Dog Geography

Scout, a.k.a. The Dog, is full of surprises, especially when it comes to what we think of as him memory and awareness of where he is when we’re out on walks.

Since he’s a border collie/retriever mix of some kind, our program has been to walk him three or four times every day. But these are not long walks. Most of his world lies within a radius of about a mile and a half of our house. Still, that’s an area of about seven square miles.

When we bipeds traverse an area that size, we notice and remember remarkable or useful features: Peet’s Coffee, the house with the unusual water fountain in the front yard, the parking lot that offers a shortcut, the beautiful tall Norfolk pine.

The Dog has some of the same thing going on. There are certain places on our walks where he loves and expects to stop: outside the chicken coop in the garden at the local middle school and a certain Monterey pine where squirrels are always eating sunflower seeds after a dish on the ground.

How do we know The Dog remembers these places? He stops when we get to the nearest corner and more or less points in the desired direction. The fact he does this after many repetitions doesn’t surprise me.

But here’s something that does: About a month or six weeks ago, we had Scout out for a walk. We got a corner I don’t remember having walked past with him before. He stopped and stared into the yard of the house at the corner. There were a couple of pet rabbits loose out there, and he was transfixed. In fact, we’d still be out there if we hadn’t compelled him to leave after about 10 minutes.

The next day, we approached the corner from a completely different direction; in fact, no part of the path we took repeated the way we had come the day before. But when we got close to the rabbit house, he headed directly for it. OK, maybe not shocking. Still, I was impressed that he made the connection–maybe he smelled the place–when we were coming from a different direction.

We didn’t return to that block for a couple weeks. When I did, we were taking another route that didn’t come closer than about 100 yards to the rabbit place. But as soon as The Dog got to the closest point, he stopped and looked up the street toward his desired destination. Yesterday, needing to take him on a quick walk and wanting to keep him away from the rabbits, I took yet another route, but had the same result. When we got to within a block of the rabbit house, he stopped and pointed for it.

I’m not sure how he’s doing it. But I think it must be a combination of visual and olfactory recognition (though he knows we’re close even when the rabbits are downwind) and some sort of ability to guess the relationship of one location to his target even if he hasn’t walked the precise path before. In other words, he’s using something more than rote memory.

I’m not suggesting The Dog is capable of planning out his own trip itinerary. But en route he’s got the capability of connecting a remote location with where he happens to be and heading there.

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One Reply to “Dog Geography”

  1. Not sure how they do that, either. We always thought it was a combination of hope/anticipation rather than canine olfactory skills. Their memories are quite good.

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