Can Dogs Tell Time?
By Dr. Kaitlin Wurtz February 23, 2021
Many dog parents have noticed that their dogs seem to know when it is time for a walk or when mealtime is. Others have noticed their dog seem to know when the kids will arrive home from school or when their partner will be home from work by eagerly waiting at the door or window minutes before their arrival. So how do dogs seem to know the time?
Can Dogs Tell Time?
There is still a lot to learn about the inner workings of dogs’ minds, however, there does seem to be some evidence that dogs perceive time passing, although maybe in a different way than humans do. To study whether dogs can consciously perceive time, we often explore their memory abilities, as they are intricately linked. There are two main types of long-term memory, they are:
- Implicit memories – these memories are formed and used unconsciously (e.g., trial and error or conditioned responses)
- Explicit memories – these require conscious thought about either knowledge or an experience
In animals, it is believed that most of their memories are implicit, however there is some evidence of animals explicitly recalling memories, particularly around topics that are biologically relevant – such as where to find food.
A special type of explicit memory – called episodic memory, is when the ‘where’, ‘what’, and ‘when’ details around an event are recalled. It can be thought of as a sort of mental time travel. This form of memory has been studied in humans, apes, rats, and a few other species. Notably, great apes appear to have episodic-like memory (Martin-Ordas et al., 2010). There is also good evidence that rats (Roberts et al., 2008) and some birds, like magpies (Zinkivskay et al., 2009), do too. However, there has been little investigation into whether dogs possess episodic-like memory capabilities and the ability to tell time, though Fugazza et al. (2016) did find some evidence of episodic-like memory when testing the retention ability of dogs over 1-minute and 1-hour long intervals.
How Can Dogs Measure Time?
A recent study conducted in mice found the presence of brain neurons which turn on like a clock when an animal is in “waiting mode” (Heys and Dombeck, 2018). It is believed that these special neurons and the brain region they inhabit might aid in forming time memory. While this particular study was conducted on mice, it is believed that other mammals and birds also have these brain capabilities. Other studies have explored whether dogs can measure time intervals. In other words, whether dogs can mentally measure the amount of time that has passed. Findings from these studies suggest that dogs, like other mammals, can approximate the amount of time that has passed since a given event (Domeniconi and Machado, 2017; Macpherson and Roberts, 2017).
In addition to consciously perceiving time, there are other unconscious mechanisms that dogs may use to measure time including:
- Physiological indicators due to their circadian rhythm
- Conditioned responses to environmental cues
- Their sense of smell
These methods of measuring time will be explored in further sections of this article.
How Long Should Dogs Be Left Alone?
The amount of time that dogs can be left home alone depends on the individual. If the dog is young or old, they may require more frequent trips outside to go potty. If they are a high energy dog, they may need breaks throughout the day to relieve their boredom. Many of us feel guilty when we leave our dogs home alone during the workday, and one study examined how these periods of separation affect our dogs. Their results found that longer periods of absence lead to more excited welcomes to their parents when they returned home, suggesting that dogs are in fact affected by the duration they are left alone (Rehn and Keeling, 2011). However, this study did note that the time of absence did not appear to cause distress when the dogs were alone (it only affected the intensity of their reunion). This might mean that dogs that do not suffer from separation anxiety should be fine with being left alone for the workday, but it is not a bad idea to consider hiring a dog walker to give them a mid-day break.
Do Dogs Know When You Are Coming Home?
If you consistently arrive home at the same time each day, it is highly likely that your dog is aware of when you will be back. There are two main cues that researchers hypothesize dogs use to determine when you will be home – the amount of daylight, and how things smell. Dogs likely associate how bright the daylight is or certain shadows cast by light in the home with important events that happen in their day – such as when their family comes home or when it is time for a walk. Another interesting theory is that dogs may use their sense of smell to estimate the time of day. Afterall, dogs have an extremely good sense of smell and this likely affects how they perceive the world around them. Throughout the day, air in the home rises and falls as the temperature changes, carrying scents with them. This could mean that the morning may smell different than the evening to a dog. Dogs may also be able to measure how long you have been gone by judging how much the scent has dissipated. That is, a strong odor is probably a new scent, whereas a weak odor is an old one (Horowitz, 2016).
How Do Dogs Know It Is Mealtime?
Dogs may be able to judge mealtime through associations with other daily routines within your home. For example, you beginning to prep your own meal might signal to your dog that their meal is on the way. Another way that dogs may predict their mealtime is through simply feeling hungry. Their bodies are driven by circadian rhythms that regulate their biological activities such as sleeping, waking, and eating. This means their body may naturally signal that they need to eat around the time that they are normally fed.
How Long Can Dogs Remember Things For?
The duration that dogs can remember things for partly depends on how important the event or object is to the dog. In a conducted survey of dog owners, people believed that their dogs never forgot their owner, family members, what their leash meant, their food, or their neighbors. However, it seemed that dogs had a difficult time remembering pain, separation, unfamiliar dogs or people for long periods of time (Pongrácz et al., 2012). Dogs are highly social animals, and thus have a great ability to remember socially relevant individuals. One study found that dogs and their offspring could remember each other after years of separation (Hepper, 1994). Since dogs rely on location-based cues to find hidden food, dogs have an excellent ability to remember landmark information (Fiset et al., 2007). To test how long dogs can remember a task they were trained to do, researchers asked dogs to perform the trained task after various periods of time where they did not practice the task. This study found that dogs could remember their training for at least 4 weeks (Demant et al., 2011). A dog’s memory can also be impacted by age. Similar to what is observed in humans, older dogs seem to perform worse in memory tests than younger dogs (Head et al., 1995).
In summary, while it is not conclusive, there does appear to be evidence that dogs can perceive time passing and can judge the time of day that significant events occur. They can either do this consciously, using a region in their brain that can measure passing time, or unconsciously through associations made with the amount of daylight, the smell of their environment, bodily cues such as hunger, or through other associations with their environment. Dogs seem to have the ability to remember important individuals over periods of years and can remember tasks for weeks at a minimum.
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