Article written by Richard Sugg
Originally published by The Guardian (Mon, Jan 15, 2024)
No technology can yet match the uncanny ability that dogs possess to find their way home
On New Year’s Day, Merlin, a springer spaniel belonging to Daniel Horsley, ran away from his front garden in Cumbria after appearing to suffer some kind of fit. One hundred people were involved in a search involving drones and thermal-imaging cameras. And, 16 hours later, Merlin found his own way home, quite unharmed. If nothing else, all these helpers united by a lost dog confirmed one thing. Quite simply: animals bring people together.
But what no one seemed to realise is this. No human technology yet invented can match the uncanny homing abilities of dogs. A century ago, a collie cross in the US was busy showing the rest of them up. In August 1923, the Brazier family lost Bobbie on their holiday in Indiana; and in February 1924 he was back home with them in Silverton, Oregon. All the evidence indicates he walked the whole way, about 3,000 miles, over six months through the intense winter cold. His endurance alone was formidable. But how did he know where to go?
In the book Telepathy, Clairvoyance and Precognition, Robert Charman cites 1965 trials conducted by Dr Bernhard Müller with 75 dogs, all released far from home. Many just got lost – but 26 dogs made it. These animals would point for a while in varying directions, until their heads went up in a peculiarly stiff manner. They then travelled home in a seemingly trance-like state, sometimes bumping into low fences, and notably making their best progress when it was dark.
A recent Czech study involving 27 dogs found that one-third of them used the Earth’s north-south magnetic axis as a guide, rather than first scenting or looking for visual cues. Which is perhaps why, in the 1930s, a fox terrier was able to walk every week between his old and new homes in Bedfordshire – despite being completely blind.
As far as I know, no dog has ever beaten Bobbie the Wonder Dog’s 3,000-mile expedition. But there are many other extraordinary stories. On Christmas Eve 1973, an alsatian named Barry turned up on his old doorstep in Solingen, Germany, after being lost in southern Italy during a holiday six months before. He had apparently walked 1,200 miles. In April 1949, a pomeranian named Jeep came home to New York, 16 months after he was lost in the Blue Ridge Mountains 1,000 miles away. In 2016, a collie called Pero also went missing in Cumbria. He had recently been sent from his home farm in Wales to help with sheep-herding near Cockermouth. Two weeks later he was back at his old farm in Penrhyn-coch, 240 miles away.
As a general rule, dogs tend to return to their owners, while cats tend to return to their old homes. But in 2020, Cleo, a four-year-old retriever-collie cross, decided to leave her owners and head back to her old house. She went missing from Olathe in Kansas on 12 July, and a few days later was found at her former house in Lawson, Missouri, almost 60 miles away. Her microchip meant that the home’s new owners could identify her and reunite her with her family.
Perhaps the most incredible adventure of all is the first world war tale of the Irish terrier Prince. In August 1914, Pte James Brown was mobilised for Armentières in France. On 27 September, Prince went missing from home in west London – as Brown’s wife wrote in a letter he received at the end of November. Brown replied: “I am sorry you have not found Prince; and you are never likely to while he is over here with me.” Prince became the regiment’s beloved mascot, wearing his own khaki jacket and sometimes riding on horseback. He killed countless trench rats, hitting a record of 137 in one day. He and his owner both survived the war.
Some dogs may track their previous homes, as was the case with Cleo. But Prince clearly tracked his owner, being notably far more devoted (whisper this) to James Brown than to his wife. He found him 200 miles away, in a place he had never been to before. And he is not the only animal to have done it. In the 1950s, a persian cat named Sugar followed her owners from California to their new home in Oklahoma, travelling about 1,000 miles across one year.
Perhaps we will fully understand the exact science of these uncanny adventures some day. But, for now, the most accurate and plausible answer to how they all did it is simply: love.
Banner credit: Daniel Horsley