When my dog Lulu was just two months old, we took her to a park a couple of miles from our house. It was a picturesque February day. A foot of pristine snow seemed like perfect puppy playtime.
This was Lulu’s first visit to the park, and the first time she’d met another dog — save for the one she now lived with. Once we arrived, we took both Lulu and Delilah off their leashes, although the park is not fenced in. The snow, and the lack of traffic which resulted from it, offered a false sense of security.
Other dogs were at the park, too, all kinds and sizes, creating a spinning funnel of snow as they leapt, rolled, dug and chased one another. Lulu was horrified. We didn’t know Lulu well enough yet to know she was shy, afraid, territorial; we didn’t know she’d run for her life if another dog approached her. And that’s just what she did when another dog passively sniffed her.
I panicked, imagining Lulu lost forever or dead, struck by a car or snowplow. Eight-week-old puppies can run like cheetahs and disappear before your very eyes. In a blink, Lulu was gone.
We canvassed the neighborhood, looking for tracks, calling out a name she really didn’t know yet. We asked strangers: “Have you seen a tiny Boston Terrier running like lightning?”
We eventually headed home with our other dog. We’d create a game plan; make some calls; figure it out. But when we reached our front door, there she was: Lulu, sitting calmly — a look on her face as if to ask: “What took you so long?”
Fourteen years later, I am still awestruck by Lulu’s inner GPS. She always knows where we are; her memory defies explanation. My human abilities pale in comparison. I could easily get lost driving around the block.
Our experience is hardly unique. Brad Steiger and Sherry Hansen Steiger wrote a fascinating new book, Four-Legged Miracles: Heartwarming Takes of Lost Dogs’ Journeys Home (St. Martins 2013). There’s the story of Bobbie, a collie who made his way back home to Oregon all the way from Indiana — an unfathomable 3,000-mile journey. Perhaps most astoundingly, the journey is almost completely documented: an investigation was launched by the humane society in Oregon, and they received hundreds of letters by people who’d met the dog along his journey back home. The details are harrowing, inspirational and beautiful. There are stories of dogs lost at sea, stuck in wells, escaping abusive households. The one thing they all have in common is a happy ending; best of all, all of these stories are true.
In January 2013, The New York Times ran the story of Holly, the cat who got lost 190 miles from home. The story ended up the most-emailed for days on end, fascinating people with what cats are capable of and how they know things that humans cannot comprehend.
After being regaled with unbelievable tales of smarts and triumphs of nonhuman animals, how I love to hear a scientist say: “I have no idea how they can do that!”
Cats are thought to be able to smell across great distances. Dogs might have inherited wolves’ ability to navigate using magnetic clues. While we know that birds memorize geographical maps and they observe the angle of the sun, with dogs and cats it’s a question mark — an endlessly fascinating one.
Lulu understands my language too. She knows the difference, 100% of the time, between “sock toy” and “rope toy” (and other toys to which I’ve assigned random names), though I’ve never attempted to teach her. She’s led me in the right direction on hiking trails numerous times, and on city streets. Now, as a senior dog who’s quickly losing her sight and hearing, she hasn’t lost her ability to know exactly where she is. If there’s a turtle nearby she’ll find it. She can still sniff out acorns — a favorite foraged snack — from far away; and I’ve no doubt, no matter where we are, she still knows where home is.