Every dog owner can attest that canines are remarkable navigators, like some sort of living, breathing compasses. For some time, researchers have suspected that they can sense Earth’s magnetic field and use it in turn for navigation. A recent study confirmed this as a fact, however the findings came after studying the dogs in one of their most intimate poses – while pooping. Apparently, in stable conditions, dogs always relieve themselves while facing either north or south.

Led by zoologist Hynek Burda of Germany’s University of Duisburg-Essen, the researchers closely followed 70 dogs of 37 breeds for two years. Initially, the dogs didn’t seem to follow any particular pattern while going on with their business. After taking in account, however, things like the time of the day, the position of the sun, wind direction and, of course, the slight daily variation in the Earth’s magnetic field a whole new level of appreciation 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.

Alignment of a sampling of dogs while defecating during stable geomagnetic conditions. Photo: Hart et al. / Frontiers in Zoology

Alignment of a sampling of dogs while defecating during stable geomagnetic conditions. Photo: Hart et al. / Frontiers in Zoology

Poop compass

So, dogs will always poop or pee facing north or south during stable conditions. The study not only proves that dogs can sense the Earth’s magnetic field, but also exhibit specific behavior in response to natural magnetic field variations. To our current knowledge, they’re the only mammals that do this. Previously it was shown that cattle, deer, foxes and other types of mammals sometimes line up preferentially along Earth’s magnetic field lines.

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To some, dogs’ “sixth sense” might not come as a surprise, while others may view the present study as a complete waste of grant money. While it’s still unclear how dogs use this skill, it may be too early to dismiss the practical applications of the findings. If anything, however, this research proves yet again that dogs are extraordinary animals.

“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,” Burda said.

Next, the researchers plan on studying how dogs use this ability and how magnetic storms affect their ability to orient themselves.  Findings were reported in the journal Frontiers in Zoology.

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