Have you ever felt your patience draining away as you watched a dog find the perfect toilet spot and then proceed to sniff and spin in circles until finally finding a position and doing their business? Well it turns out there is a method to all that sniffing spinning madness!
After monitoring 70 dogs of 37 different breeds over two years, researchers from a Czech University found that dogs were more likely to align themselves according to the Earth’s magnetic field in order to poo.(1) These findings were a result of watching 5582 urinations and 1893 defaecations by the researchers.(1) And you thought you were sick of watching dogs go to the toilet! The study found that in stable magnetic field conditions, dogs were more likely to align themselves in a North-South axis according to the Earth’s electromagnetic field. Furthermore, dogs seemed to deliberately avoid aligning themselves along an East-West axis.(1)
This finding allows questioning of the popular theory that dogs align themselves to face away from the sun to avoid the light piercing into their eyes. The study couldn’t ascertain why dogs align themselves this way; whether they have sensory perception of the magnetic field, or whether they somehow feel more comfortable or less uncomfortable while aligned along the North-South axis.(1)
Before you try to re-create this study with your pets though, do remember that the Earth’s magnetic field is influenced by a number of factors and is only stable for about 20% of the daylight hours.(1) Indeed, dogs are not the only species that use the Earth’s magnetic axis to align themselves. Insects do it too, as well as fish in tanks, sleeping warthogs and foxes on the hunt.(2) More than 50 years ago, a group of termite mounds were discovered in Mumbai, India, each with the queen termite lying with her head orientated towards the North.(2)
So what does this all mean, and why do we care so much which direction dogs like to relieve themselves in? Well, the Czech researchers believe that their findings open new horizons in magnetoreception research, the study of animal behaviour and the effects of magnetic storms on organisms.(1) At the very least, the next time you are standing out in the cold shivering and waiting for your dog to position itself oh-so-perfectly for a poo, at least you know there is science behind it!
1. Hart et al., Dogs are sensitive to small variations of the Earth’s magnetic field. Frontiers in Zoology 2013; 10:80.