Monthly Archives: January 2014

Navigation by map and dog

Call it the angle of indiscretion.

Sure, there’s Polaris, the shadow cast by the noonday sun, the prevailing winds, and any number of natural clues to find your bearings without a compass or GPS device. But how about using your dog? Simply watch the pooch hitch a leg or squat to do its business and odds are you can find magnetic north. A team of Czech and German researchers have proven that dogs exhibit magnetoreception, sensitivity to the earth’s magnetic field, and that Fido prefers to align himself on a north-south axis when answering nature’s call. When a dog veers off that axial preference, the change is due to fluctuations in the magnetic field.

Researchers just published the study, “Dogs are sensitive to small changes in the Earth’s magnetic field,” in the journal Frontiers in Zoology. They studied 70 dogs across a 37- breed spectrum, from small Terriers and Beagles to big breeds including Weimeraners and Rhodesian Ridgebacks. (They even threw in a few mutts in the observation pool, an egalitarian gesture I appreciate as a Lab-mix owner.) After cataloging the compass bearings of 1,893 craps and 5,582 pees, researchers concluded that dogs predictably align themselves north-south, provided that the magnetic field is stable.

Geeky dog lovers will do what I did. I took a compass on my morning dog walk and recorded Shackleton’s alignment when eliminating, using the thoracic spine through the center of his head as my vector. The results were fascinating. Shackleton’s angle of excretion was true north for two trips to the loo, and just a few degrees west of true north on two other observations. His head pointed north for all but one reading. In other words, my dog appeared to take declination into account. As for the circling he does sometimes–much ado about a poo–it could be due to the magnetic field in flux.

I can imagine Les Stroud, the Canadian survival expert, using a dog compass method to find his way to civilization after a frigid night spent in a leaf and twig shelter and a breakfast of wild sorrel and fried grasshopper. He’ll pray there’s no magnetic storm to throw off the dog. And he’ll need supplementary data to distinguish north from south, since the dog won’t necessarily point his head or tail to magnetic north, but only align himself along a north-south axis.

Pictured below: Shackleton and Miles aligned in parallel north-south axes at rest under calm magnetic conditions.

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