(Note: Part of this post was published earlier today. Due to some problems, apparently mainly my ignorance of WordPress, it was incomplete at that time.)
I’m a keen observer of dog behavior, so I was naturally interested when the news media reported that dogs like to face north or south when they poop. The reports are based on a Czech-German study of the body orientation of dogs during defecation. The study finds that dogs prefer to align their bodies in the north-south direction when pooping. I’ve learned not to rely on the general news media for any real understanding of science, or anything else, so I decided to find the original study. It appears that the reports in the media are a reasonably accurate statement of the study’s findings. For a change. As far as they go.
The actual title is “Dogs are sensitive to small variations of the Earth’s magnetic field.”
To summarize: the researchers used a group of volunteer dog owners to record their dogs’ orientation during various activities, and finally concentrated on the process of defecation. They found that during periods when the Earth’s magnetic field is stable (not changing in direction or intensity), the dogs preferentially aligned themselves in a north-south direction. They did not do so during periods when the magnetic field was changing.
I didn’t do a deep analysis of the study, so I can’t judge the validity of the statistical results (assuming it’s not a complete hoax). It sounds a little flaky to me, especially since it relied on observations by ordinary dog owners, and also included no Doberman pinschers. I noted a fairly large number of small dogs, who can be notoriously contrary. Dachshunds in particular seem to be overrepresented. If the small dogs were even slightly suspicious about the nature of the study*, they would almost certainly have attempted to sabotage the results, just for the heck of it. Because that’s the way they roll.
Volunteer dog owners actually performed the observations. That’s not necessarily a fatal flaw, but it is a weakness. I assume the dog owners were told what to do, but not exactly why they were doing it. They presumably could have been familiar with the researchers’ previous, related work**, but whether that could have or did influence their observations is uncertain.
My own observations of dogs pooping are extensive. I don’t go out of my way to see it, but when you’re walking a dog and hoping that he will just please god get it over with it’s starting to rain harder, you really can’t help but notice. I have a lot of experience noticing it, going back at least to 1979, when I adopted Jesse, continuing through four other dogs and ending with our current two, Zeke and Lucy.
Based on my observations, small dogs, especially miniature pinschers, do not give a crap where they crap, or what direction they’re aimed when they do it. We have had Lucy for almost a year, and throughout that time I have taken her and Zeke on the same path around the house multiple times every day. I think a reasonable estimate of the number of trips is between 800 and 1000. By now I am pretty sure she knows the path, and could run it backwards blindfolded if food were involved. And yet when she feels the need to poop, which is surprisingly often, she stops wherever she happens to be and does it. Right in the path, where we will walk again within a few hours. It does not occur to her that if she went a few feet to the side of the path we would not have to treat the path like a minefield. Or maybe it does occur to her. Dogs have a different sense of humor from humans, and more different from female humans in particular.
I am pretty sure there is no preferred orientation of her body when the urge is acted on. The direction appears to be random. However, I will try to be more observant from now on. My iphone has a compass app, so I can check fairly easily, if I can remember to take it with me on walks around the house.
My observations of Zeke, on the other hand, indicate that there is a strong directional preference, but it does not involve the Earth’s magnetic field. If Zeke happens to feel the need to poop when we’re walking around the house, he goes into the woods, searches a while for precisely the best location, and unloads there. I don’t think he has shown a preferred compass heading for this process. If, on the other hand, he waits for our long walks down and back up the mountain, he does show a very strongly preferred orientation, but it is a matter of geographical gradient rather than the Earth’s magnetic field.
We live on a mountain, so for essentially our entire walk there is an uphill slope on one side of the road, and in places it’s quite steep. I know Zeke is looking for a rest stop when he climbs up and starts walking along the slope. When he’s ready, he turns to face downhill, with his rear end aimed up. And then he poops. He apparently is unfamiliar with the old saying about what direction poop rolls on a hill.
I don’t have a good explanation for Zeke’s behavior, but it is essentially 100 percent repeatable. I just figure he missed the heavenly doggy class on which way to poop on a mountain.
* It is not unlikely, in my opinion, that the researchers’ previous work in animal sensitivity to the Earth’s magnetic field would be know. Although, come to think of it, I doubt that many small dogs regularly read scientific journals, even if they are publically available online.
** It is far more likely that the dog owners could have read the researchers’ previous work, if for no other reason than that they are more likely than dogs to own computers.