Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Do Dogs Have a Homing Instinct They Can Use if They Are Lost?

Lost dogs may find their way home using subtle scent cues or geomagnetic fields.

Key points

  • There are many verified instances of lost dogs finding their way home over distances of hundreds of miles, even over unfamiliar terrain.
  • Dogs can extend the range of their scent location ability by using overlapping circles of familiar scents.
  • Research shows that dogs may be able to sense the Earth's natural magnetic flows so that they can use the north-south axis as a sort of compass.
  • It is possible to assist a lost dog's search for home by setting up "scent guideposts."
Image by SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd
Source: Image by SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd

Almost every week we hear or read reports of lost dogs traveling many miles over unfamiliar terrain to find their way back home. The first Lassie film was inspired by one such story. In Eric Knight's tale "Lassie Come Home," a beautiful Collie, Lassie, escapes from the Duke of Rudling's harsh kennel keeper to find her way back to the home where she was born. Lassie's journey takes many weeks, during which she travels from Scotland to Yorkshire, a distance of around 400 miles. While Lassie's story was fictional, Knight actually drew his inspiration from a newspaper article about a real dog that had found its way home over a distance of several hundred miles.

There are many such true stories which lend credence to the idea that at least certain dogs have the ability to sense direction. Consider the story of Marin, a Shetland Sheepdog who looked for all the world like a miniature version of Lassie in sable and white. Marin was owned by Rita Johnson, who lived in a house on the northern edge of Los Angeles. In 1991, Rita went to visit friends in San Francisco and took Marin with her for the holiday. Rita was running a bit late, so, fearing that her friends might become worried, she stopped around 20 miles south of San Francisco to phone ahead and tell them that she was on her way. While Rita was on the phone, her car was stolen—with Marin in it. The car was later recovered in San Francisco, but Marin was nowhere to be found. Rita was heartbroken as she returned home without her dog. Late that fall, nearly five months after she had lost Marin, Rita heard some whimpering outside her door. When she opened it, there was a thin, gray, shaggy dog, with sore, bloody feet. Out of compassion she took the dog in, and gave it a bath only to find that when the gray washed away the familiar sable and white of Marin was revealed. This small sheep dog had traveled nearly 60 miles further than the fictional Lassie to find his way home.

Do Dogs Have a Homing Instinct?

How do dogs manage to navigate their way back home over long distances? Scientifically there are two hypotheses.

For shorter distances, perhaps up to 15 miles, the suggestion is that the dog's incredibly sensitive sense of smell might suffice. Every time your dog walks around your neighborhood he is using his nose to familiarize himself with the scents associated with his home territory and is also leaving his own scent trail. When dogs are beyond their usual routes, they can extend the range of their scent location ability by using overlapping circles of familiar scents. This works sort of like locating a mobile phone signal using inputs from cellular towers. When the dog is out of its normal range he might be able to pick up a familiar scent (perhaps from a garden with unique flowers or a restaurant he has passed before). In the next circle, he may track the scent to something more familiar (a dog park or even a fire hydrant used by familiar dogs) and by successive circles, he finds his way home.

For longer distances, it appears that dogs may make use of an ability to detect the Earth's magnetic fields to orient themselves. Studies from the Czech University of Life Sciences in Prague found that around 60% of dogs used their noses to track their way back to their handlers, while some 30% tend to take a north-south jog following a geomagnetic line, which seems to help them get their bearings, much like a compass. This is followed by a return back via a new route. It is speculated that this innate canine magnetic sense might help a dog orient itself relative to the direction of home, allowing him to travel toward it over many miles.

A Case History of Helping Lassie Come Home

Knowing how dogs navigate may help us guide our own dog back to us. Take the case of Margaret Wilson, who lived in downtown Dallas and was returning home by car from a visit to her sister in Pittsburgh. She was accompanied by her big retriever, Dash. She liked to take Dash on long trips because she felt a little vulnerable as a woman traveling alone. About halfway home she stopped at a motel not far from the town of Litchfield, Illinois. It was a warm night and the air conditioner in her room was noisy, so she turned it off and left her windows open. When she woke up in the morning she discovered that Dash was missing. Her guess was that he had jumped out of one of the low-set open windows during the night.

Margaret was in a panic. She was far from home, in a rural area, and she assumed that Dash, being a city dog, probably would not be able to fend for himself in those conditions. He certainly would not have had a clue about how to find her in this unfamiliar place. She got into her car and drove several miles in both directions looking for him with no success. Finally, she called the state police for help. One of their patrol cars happened to be nearby and the state trooper was there in a few minutes. He listened to Margaret’s tale of woe and then made a suggestion.

“Look,” he said, “if your dog is a city dog it is unlikely that he will wander too far from the road, since paved areas and vehicles are most familiar to him. This motel is the closest thing that your dog has to a recognizable place, so if you can stay over for a couple nights, I have an idea that might work. What your dog needs are some kind of ‘sign posts’ that will act as a sort of map to bring him back to you. Something with your scent will work best. Just leave items with your scent along the side of the road and if your dog finds one of them there is a chance that he will follow the trail back here to you.”

Margaret had no other plan, so she decided to give it a try. Her suitcase was full of dirty clothes from her trip, so, despite feeling extremely silly, she placed items of her apparel every 50 yards or so along the road for a couple of miles in either direction. Then she sat down in front of her motel room to wait. Nothing happened all day.

In the morning Margaret got up, hoping that Dash might have returned, but he had not. She committed herself to at least one more day of waiting. As twilight approached she left her post in front of her room to get something to eat at a little diner across the road. As she glanced down the road to check for traffic she saw the familiar silhouette of a dog who appeared to be sniffing at one of the items of clothing she had laid by the roadside.

Margaret reports, “I yelled, ‘Dash, come here!’ and he lifted his head and charged over to me carrying a piece of my underwear in his mouth.”

That night Margaret slept with the windows closed, and in the morning she put Dash in her car and started down the highway to collect her clothing.

“I don’t know who, or why,” she said, “but sometime before we were ready to leave in the morning, someone traveled up and down the road and picked up every piece of clothing that I had dropped. I couldn’t even find a single sock! I went home with an empty suitcase—but I did have my dog!”

Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission


Adámková J Svoboda J Benediktová K Martini S Nováková P Tůma D Kučerová M Divišová M Begall S Hart V Burda H (2017) Directional preference in dogs: laterality and "pull of the north" PLOS ONE 12:e0185243.

Benediktová K, Adámková J, Svoboda J, Painter MS, Bartoš L, Nováková P, Vynikalová L, Hart V, Phillips J, Burda H (2020). Magnetic alignment enhances homing efficiency of hunting dogs. eLife 9:e55080.

Horowitz, A. (2017). Being a Dog: Following the Dog Into a World of Smell, Scribner: New York, pp. 336

More from Stanley Coren PhD., DSc, FRSC
More from Psychology Today
More from Stanley Coren PhD., DSc, FRSC
More from Psychology Today