Dogs Sense Earth’s Magnetic Field

A German wirehaired pointer walking on a field. Photograph by Juniors Bildarchiv, Alamy

Dogs don’t need a compass: Your best friend can sense Earth’s magnetic field, say researchers who report that dogs preferentially align themselves facing north or south to do their business.

Dogs are well known for their excellent sense of smell and their keen sense of hearing. The team, led by zoologist Hynek Burda of Germany’s University of Duisburg-Essen, reports in the journal Frontiers in Zoology that our furry friends prefer to relieve themselves or do their territorial marking while facing north or south. That implies they are sensing the Earth’s magnetic field.

“They do so, however, only when the magnetic field is calm—something [that] we ourselves are not able to recognize unless we look on the actual daily magnetograms released by geomagnetic observatories,” says Burda.

The new findings have important implications in our understanding of magnetoreception in mammals. Previous work by Burda and his team showed that cows, deer, and foxes are sensitive to Earth’s magnetic field, but this is the first study showing a mammal not only being able to sense it, but also to exhibit a specific behavior in response to natural magnetic field variations.

The findings are also appealing for another reasons, Burda adds: “To many dog owners who know about the good navigation abilities of their protégés, the findings might not come as a surprise, but rather as an explanation for the ‘supernatural’ abilities—although it is not clear to the researchers what the dogs might use their magnetic sense for.” (The researchers intend to set up a university website for dog owners who wish to test their own pet’s abilities; the site is expected to be up by January 6.)

Doing Their Business

In the two-year study, the researchers analyzed the body orientation of 70 dogs from different breeds as the dogs relieved themselves. At first look, their analyses showed no clear pattern of dogs preferring any particular orientation to do their business.

However, when the researchers took into account the naturally occurring variations of Earth’s magnetic field and factors like the time of the day, the position of the sun, and wind direction, the doggy sixth sense was revealed.

“The emerging picture of the analysis of the categorized data is as clear as [it is] astounding: Dogs prefer alignment along the magnetic north-south axis, but only in periods of calm magnetic field conditions,” said Burda.

In other words, under stable magnetic conditions the dogs would always poop and pee while facing either north or south. This provides convincing evidence that dogs can sense magnetic fields and are sensitive to even small magnetic-field variations, say the researchers.

New Answers, More Questions

Future research will focus on two basic questions: What are dogs are doing with this ability, and how are they doing it? It also raises questions about how magnetic storms affect an animal’s behavior.

The results may provide an explanation as to why previous research on magnetoreception had mixed results. Calm magnetic-field conditions occurred only 30 percent of the time during the study. So future research will need to correct for these variations in order to obtain reproducible results. This also means that earlier researchers might consider reanalyzing their data to take into account variations in the magnetic field.

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  • Mike Kessler

    Hilarious but wrong! After years of careful observation I have concluded that my dog wants to be upwind from her stink. In fact it’s always amusing to jockey for upwind status versus downwind! All dog owners have my permission to replicate my detailed study in their own laboratories…

  • Kepczlac Spelicek

    Craptastic work. I’m certain that this will win an Ig-Nobel Prize!

  • john doe

    Ig Bobel prize candidate.

  • Craig Livingstone

    Insightful and correct! After many year’s of careful observation I have concluded that Labrador’s do in deed possess this sense, indeed. My animal’s are sold to the Federal Government for use worldwide as security animal’s. Great article, thanks!

  • Alek M

    Why do people keep propagating these bullocks studies? The research was hardly scientific. They noted the dogs only did this in a large field, and thus can be deducted they probably wanted to keep the sun and/or wind out of their faces. It never happens in the back yard.

  • lars Osborne

    I think you actually need to read the study before reporting on it. Their claims are ridiculous considering the lack of control, the fact that they were all self-reported by the owners, and that the magnetic field changes *very little* night to day.

  • blackbird79

    You might possibly have too much time on your hands, Mike.

  • Psftguru

    I would suggest a more rigorous test condition, which removes most visual cues, wind, etc. from the test subject to ensure that it is indeed the influence of the earth’s magnetic field over the dog’s orientation when relieving itself. Mammalian geomagnetic sensing does not strike me as particularly remarkable, though its apparent absence in human beings is somewhat troubling. I can’t help but wonder why/how north/south orientation is preferred. What does the dog gain (assuming the theory is correct) by facing North or South when relieving itself?

  • Psftguru

    I have a theory about a possible advantage presented to a dog for facing North or South while relieving itself. A similar behavior has been observed in foxes North/South orientation, while hunting mice under snow (don’t know if anybody thought to spend time watching foxes relieving themselves). Perhaps as a dog empties its bowels making room for the next meal, it orients itself in the most favorable direction for finding its next meal and/or not becoming some other predator’s next meal.

  • Lawrence

    Not wanting to stare at the sun while concentrating on squeezing your anal muscle might explain it.

  • Gabriel Chinchilla C

    Considero que todos los seres vivientes sobre la tierra perciben TODOS los campos energEticos del planeta y de fuera de el, la diferencia es que la mayoria de Humanos son inconcientes de como les afecta, y sobre todo la llamada civilizacion los aleja de esa percepcion…

  • Ima Ryma

    I hear that humans think us dogs
    Poop and pee to the south or north.
    The humans have deep dialogues,
    All sorts of theories pondered forth.
    Magnetic poles – one theory is,
    That draw us dogs to face that way,
    The better to do our biz.
    Just why – humans have yet to say,
    My human with his wife did talk
    ‘Bout testing this theory on me.
    Next time I took him for a walk,
    I did mess with his mind with glee.

    He watched me fail the human test.
    I did pee east and did poop west.

  • S R Jammalamadaka
  • Peter Kinnon

    Alex writes”
    “Why do people keep propagating these bullocks studies”

    So magneto-orientation studies are being conducted on steers as well?

    It sounds like bollocks to me!

  • Bill

    Maybe, they point north and south so that the length of there body’s face east and west to get the warmth of the sun.

  • fiya

    This is very valuable research, and if you don’t appreciate dogs geo-magnetic abilities then don’t waste your time with your useless comments! All the scientific medicine and practices you now enjoy began with the ancient Greeks submerging a capped jar into a barrel of water to prove the existence of air! If it were for sceptics like you there would be no progress in animal research. I have a dog and her extra sensory perception is far greater than some humans! So instead of criticizing I suggest you join the research and contribute something positive to our understanding of animal behaviour and how it can benefit humankind.

  • Ken

    How do the investigators define “calm magnetic field conditions”?

  • Lauren L Carlisle

    “In other words, under stable magnetic conditions the dogs would always poop and pee while facing either north or south.”

    Poop or pee? Really National Geographic? Really? Are we writing for 3 year olds now?

  • Lyn Rains

    Dogs are smarter than people and much nicer. This rings true with the Regime we in America are living in. So as it stands, I want to go to doggie heaven.

  • Peter

    Maybe by marking the proverbial fire hydrant while in a north south orientation, the “marking” will be found on either the east or west side of said hydrant making it easier to locate. Procreation is the reason!

  • Agarwal Komal C.

    Body aligned along the geomagnetic axis is least affected by geomagnetic field/energy than otherwise. This may lead to more calmness in the nervous system vis-a-vis better results of any action whatsoever.

  • Ollie

    I don’t know if this is pheasable, but the brain generates an electromagnetic wave between 10-100Hz. This may somehow interfere with the earths magnetic feild when the dog faces a certain direction, allowing them to judge the poles if they had some way of sending the interference?

  • Ollie

    The brain emits an electromagnetic wave between 10-100Hz. Maybe this interferes with the earths magnetic field and the animals have a mechanism to sense this?

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