Houndin’ Around


I’ve spent the past two weeks in profound observation. The subject of my research is a pair of hounds. The object of my investigation is an age-old question, ‘How do animals find their way home?’ When we’re dealing with canines, home is a human dwelling—with felines, it’s not exactly the same thing.

There’s a tale of a cat that would regularly disappear—as they do—to the great distress of the little girl who owned it. The mother decided to tie a note to the collar. ‘Please do not feed the cat, it belongs to my daughter.’ Shortly after, the cat vanished for a few days. When it returned, a different message was on the collar. ‘We’re terribly sorry, we thought she was our cat.’ Cats have a very different take on domestic relationships—as a friend of mine says, “Dogs have owners, cats have staff.”

For practically all animals, home is nothing to do with humans—although any human home harbors a number of unwelcome guests: insects, spiders, and the odd rodent. What most animals have in common is the ability to navigate—we call it a homing instinct, because any behavior we can’t explain is put down to ‘instinct’.

And homing is key to survival—migratory birds have taken it to the limit, and homing pigeons were the historical equivalent of the world wide web. There are wonderful experiments where birds have been observed in the planetarium, virtually navigating by the stars. In The India Road, a pigeon uses the heavens and the earth to orientate.

Just then, a bird fluttered at the gothic arch. The warm summer breeze was wafting through the Santarém palace, the banks of the Tagus cooling the fierce heat. The carrier pigeon had flown over the plains of Salamanca, keeping a sharp eye for the peregrine falcons and golden eagles that circled overhead. The atmosphere, like the ocean, is sparse. The great predators keep a sharp lookout for the lonely traveler, for the flocks of birds or the schools of fish. In the ocean, they strike from the deep. In the air, they swoop from the sky. The racing dove had turned at the frontier, flown south across the Beiras, over the old Jewish synagogue at Belmonte, and then rotated west once more, following the course of the Tejo. He flew the thermals, saving his energy on the air currents caused by the interplay between the suffocating plains and the cooler Tagus waters. Now far below him was the castle at Almourol, once home to Vandals, Visigoths, and Berbers. Like a bull’s-eye in the middle of the majestic river, it had been extended by the Knights Templar and was now in the hands of the Order of Christ. As the weary bird turned and coasted toward the palace, the king heard the fluttering wings, and his heart lifted in hope.

When it comes to hounds, there is much folklore about how they find their way home. Books and TV shows like Lassie and Rin-Tin-Tin delighted a generation of children. My canine experiments were observational—I wanted to confirm whether dogs orient themselves using the earth’s magnetic field. My particular interest came from a study published a few years ago in the scientific journal Frontiers of Zoology. Arguably, the paper belongs instead in the Annals of Improbable Research.

The authors studied seventy hounds of thirty-seven different breeds. Their thesis was both simple and fascinating: Do dogs poo in alignment with the earth’s magnetic axis? Echoes of The India Road came to my mind—the XVth century Portuguese navigators going to the ends of the earth with compass and astrolabe. Could hounds have helped direct their course? If only we knew… The authors of the study spared no effort in their investigation—much like the dogs themselves, they bent to their task with great gusto. Altogether, results are presented for 1,893 defecations and 5,582 urinations.

Figure 2 from the Frontiers paper: ‘Alignment during defecation in dogs (females and males) in different day periods. ‘

It’s official: ‘under calm magnetic conditions’, dog doo-doo aligns to the north-south axis. It is a standard requirement for publication of any scientific paper that the methods be explained in sufficient detail to allow any other researcher to reproduce the results. I am pleased to report that for a further two experimental subjects, one has observed magnetic pooping around 75% of the time over a period of two weeks—a total of around fifty productions. As in any scientific analysis, details should be supplied—in my case, the focus was on ‘Number 2’, a high impact and readily detectable activity—no sneak pees.

In addition, since the experiment was performed on two females, all research was gender-friendly. Lastly, I add the usual disclaimer for any work of this nature: no animals were harmed during the experiments—all defecation was voluntary, and dare I say enthusiastic. In these days of crowdfunding, I urge you, kind readers, to spare no effort in contributing to this fascinating, yet pungent, line of research. Next time you’re in the park, faithfully record if your hound is proudly aligned with the north-south axis as it crouches for its curly contribution.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

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