them to locate the direction of Earth’s magnetic field.

Cryptochromes are seen throughout the animal kingdom in several vertebrates and invertebrates, and we already know that they help to regulate circadian rhythms.

We’re beginning to understand that these proteins could be the key that explains why some species can “see” the Earth’s magnetic field and use it to guide them. The link between magnetoreception and sight is complex, but scientists have discovered an abundance of cryptochromes in the retinas of “homing” animals, such as birds.

In 2016, researchers discovered that the eyes of canines contain cryptochrome 1, which reacts to Earth’s magnetic field when stimulated by light.

Why Do Dogs Poop Facing North?

dog pooping defecating in field
Credit: Image by Simon Kadula on Pixabay

Research has uncovered the fact that dogs prefer to relieve themselves by aligning along a north-south axis. The study also found that canines will actively avoid pooping in an east-west direction.

The findings, published in Frontiers in Zoology, came from a combination of 5,583 dog urinations and 1,893 defecations, after which scientists compared the dog’s position to the Earth’s magnetic alignment.

Not only did these dogs consistently poop in a north-south direction, but they also actively avoided relieving themselves in an east-west direction. The findings were overwhelming, though researchers are still stumped about the reasons behind this behavior.

The authors of the paper wrote, “It is still enigmatic why the dogs do align at all, whether they do it “consciously” ... or whether its reception is controlled on the vegetative level (they feel more comfortable in a particular direction).

We might not know precisely why our canine poops facing north, but at least now we know why they spin around so many times before relieving themselves.

Donna Hobson
By Donna Hobson

Donna believes that keeping a pet is the key to a happy life. Over the years, many creatures have passed through her home - Sooty the cat, Millie the rabbit, Stuart (Little) the guinea pig, and Trixie the tortoise, alongside her pet goldfish, Zippy, who lived to the grand old age of 24 years! She currently resides with her black kitten Jinx and an aquarium full of fish and snails to entrance them both. When she is not looking after her pets, Donna enjoys researching and writing the answers to all your pet-related wonders.