Hynek Burda has a theory about why the paper he co-authored on the canine tendency to line up on a north-south axis when taking a poop has garnered so much attention (including in this column). It isn’t that we’re obsessed with poop — though some of us are. It’s that we’re obsessed with dogs.
“Had we published evidence for magnetoreception in shrews, most probably nobody would really care,” Hynek wrote me in an e-mail. “Many people have dogs, and this means that we think we ‘know’ a lot about dogs and are qualified to comment.”
Hynek has done similar research on other animals and has never had the response he’s received to his article in the journal Frontiers in Zoology.
“Very few [people] have pet deer or foxes or mole-rats,” he pointed out.
I received many e-mails from readers who took exception to the Czech biologist’s research. Some simply had more questions.
“For example, what about dogs in the southern hemisphere?” asked Annandale’s Larry McClemons. “Are they more likely to face south than north or is the pull of magnetic north more compelling?”
Hynek said their data showed that while some dogs preferred to face north, others preferred to face south. Others had the same preference for north or south. “That is why we speak of axial — and not angular — preference in our results,” he wrote. He would not expect a dog in Tasmania or Tierra del Fuego to perform differently from one in Prague or Berlin, but “for sure we need more data and we need data from the Southern hemisphere.”
Readers Ralph Reeside and Rany Simms both wondered whether sunlight could be a factor in canine defecation orientation. “Facing north would give their vision advantage by having less interference from direct sunlight,” wrote Ralph.
Wrote Rany: “It would be interesting to see if the study included cloudy-day and nighttime activity as well, or if they even noted atmospheric conditions at the relevant time.”
They did, said Hynek. “Dogs change predictably their orientation with respect to changing magnetic field conditions but not with respect to changing meteorological weather,” Hynek wrote.
Some readers raised what might be called the “trampled grass” or “dangerous snake” arguments. They go like this: When dogs circle before lying down or pooping aren’t they performing deeply genetic acts, remnants of a time when savannah grasses needed to be flattened or bedding spots needed to be checked for venomous vipers?
Hynek said dogs were domesticated from wolves, which did not live in snake-infested grasslands. And besides, “if a dog wants to check a bush, or whatever place where there might be some danger, he does not circle hectically but listens and smells quietly and in a very focused manner.”
He’s definitely right about one thing: All dog owners are amateur dog scientists. We spend nearly as much time studying our pets as they do studying us.
The District’s Joy Nimnom Kraus, owner of an “ancient beast,” wishes someone would invent an electronic device that would attach to the dog’s collar to aid it “in locating that magnetic field, thereby moving the morning dog-walking chore along a bit faster.”
Finally, Rockville’s Paul Bolcik said that when it came to why dogs do what they do when they doo-doo, he had been in the “sun/snake” camp. Why? Well, a few years back, Paul was visiting Thailand when he rounded a corner in Bangkok’s Sukhamvit neighborhood and encountered a cobra “dancing” on the sidewalk to the bobbing flute of an Indian man.
Paul was entranced. He sat as the charmer explained that in the wild, snakes travel in a north-south line to more easily warm their cold-blooded bodies. There was something about dogs being able to detect when snakes are mating — and thus about trampling the ground to scare the reptiles away — but what made the biggest impression on Paul was the street performer’s explanation of the scars that disfigured his face.
The charmer said he’d plied his trade for a while in Cape Town, South Africa. “He explained that snake movement south of the equator is opposite of what it is north of the equator,” Paul wrote. The man said he was bitten badly before he realized he had to reverse the movements he’d learned as a child in India.
“I do not know if any of what the snake charmer related to me was real, but it was worth the money to hear about it,” wrote Paul.
I hope you feel the same way about today’s column.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.