Internal Compass

Internal Compass

Published by

About episode

Do some dogs have a built-in GPS? Dr. Hare explains how dogs use a sensation of the earth's magnetic fields to hone in on where they're going. Two top experts in the field of canine navigation discuss why some dogs get lost and others always manage to find their way home.



Dr. Evan MacLean

Assistant Professor at the School of Anthropology at the University of Arizona.


Dr. Alexandra Rosati

Assistant Professor in the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University, where she directs the Cognitive Evolution Group.

View transcript

Brian Hare: “DogSmarts” is brought to you by Purina Pro Plan Bright Mind—a breakthrough in pet nutrition created to nourish a dog’s mind. Is your dog’s food feeding your dog’s brain? Discover more at

Canines and humans are not just connected by companionship. In fact, we are evolutionarily linked. We’re tied together by something far more complex—our brains.

Join me as we take a peek into the inner workings of the canine brain through the lens of human cognition. With a mix of stories and interviews from leading psychologists, anthropologists, veterinarians, and dog owners, we’re going to tackle questions of memory, word learning, nutrition, and even love.

I’m Brian Hare, Founder of Dognition, and Professor at Duke University in Cognitive Neuroscience.

Welcome to “Dog Smarts”.

BH: There are all these stories about dogs that get lost, travel great distances, do incredible journeys to find their way home. We know to do this they are using different skills like using their nose to smell their way back or maybe they’re even sensitive to the earth's magnetic fields, but do dogs have an internal gps, or are they just getting lucky sometimes?  I sat down with someone who could shed some more light on what dogs are actually capable of.

Evan McLean: Hi, I’m Evan McLean I’m an assistant professor in the School of Anthropology at the University of Arizona.

BH: Alright, so let me ask you this, there’s all these articles all the time, people love to talk about when dogs get lost, and they have these incredible journeys and they find their way home. So, how do you, as a scientist based on your studies looking at how dogs navigate and what they remember, how do you think about those stories?

EM: Right well, I mean I think the first thing you have to recognize is probably there's a huge bias in what the media likes to report. And these are amazing stories. There are dozens and dozens of these stores going back through history about dogs who’ve traveled across countries to get home. So, really remarkable things. And as a scientist, that’s essentially an anecdote but it's an observation that it is really interesting and it makes you think, you know, ‘wow is this really possible - how did this dog do this; what kind of navigation system could a dog have to travel this kind of distance in unknown territory?’ So it's really amazing. What we do know is that there are lots and lots of cognitive systems that support navigation and some of these are common to most mammals for example there are lots of ways that mammals find their way around. They can do through a process called dead reckoning or path integration and this is basically the process where if I were to put a blindfold on you and turn you around and walk you a bunch of different directions in this room and then I were to tell you okay you don't know where you can you find your way back to where you started.

BH: Definitely. I could.

EM: Yeah! Well you wouldn't be perfect but you'd have some internal geometric representation of space and you might be able to get back to approximately the right area. So, that’s one way.  Animals also use landmarks and beacons all the time. So, you know, there can be distant features like mountains that they use to guide behavior. So that's another strategy that animals have and dogs certainly have that. What we don't know is if dogs have some of these other more specialized abilities. So, you know for example you look at butterflies that migrate thousands of miles and they rely heavily on magnetic fields to do that. I’m saying that butterflies have an especially adaptive navigation system that evolution has favored and that dogs may or may not have. So we could think about that as a kind of intelligence, a kind of navigational intelligence, but we'd never make a global statement that makes a butterfly smarter than a dog.

BH: We’ll be back with more DogSmarts... I’m Brian Hare.

“DogSmarts” is brought to you by Purina Pro Plan Bright Mind—the result of years of research into the positive impact nutrition can have on a dog’s cognitive health. For dogs seven and older, there’s Bright Mind Adult 7 Plus, with enhanced botanical oils shown to promote alertness and mental sharpness in dogs seven and older, with visible results within 30 days, helping them think more like they did when they were younger. For adult dogs, there’s Bright Mind Adult, featuring a proprietary blend of brain supporting nutrients. When fed daily, the blend of nutrients in Bright Mind Adult helps support a dog’s cognitive health throughout adulthood—to help him reach his full potential. Available exclusively at Pet Specialty Retailers such as Petsmart, Petco and Pet Supplies Plus. Purina Pro Plan Bright Mind Adult and Adult 7 Plus. Is your dog’s food feeding your dog’s brain? Discover more at

Welcome back to DogSmarts. I’m Brian Hare.

BH: So, we seem to hear about dogs who have a built-in GPS all the time. But is that really the right way to think about how dogs navigate? First, I need to talk to somebody who’s an expert in this area.

Alexandra Rosati: I’m Alexandra Rosati an Assistant Professor in the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University.

BH: What about dogs compared to humans in terms of navigation? Are humans somehow remarkable relative to dogs in how they navigate or we are tapping into some of the same systems we see in dogs and other mammals, too?

AR: So you point out that humans went all over the world and when we look for example at people living in traditional societies where they hunt and gather, those people will travel very long distances so longer than apes for example when apes are foraging. And they have sort of a special way that they forage where rather than eating on the go like an ape they'll gather food and bring it back to the camp, so you can imagine that this makes for a very difficult spatial problem because people need to collect this food and remember where they've gone over these very long distances, and then bring it back to a central location, which is probably a lot more challenging than what apes face. So in that way we might also predict that humans have some special skills, and some psychologists have proposed that these special skills might have something to do with language, so that language might allow us to form even richer and more complex maps of space than other animals who lack language.

BH: So the test would be to take some people out and have them forage like hunter gatherers and then see if they or the dog got back home first ­- is that what I’m hearing you say.

AR: If we put people in that kind of foraging situation, who would win a human or a dog?  I don't know what the answer but that'd be very interesting thing to find out.

BH: So, what we’ve heard is that dogs can have amazing abilities to navigation in some situations, but not in others. So for instance, if you’re talking about dogs searching for food, or for toys, or maybe you, in a small space, well dogs are pretty good navigators. If you’re talking about a larger area, let’s say your city or a state and they’ve been separated from you, well that’s going to be really hard for a dog to be able to navigate the way that it would take a taxi driver let’s say to get across New York City. So, are dogs special in navigating? It really depends on the context we’re talking about.

Many thanks to Evan MacLean, Assistant Professor in the School of Anthropology at the University of Arizona and Alexandra Rosati, Assistant Professor in the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University.

‘Dog Smarts’ is produced by Panoply Custom Studios, and is sponsored by Purina Pro Plan Bright Mind—a breakthrough in pet nutrition created to nourish a dog’s mind. Discover more at

View all episodes
× Close Window
, :
00:00 / 00:00