Can dogs and cats really find their way home over long distances, as in "Incredible Journey"?

November 2, 2001

Dear Cecil:

Are there any reliable accounts that dogs (and/or cats, which I doubt highly) have been able to find their way home over long distances a la The Incredible Journey and Old Yeller? If so, is there any explanation for this? Is this all a bunch of pet-lover hooey?

It's not all pet-lover hooey. A certain amount of New Age pseudoscientific hooey enters into it, too. Still, setting aside obvious instances of exaggeration, wishful thinking, etc., I have to agree that at least some animals have impressive navigational skills. As for explanations--well, some of those are definitely incredible. 

Ask any collection of pet owners and you're sure to get at least one story about a dog or cat that found its way home after being left or lost some distance away. My assistant Jill reports that once when her family was moving to a new house about three miles from the old one she put the family cat in a box in the car, only to have it escape when they arrived. Two days later, when the family drove back to the old house, the cat was sitting on the lawn. 

British biologist Rupert Sheldrake, author of Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home, and Other Unexplained Powers of Animals (1999), has compiled a database of similar stories--29 homing cats and 60 homing dogs. In most cases the pet was transported from its home to an unfamiliar location without having a chance to learn the smells or landmarks en route, and typically it followed a different route home. Sheldrake doesn't state the average length of the journey or how well the animals knew their environs previously, but he does tell of dogs used in cattle drives that were sent home on their own and traveled 100 miles, admittedly over a familiar route. On the other hand, in experiments conducted by himself or others, the distance is usually much less--six miles, five miles, three miles. Not all animals have the gift; some dogs, left on their own, head in the wrong direction or park themselves on the nearest doorstep and look forlorn. 

The homing champs are undoubtedly birds. The navigational abilities of homing pigeons are well known. Even more impressive are those of sea birds such as the albatross, which can fly home from as much as 4,000 miles away. Monarch butterflies, Sheldrake notes, annually migrate 2,000 miles from the Great Lakes to Mexico and back. Individual butterflies don't live long enough to make the round trip, but somehow the species as a whole knows which Mexican "butterfly trees" to return to every winter, even though three to five generations may intervene between one visit and the next. 

How do they do it? Sheldrake contends that the question has utterly defeated scientists and proposes a bizarre theory about "morphic fields" that says the laws of nature aren't really laws, they're just habits, and that animals navigate in part by tapping into the collective memory of their species. (If you're interested in this kind of thing, visit his Web site at www.sheldrake.org.) 

But the mystery may not be as impenetrable as he makes out. In reviewing research on pigeons, for example, he notes that numerous possible orienting methodologies have been ruled out--the sun (pigeons can find their way home on cloudy days), the earth's magnetic field (pigeons aren't thrown off if a magnet is strapped to them), and so on. Apparently Sheldrake assumes that the birds navigate by a single mechanism, but it seems more likely that they have multiple means of finding their way and fall back on Plan B if Plan A doesn't work. Similarly, the ability of dogs and cats to find their way home doesn't seem all that miraculous. Sheldrake's own research, in which he let a dog loose several miles from home, then tracked its location using the satellite-based global positioning system, suggests that the dog just wandered around till it found a familiar landmark. 

Still, there's plenty about animals we just don't know. As the title of Sheldrake's book suggests, dogs often have an uncanny ability to anticipate their owners' arrival. Jill reports that when she was a child, her dog Louie was in the habit of meeting her at the bus stop after school. One morning her mom chided the dog for heading out several hours early, but it turned out Jill had left school several hours early too--and there was Louie, waiting to meet her. Morphic resonance? ESP? Lucky coincidence? Beats me. But there may be more going on behind those big brown eyes (Louie's, I mean) than we understand.

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