Do Dogs Understand Time?
24 May, 2016
Dog with big clock over white background

Our dogs are very smart, evolved pets and we think of them as almost human.  After all, they know when they are going to be fed, taken on their walk and when you return home each day.   It seems easy to conclude that dogs have an accurate sense of time. But do our beloved pups really know what time it is or is there something else that helps them track time.

Dogs understand time in terms of events and training

We, humans, use episodic memory in order to understand and recall past events and think about future ones.  But, dogs don’t perceive time this way.  Dogs are capable of being trained based on past events and taught to anticipate future events based on past experiences.   Dogs can distinguish how much time has passed since something has occurred; time for another meal since my food bowl has been empty for a few hours.  But, of course, hunger can come into play here too.

Dogs pick up on our social cues to understand time

Dogs tend to pick up on our body language to know when they are going to be fed or taken on a walk.  When you look toward the front door or look to a certain closet where your dog’s leash is hanging, your dog knows that’s time for a walk.  When you open the fridge in the morning or a certain cabinet, your dog probably senses that it’s time to eat! In this way, our dogs can sense time in our certain habits and what we do before we feed, walk and/or play with them.

Biology comes into play with dogs’ sense of time

All animals have a circadian rhythm. Humans, dogs, and other animals have these rhythms. An animal’s circadian rhythm is governed by its genes, but these cycles are also very dependent on light and dark. They can also be influenced by changes in temperature or by social factors, like regularly scheduled mealtimes. Your dog’s circadian rhythm probably plays a big role in when your dog thinks it’s time to go for a walk, sleep, or eat. This internal clock is also thought to contribute to your dog’s sense of time.

Dogs generally understand the passage of time when alone

There is research evidence that dogs understand the concept of time based on changes in their behavior when left alone by their owners for different lengths of time. Studies show that dogs are actually more affectionate toward their owners if they’ve been separated for longer periods of time. As the amount of time away increases, so does the dogs’ excitement. This isn’t a big surprise to most dog owners; most dogs get super excited and are more affectionate after you have been away for even a couple days.  It’s easy to think that dogs can also differentiate between different spans of time.

Dogs can use their sense of smell to give them a sense of time

It’s also thought that dogs could use their sense of smell to determine time. Your scent is strongest right after you leave the house, but begins to fade throughout the day. Some researchers believe dogs may use your fading scent to figure out when it’s getting close to the time you usually come home.

Dogs do, therefore, have a general sense of time. The more the dog is clued in to your behavior and routine, the more likely your dog will sense time even more acutely.

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