Does the dog have a sense of direction?

Perhaps you know a story which tells the journey of a lost or abandoned dog to find the house of its owners … How can a lost dog find his way around and travel tens of kilometers to reach his goal? Dogs know how to orient themselves with the help of certain particularly developed senses, in particular their exceptional sense of smell. But he also has a good memory and a capacity revealed by science: magneto-reception.

To find his way around, the dog uses hyper-developed senses.

The smell

The dog is endowed with a strong sense of smell that allows him to perceive the presence of a person or a place from miles away. Its nasal mucosa has 6 to 40 times more cells than in humans! A German Shepherd, for example, has 200 million nasal cells, while a human has less than 20 million. We can add that the brain of the dog has an area intended for the treatment of odors four times larger than in humans. The best perfume maker is not as well equipped as your pooch!

It is thanks to his exceptional flair that your dog can spot a known odor, even faint, from miles away. It will thus be able to move from one scent to another, that of a bakery or a neighborhood garage giving way to natural essences from your garden or to the familiar scent of children or other members of the household. the family… This scent treasure hunt can guide your dog over hundreds of kilometers!


The dog is not satisfied with a competitive flair; he also has extremely developed hearing. A dog’s ear can recognize sounds at very long distances, well beyond human capabilities. While a human perceives frequencies below 20,000 Hertz, the dog hears sounds up to 45,000 Hertz, which makes him capable of perceiving ultrasound. This hearing ability is very useful for him to find his way; he can hear familiar sounds from afar, such as the family car or the barking of the neighbor’s dog… The sound map he mentally recorded is as useful to him as a GPS.


It is true that the sight of a dog is less powerful than that of a human, since it does not see all the colors and has a blurred vision of the world. But it makes up for it with a much wider field of vision, and better visual acuity at night.

The combination of these three senses allows the dog to find his way easily in a familiar environment. But that does not explain his ability to orient himself over very long distances or from a completely unknown place, where he no longer has any landmarks …

The dog’s memory: an asset for orientation

Do you know the Little Thumb, who deposited small pebbles while walking to find his way back? Well, your dog does the same when he is out for a walk. But his little pebbles are above all olfactory and auditory. It memorizes along the way the smells and sounds encountered, as you yourselves might notice an architectural detail or a particular object that you will remember. In this way, a sort of mental map of the path is created in his brain, this one being marked out by a multitude of smells and noises which he remembers.

Do not think that your dog has a bad memory, even if he does not seem to remember certain commands… In olfactory and auditory memory, he beats you largely!

In addition, the dog shows a memory topographic which is particularly useful for training guide dogs. A dog can thus spot and memorize details which help him to orient himself in a known territory.

Magneto-reception: késako?

This is one of the secrets of orientation in dogs, which science has recently looked into. The dog would be able to perceive the earth’s magnetic field and use it to find its bearings. Some studies tend to show that the dog would be equipped with a kind of internal magneto-reception compass, which he would use over long distances.

A German study (from the Max Plank Institute, Frankfurt) thus highlights the presence in dogs of a cryptochrome 1 molecule. This molecule, which is found in certain birds (for example pigeons, frequent travelers), indicates an ability to sense the earth’s magnetic field. The study observed a panel of dogs for three years, interested in their way of finding their way. In addition to their sense of smell, all dogs seem to rely on the north-south magnetic axis, which they systematically follow before heading towards their objective. Some researchers suggest that the dog thus seeks to “align its mind map with its magnetic compass” to find the right course. Even though this research is still in its early stages, we would like to know more about this mysterious dog GPS …

Chance sometimes does things well …

Despite everything, it is clear that most dogs lost or abandoned far from home do not find their master’s home. Certainly, certain cases of dogs having made hundreds of kilometers before coming to jump in the arms of their master could have hit the headlines. But this media exposure of exceptional cases should not deceive us. A dog’s sense of direction, however excellent it may be, does not help it find its way into an unknown universe. In France, a dog is abandoned every 20 minutes; in 2018, around 25,000 dogs ended up in a shelter. However we know in the world about sixty stories of dogs having found their way from far away …

Most of the time, a stray dog ​​wanders around haphazardly, nose to the ground, until providence sets it on the trail of a known scent. But that may never happen. To find his master’s trail, a dog needs all of his abilities but also a little luck. Especially since a dog finds it very difficult to find himself lost in unknown territory. The loss of his familiar bearings is a source of great stress for the dog. And that doesn’t help her use her famous sense of direction, which can be completely clouded with emotion and insecurity.

When the dog loses his sense of direction …

The stress of abandonment, the anguish of an unknown universe, the loss of familiar landmarks, and here is the dog completely disoriented! But it can also happen in other cases: when the dog is aging or when he is sick.

From the age of 7, the senses of the dog lose their sharpness. He becomes deaf, his eyesight decreases and his sense of smell is no longer so good … With old age, he loses his ability to orient himself, even a few kilometers from his home.

Regardless of their age, a dog can suffer from a disease that affects their ability to orient themselves. Confused, lost in his own familiar surroundings, he becomes distressed. The loss of his bearings panics him to the point of becoming disobedient or elusive.

Dogs like stability, geographic and emotional. If a sudden change occurs, forcing it to leave its usual landmarks, stress causes the dog to lose a large part of its ability to orient itself. But, being linked to a one-off event, this type of trouble is fortunately temporary. As soon as it has regained its serenity, a dog regains its spotting faculties.

Orientation can be learned.

You can always bet on a dog’s instinct to try to find his way back to a familiar universe. But much of his sense of direction is not innate. When small, puppies can rely on their sense of smell, but their sight and hearing fail for the first 35 days of their life. Fortunately, his memory is already there! It is thanks to her that the baby dog ​​learns to orient himself. But for him to fully develop his abilities, his master must take him out often, in various places. He will be able to experience his nascent sense of smell, his hearing, and begin to use all his spotting faculties. The more he can explore the world, the better a puppy will find his way around!