A man I know had been away for a few days visiting relatives in upstate New York and left his dog, Parker, a 2-year-old black lab/golden retriever cross, with his sister across town in Newton, Massachusetts. Parker loved the man’s sister and enjoyed playing with her dog, so his new temporary home was really not too shabby. The very first day, the man’s sister took both dogs to a local park where they played happily but suddenly Parker ran off.
The woman searched for him frantically but he was nowhere to be found. Finally she felt obliged to call her brother and inform him of the bad news – Parker was lost. However, seven hours later in the dead of night, as the man and his wife were about to return from NY to help search for Parker, he showed up on the sister’s doorstep 3 miles from the park. How, the man wondered, did Parker find his way back to his sister’s house when he had only ever been taken there by car? The answer: by forming a mental map.
Forming mental maps is one of the things dogs do really well. They can find their way from A to B via C, if necessary, even though they may have never been that way before. No one knows exactly how dogs do this but the process probably involves several senses and integrative processes. Sight, hearing, sense of smell, an indelible memory and perhaps some covert positioning system similar to that used by migrating birds may all be involved. Birds use the Earth’s magnetic field to help them navigate and have the ability to “read” polarized light or navigate by the stars, as sailors of old once did.
So skilled is a dog at finding his way around that (apparently) even with his head stuck out of the car window, he can figure out exactly where he came from and how to get back. It is quite possible that Parker went to his own home first and waited there for a while but when no one came, set off for the sister’s house. That would explain why the excursion took him seven hours. The fact that Parker could find his way around so proficiently left his astonished owner positively lost - for words.