Can Dogs Find Their Way Home? The Surprising Answer

Key takeaways

While it may come as a surprise, dogs can find their way home thanks to their impressive homing abilities. Powerful senses and a sensitivity to the Earth's electromagnetic fields mean our furry friends can understand their location and navigate through new routes.

However, if your dog is currently missing, there are ways to help them come back home.

So you never need to experience the stress of losing a dog again, we'll detail how to prevent them from running away again.

Quick Navigation

  1. Key takeaways
  2. Can dogs find their way home?
  3. How do dogs find their way home?
  4. How you can help your lost dog find their way home
  5. How to prevent your dog from running away
  6. FAQs
  7. Final thoughts

Can dogs find their way home?

To get to the point, yes, most dogs can find their way home. However, only 20% of lost dogs find their own way home (source).
This isn't because they aren't able to. It's usually because they were found and handed in to shelters or found by their owners before they figured out their way home. After all, over 90% of lost dogs are found, so the odds are in the owners' favor!
The odds of your dog finding their way home from outside of their territory aren't as good. Most dogs use familiar scents, visual cues, magnetic cues, and powerful hearing to understand their location.
German shepherd waiting patiently by their house

How do dogs find their way home?

We know our furry friends are clever, but do we know to what extent? The way our pups find their way home is pretty impressive. By tapping into some powerful senses and memorizing their territory, they have no issue heading homeward bound.

Sense of smell

Our best buds don't just respond to the smell of food or their favorite treats. Their noses are incredibly powerful and can pick up on scents up to 12 miles away (20km) in perfect conditions (source). This is a superpower that can help them understand their environment.
Using this sense, they build up a mental map of their territory. They will have scent markers throughout their territory that will tell them where they are.
The smell they will recognize the most will be their own scent. This is their territory and their pack (you and your family).
A dog sat by a food bowl

Powerful hearing

It's not only their nose that's impressive, but also their ears. They can hear sounds four times further than humans, and because of their ability to hear high frequencies, they can pinpoint exact locations from a mere sound (source).
Alongside this, they can differentiate very well between different sounds, recognizing individual vocal patterns. This means they'll be able to hear you calling them and know that it's a safe sound to follow.
Dogs will use this sense to find their way home. Familiar sounds help build up an overall understanding of their territory. Aside from the sounds of their home and their owners, they'll also recognize normal day-to-day noises and associate them with specific places.
A dog ears pricked up

Tapping into the Earth's magnetic fields

Recent studies have shown how dogs use the North South axis and the Earth's magnetic fields to orientate themselves and find shortcuts back home. This means that your dog doesn't necessarily need to be in its own territory in order to find its way back.
In fact, the studies found that many dogs who ran outside of their territory used a different route back to the starting point by using these axes rather than following the scent trail (source). This means they can understand their location based on the Earth's magnetic field and then choose their route home.
It's an exciting find and proves that dogs, like other animals such as homing pigeons, turtles, and cats, have an internal compass.
A husky in the woods trying to find their way home

How you can help your lost dog find their way home

So, while we know our pups are definitely capable of finding their way home, external factors like fear, weather conditions, and anxiety can affect this.
This is when you come in! We can help lost pets find their way back to you by trying the following things:

Leave food outside: The likelihood is that if your dog is lost, they've probably missed a meal and are pretty hungry! Leaving their food outside can help them pick up on the scent and follow it all the way home.

Open up doors and windows: By opening up the doors and windows to your home, you will make it easier for familiar sounds to travel further. Your dog will recognize the daily goings-on of your household and should be able to pinpoint the location of the sound.

Leave toys and blankets outside: Items that will smell most strongly of their territory are items you and your pup use daily. Blankets, scarves, and clothes are effective in attracting your pup back home, and toys will also have a strong smell.

Call their name: Sometimes, you may be advised not to call their name. This is because they could be frightened if they are in 'survival mode.' However, if you keep your voice in a gentle, calm, and happy tone and only use one or two words, it can help your dog recognize where you are.

Start a PetRadar search: As an owner, waiting for your dog to find their way home just isn't enough. If you want to leave no stone unturned and increase your chances of finding your best bud, start a PetRadar search. We'll spread the message of your missing dog to over 4000 people in the area through sponsored posts on social media.

