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The Homing Instinct by Al Magaw

The Homing Instinct

By Al Magaw

Homing instinct, nostalgia, home sickness, territorial identification, what ever you want to call it, the description of the phenomena remains the same with all species – it’s the desire to be in familiar surroundings. Studies have shown that familiarity with a territory increases chances for survival. This “homing” instinct can be seen in life as primitive as a flat worm, perhaps the lowest form of multi-celled organism. Flatworms have no brain, no eyes, no ears, some have no mouths and absorb nourishment through their skin. They have two nerves that run the length of their back, yet flatworms kept in a petri dish will go off their feed if moved from one petri dish to another identical, but unfamiliar, one. Flatworms will even work their way through a maze to find their own dish and the “smart” ones will do it quicker than the rest. The instinct is shared by every species up to and including humans.

This homing instinct was demonstrated in spades by a friend’s dog one winter after it had got loose from it’s kennel and was picked up by the dog catcher. The pound where the dog was taken to broke their own rules when they released the dog to a new home in the matter of a few hours. By the time my friend had traced the dog to the pound in Nelson, a town 25 miles away, the dog was gone. The only information about the dogs location that the pound would release to my friend was that “Gill” had been sent to a pet home in Castlegar, another town, also 25 miles from home, and 35 miles from Nelson. My friend decided to drive the back alleys in Castlegar to see if he could find his dog, but on the way to Castlegar, just before he crossed the bridge over the Columbia river, he saw something in the water. Whatever it was, it was swimming through the rapid current between the many ice flows rushing along in the frigid river. Before very long, my friend could make out it was a dog swimming. In a few more  minutes he could make out that it was Gill in the water, swimming towards home. Gill emerged from the water after the long difficult swim, dragging a fairly heavy 12 foot cable that he had obviously been tied with. Gill had barley survived the swim, but was very pleased to see his “dad” waiting for him on shore. Gill was taken home to his kennel where he happily lived out his life. What amazes me about this story is how did Gill know which way was home? – he had been transported in the back of a closed van to a town 25 miles to the north on twisty mountain roads, then transported another 35 miles to the west, yet he knew exactly which way to go without retracing the way he had gone by road. The homing instinct, nostalgia, or what ever you want to call it, is very strong.


Al Magaw is a musher from Salmo, BC. Al keeps a medium sized kennel of 20 – 45 alaskan huskies as well as several pet dogs of various breeds. Al has been training and racing for the last 33 years. Before becoming involved with sled dogs, Al, along with his family, kept and competed with horses for many years. Al can be reached through his website at Al is a guest blogger for Denver Dog Works and can be reached through our website at

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