When I'm driving home from some place and my dog is in the car, he always knows when we're close to home (say, a minute from home) as he gets all excited. My question is: how does he know we're almost there?

  • He's a very small dog on the car floor, so he doesn't see out of the windows.
  • I think smells are to rule out too because this happens with all the windows closed and even if there's food in the car, the smell of which should cover any subtle hints. And I don't see how the vicinity of my house should smell differently than the rest of the small village I live in.

  • He could have memorized a set of turns on the road to the house, but there are at least 3 different roads we could be coming from, and I doubt he's smart enough to have memorized and recognize all of them just by feeling the turns.

what's my dog's secret sixth sense? Either I'm underestimating dogs' sense of smell or their ability to memorize routes from just feeling acceleration in turns, I think.

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    Is the car traveling slower when near your home, which would sound different, or perhaps turning more often?
    – StephenS
    Oct 12 '19 at 1:40
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    I remember when I was a kid, we were visiting my grandparents for a holiday. They took us a few times to visit my aunt who lived nearby. On the way back, there was a traffic circle two turns away from my grandparents' house. My grandad used to gear down as he entered the circle, and the car made a very particular sound. Even though I was lying down on the backseat, half-asleep, I came to recognise that sound as the car saying we're almost home. I suspect there is something similar that your dog has come to recognise.
    – RichieACC
    Oct 14 '19 at 10:55
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    You shouldn't rule out smell, even with the windows closed air will enter through the ventilation system and dogs have exceptionally sensitive noses. Oct 15 '19 at 12:13
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    Extending @StephenS's idea, do the streets have a different surface? Oct 16 '19 at 6:49
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    The dog may get it by reading your own body language or recognize something you say. Maybe your armpits smell different when you're near home, or it notices that suddenly you urgently need to pee.
    – Manuki
    Oct 16 '19 at 17:23

I believe his nose is probably telling him. Even with the windows closed, you will have air flowing into the car through the ventilation system.

Dogs have an incredible sense of smell; hundreds of times more sensitive than ours. Bomb-sniffing dogs are trained to detect dozens of separate ingredients that may be combined into explosives. When you walk into a house and smell beef stew cooking, your dog smells beef, potatoes, carrots, onions, garlic, salt, pepper, etc. Dogs are being trained to sniff out cancer cells, drugs, specific human scents, etc.

So your neighborhood may have a familiar array of scents that your dogs recognizes as you approach. I see the same reaction from my dogs.

  • I see what you're saying, but I can't think of why the 500 meters around my house would smell differently than the rest of the small town I live in Oct 17 '19 at 14:49
  • @user2723984: I can well imagine that every corner smells and sounds different for the dog. I mean, I can smell from about 100 m away when the local butcher slaughters pigs (and I'm not talking of smoking, I'm talking of the pig sausage smell), cow a bit closer. My dog probably knows this since the other end of the town. Add some plants/trees with typical smell, road traffic smell depending on acceleration/braking/whatnot, ... and you soon have a landscape of smells that may be quite characteristic. Oct 17 '19 at 21:25
  • Further reading for anyone more interested in dogs' ability to detect odor: simonandschuster.com/books/Being-a-Dog/Alexandra-Horowitz/…
    – jalynn2
    Oct 18 '19 at 12:34

Dogs have a very good orientation (and humans have used that for 1000s of years e.g. in sled dogs), but their eyesight probably plays much less of a role in that compared to us humans.

  • @jalynn2 has already explained that being in a car doesn't fully exclude smell (actually, unless you have a very good and new filter cartridge in your air inlet, smells will be a bit delayed and maybe a bit diluted, but they'll arrive). As smells are always dependent e.g. on wind and are not as location-precise as human sight, such a delay and dilution should be quite a normal occurrence to the dog.
    Note also that a few distinctly smelling places that happen to be somewhere in the vicinity of your home would be sufficient to mark the place for the dog.

  • Nor does it exclude particular noises, which may be from the surroundings or from you/car behaving in certain ways at certain places.
    This website suggests that dogs are much better than humans in identifying sources among mixed sounds - although they unfortunately don't give a source. Together with the dog's ability to hear substantially into what is ultrasound for us, your dog may either detect distinct sounds/noises in the vicinity of your home and/or the characteristic sequence of sounds your car makes in the approach.

  • Maybe obvious, but dogs have proprioception and a vestibular sense as well. This allows the dog to sense acceleration (just like we do).
    This may allow your dog to detect they are close after exit roundabout - speed bump after x m - right turn or the like.

  • There's even some discussion whether dogs do have a magnetic sense (though that would be hampered inside a car which is mostly a steel cage).

  • Dogs use their eyes, of course. But sight for them is far lower in terms of sensory importance than it is for us. The dog not being able to see (much) out of the window doesn't hamper it as much as it would us.

  • It's probably going to be difficult to distinguish which sensory input is of how much importance to the dog.
    One thing you can try, though, is to deliberately drive in a different style (or have someone else drive) towards home and see if he recognizes the approach as well (though you driving differently usual may cause it to concentrate on what is going on with your driving style, so no recognition is going to give much information, but recognition would) - recognition based on smells should still work as usual then, but recognition based on sequence of acceleration and sounds of the car should not work.
    Another opportunity would be deep fresh snow - many sounds are then changed, and so is your driving style (accelerations, speed => timing). But at low temp, also smells diminish due to lower vapor pressure, so again, so good separation of its sources of information.

  • Why do you expect your dog not to be able to learn the 3 ways you usually take when going home?
    Not so long ago, at least in rural areas many dogs were roaming rather freely (and in many regions many dogs do that still) - and them getting lost and not being able to find their way home was not a concern at all compared to: doing mischief in general, being run over, shot, caught by someone else.

  • That your dog is able to recognize the approach to your home doesn't mean that there aren't homes where the smell/sound/acceleration profiles aren't sufficiently distinct for a dog to reliably recognize the approach - we just know that the approaches to your place happens to be sufficiently distinct.

  • on your last point, I would expect him to know them if he was walking, not in a closed car, not being able to see outside, smell beyond what filters through and hear over the car engine Oct 18 '19 at 8:02
  • @user2723984: I've updated the answer. I'd expect that the filter (unless it's an exceedingly good one) may not pose that much of a difficulty, and the same may be true for sound. Also, if he's walking, he may be able to correctly locate himself many km away from home - whereas in the car he may recognize only a few and far closer positions. So, I agree in expecting that car is more difficult. But, I think it likely that his sense of acceleration & timing plus possibly direction alone (without vision, smell and hearing) may allow him to detect some characteristic locations on the way home. Oct 20 '19 at 12:42

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