How To Navigate With Your Magnetic Dog

Is your dog a pointer?  I don’t mean his breed, I mean his read.  Can he read the earth’s magnetic field and point the way like a compass?  Well that’s exactly what the folks at Frontiers in Zoology were interested when they published this dog-goned research abstract: Dogs are sensitive to small variations of the Earth’s magnetic field.

Dog Magnetic Squat
Photo Credit: Jenny Ricken

Other serious researchers have explored the magnetic sensitivity of various animals, including migrating birds and rodent-hunting red foxes.   Even cows and deer have shown a preference for north/south orientation.

So what exactly did this Czech Republic/German study find?

Dogs preferred to excrete with the body being aligned along the North-South axis under calm MF [magnetic field] conditions.

They do, they do indeed.

This directional behavior was abolished under Unstable MF [magnetic field]. The best predictor of the behavioral switch was the rate of change in declination, i.e., polar orientation of the MF.

After observing backpackers struggle for years with compass orientation, I am absolutely astonished that dogs can not only calculate declination, but can actually detect small changes in it.  Let’s see, for 17 degrees westing, do I subtract or add that to the heading?  It’s gotta be add, right? 17 plus 354, that’s like what 371 degrees? Wait it can’t be more than 360, so… oh, doggy excrement!

Besides revealing their incredible math skills, what’s the big deal about compass dogs? According to this latest report, it is all about availability:

Dogs are widely available experimental subjects all over the world and can easily be trained to react on diverse sensory stimuli.

Clearly they don’t  mind defecating in public, plus many show a willingness to eat their own poop.  Perfect for this study. So how serious was this research?  How’s this for commitment:

We measured the direction of the body axis in 70 dogs of 37 breeds during defecation (1,893 observations) and urination (5,582 observations) over a two-year period.

In order to appreciate the scope of this effort, I conducted research on my own three cats.  Ninety-seven percent (97%) of the time my cat’s prefer to poop unobserved, most likely in the neighbors yard.  When trapped indoors, regardless whether the litter box was oriented on a North-South or East-West axis, they manage to fling all the litter onto the laundry room floor.  I trust this puts to rest any questions regarding my contribution to science.

Given the nature of this magnetic study on dog defecation and urination, it may prove difficult to maintain a straight face while reviewing.  I tested myself by reading the entire study, and frankly struggled in a few sections:

The direction (u) and length (r) of the (grand) mean vector and the p-value of the Rayleigh uniformity test as well as the sample size are given next to each diagram.

P-value? Sample size? In the same sentence?

Pooling is justified in this case because samples for respective dogs have comparable sizes.

And here I thought pooling was the expected result of urination. And apparently sample size does matter… so lay it out there big fella.

Navigation in the wilderness can be quite a challenge, so help of any kind would be greatly appreciated.  Exactly how dependable at navigation are man’s best (and becoming even “bester”) friends?  The research shows dogs are only good at it when the magnetic field is calm.  I’ve personally never felt a magnetic storm, so its gotta be calm most of the time, right?  Well it turns out:

MF is calm only about 20% of the daylight period.

Bummer.  I am not great at math, but I think that means dogs would be wrong something like 80% of the time.  Coincidentally, that is about the average rate of error for most backpackers using a compass. Is there any good news in this study?

Typically, the daily declination comprises westward-shifts in the morning and eastward-shifts in the afternoon, while the magnetic field is rather stable at night.

Great, while I am in my tent thrashing through nightmares about which direction to travel in the morning, the dog’s out pooping directions in the dark. If I brought my cats, I could at least figure out which way it is to my neighbor’s yard.