Sharman Horwood

Writer and Visual Artist

Finding Their Own Way

However they find home, some dogs have an innate ability to follow their humans, even when they go someplace the dog has never visited. If this was just one story, luck and a good nose would explain the way some dogs can do this, but there are several stories in which dogs confound our expectations. There has to be some order of intelligence that explains the phenomenon, combined with an inner sense the dog must have of how to follow what they can smell. Or perhaps there is another sense they use as well.

Researchers maintain that dogs rely on scents that they know in order to find their way home. Scent doesn’t dissipate as quickly for them as it does to our noses. However, there might be something else at play in the way they can perform this little miracle. According to Puppy Leaks (April 7, 2016), “cats, like many other animals are relying on magnetism to find their way around. Some studies have shown that many mammals contain iron in their ears, and that may help cue them into the magnetic direction.” This ability in dogs, combined with their extraordinary sense of smell, may explain how they can “follow” their owners, sometimes without an actual trace.

In the case of Prince, the beloved dog of Myrna Carillo, he had to have more of a sense of her location. According to an NBC neews report, he became lost, and though she searched for him, she couldn’t find him. She gave up. She married, and moved away. In fact she moved four times. However, one morning Prince was waiting for her at her door. How Prince managed to do this is still a mystery.

Another dog, Pepper, also defied the odds. (The story on this is on my Facebook page on May 29th.) He was ten years old and lived in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, with his owner, Donna Adams and her family. She said he typically liked to laze around in front of their home. One day, however, a member of Donna’s family passed away. The funeral was to be held in Whale Cove, a smaller community down the coast of Hudson Bay, and quite remote. The family had to go, but their flight from Rankin to Whale Cove was canceled because of weather. They decided to travel by snowmobile instead. Pepper became very agitated. “She was really, really trying to follow us. She even hopped on the sled,” Adams remembers. The dog likely thought they were leaving her behind, and in a way, they were. They did plan to return, though, and one of their daughters was staying behind for a day or two. She could look after Pepper.

Pepper, however, had a mind of her own. She left the house. Donna’s son had stayed behind in Rankin for work, and Adams’s husband returned that night. Both of them looked everywhere for Pepper. She wasn’t a very active dog. Donna called her a “lazy homebody” because she never left the area around their home. They couldn’t find her, though Pepper didn’t like being out in the wild. “There’s nothing around, she’s too big and slow to catch siksiks [ground squirrels] . . . no people and nothing around–that’s what bothers her,” Adams believed.

After a few days, though, someone showed Donna a picture of a stray dog that had wandered into Whale Cove. It was Pepper. “She looked a lot, like 10 years younger–because she lost a lot of weight!” Adams exclaimed, laughing. Somehow the dog had gotten over her fears to find her family. Alone, she’d traveled across a vast landscape of tundra and ice f0r days in order to find them. She had never been to Whale Cove before and the only scent she could have used to follow them was the one left by the snowmobile.

Another dog that defies theories is Buddy, a Labrador cross that belonged to Brian and Shirley Enger. He loved to play, chasing sticks and balls, and enjoyed just being with them. In 1998, when he was about seven, the Engers lived in Lethbridge. On New Year’s Eve, they were going out to a theatre event, and left him safely penned in their neighbour’s fenced yard. When they came home, however, he was gone. The wind was blowing hard and it was snowing. They followed his tracks as far as they could, but snow soon covered all traces of where he’d been. There had been fireworks that night, and Buddy was unusually scared of loud noises, like thunder or the bang of fireworks. He must have leaped over the fence and run away, looking for Brian and Shirley. They couldn’t find him that night. They were certain he was lost for good.

However, the following morning, their son, Elann, opened his front door, and there was Buddy curled up on his doorstep, covered in snow.

Elann had only moved into that house two months prior to New Year’s. Brian and Shirley hadn’t gone there the night before; they were elsewhere. Also they lived on the northwest side of Lethbridge, about five miles away from Elann. Once Brian had driven to Elann’s with Buddy in the truck, but Buddy had stayed in the vehicle so he wasn’t familiar with the house’s scent.

No one knows how Buddy managed this feat. When he was lost, perhaps he caught a trace of Elann’s scent, and he might have followed that, but Elann lived five miles away in a busy city with a lot of scents. Buddy had found another unknown method of finding his way to a place where he believed he’d be safe. And there he waited, certain he would be found and be safe.

The pack instinct is very strong in dogs, in some more so than others. Dogs’ memory of the scents associated with their “pack” has to be strong as a survival strategy. They have to sort out a lot of what they’re smelling, all the conflicting odours of machines and people and other animals, and focus on what they think will take them to their group. That takes an extraordinary kind of intelligence and purposefulness.