PetRadar's expert team

How to prevent your dog from running away

Despite knowing many dogs can find their way home, we know, as pet owners, just how stressful it can be if they get lost. However, there are a few things you can do to prevent this from happening.

Change up your walks

While you may think a walk or two a day will keep your little furry friend happy, you might need to do more. Our pups can become very used to the same smells and sights, and soon, it won't be stimulating enough.
To keep them interested, try out different routes and trails. The new smells and the ability to adventure and explore new territory will be exciting for them and probably for you, too!
Top Tip: If you are on a new walk, keep them on the leash as they get used to their surroundings. This will stop them from running too far when they're following a scent.
Two dog owners walking their dogs in the woods at night

Keep them entertained

Aside from walking, our dogs require mental stimulation at home. This can be tricky if you live in a small apartment or don't have garden space. But by getting creative, you will find new ways to keep your pup entertained for a few hours without having to do much yourself.

An interactive treat ball: By concealing treats inside an interactive ball, your dog will have to problem solve and experience trial and error before being rewarded with a tasty snack. You can start off easy and increase the difficulty the more they practice.

Toys: Having a good supply of toys around the house will help keep your pup stimulated. But don't just opt for endless tennis balls. Instead, get a diverse range designed for different types of play.

A friend: This isn't suitable for every situation, but getting your pup a friend, either another dog or even a cat, can help keep boredom at bay. It can also help with any loneliness they may experience when you're out of the house.

Top Tip: Make sure your dog wears an ID tag with contact details on in case they do run away.
A playful husky in the woods

Respect their space

While we may feel territorial when we have an endless stream of visitors coming and going, especially during times like the holidays, it's nothing compared to how a dog feels.
They are your protectors, and if multiple strangers are in their home, they may feel uncomfortable, distressed, and protective of you.
It's important to remember that your home is also their home, so you need to respect it. If you are planning on having visitors over, starting some construction work, playing loud music, or adding new people or pets into the home, you need to introduce these changes gradually.
Do your research and allow your dog to slowly become accustomed to any changes in their environment. This will help them feel safe and secure instead of taking flight. Some pups may not be fazed by changes, but other dogs may be affected severely. You know your dog best, so keep their personality in mind.
A dog surrounded by lots of visitors


How far away can a dog find its way home?

A dog can find their way home from far away because of their impressive homing abilities. They can smell a scent from 12 miles away (20km), meaning they could potentially find their way home from that far.

Do dogs come back after running away?

Only 20% of lost dogs come back on their own after running away. However, 90% of lost dogs do get found.

Are dogs good at finding their way home?

Yes, dogs are very good at finding their way home because of their powerful sense of smell, good hearing, and sensitivity to the Earth's electromagnetic field.

What do dogs usually do when they get lost?

Dogs will usually hide when they get lost because their survival instinct will kick in. However, once the adrenaline has worn off, they will probably try and find their way back home.

Can my dog smell me from far away?

Yes, your dog can smell you from far away. Their territory is the strongest smell to them, and they will be able to detect it up to 12 miles away (20km).

How far will a dog travel when lost?

A dog can travel very far when they are lost. However, it depends on the breed. A large dog may travel up to 5 miles, whereas a small dog will likely only cover half a mile.

How do dogs find their way home when lost?

Dogs find their way home when they're lost by using their powerful sense of smell and tapping into the Earth's electromagnetic fields. By doing this, they can build up a mental map of their location and find their home again.

Final thoughts

Every pet parent knows just how frightening it can be when your dog takes off on their own adventure. We hope learning the facts about their homing ability has provided some comfort in a time of stress. If your dog is currently missing, start a PetRadar search.
We'll notify over 4000 people in your area through social media ads. Your neighbors will see a digital missing pet poster pop up on their Instagram and Facebook feeds. From this, they can report a sighting, save it for later, or send it to a friend. This ensures as many people are on the lookout for your furry friend as possible!
We've already reunited 8000+ pets with their owners, so you know you're in good hands!

Written by

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Lauren Jeffries

In this blog, I combine my two areas of expertise: pets and writing. I share my personal experiences alongside plenty of animal behavior research to help owners look after their pets. I have always lived with furry friends and am now a loving cat mum to two orange kitties.

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