Do Dogs Have a Perception of Time?

January 11, 2016

dogs tell time anna foxThe one thing my dog Keikei loves almost as much as her CANIDAE treats is when it’s time to go outside. She seems to get the exact time right every day. Sure, she could be picking up on my actions that indicate I’m getting ready to take the doggies outside. However, sometimes she is asleep in another room and appears just as I’m getting ready to move. Many dog owners who return home from work to find their pet waiting by the door or watching from a window believe that dogs can tell time. Skeptics would say this behavior is just an uncanny coincidence rather than proof that dogs have a perception of time. What do you think?

According to scientists, our ability to remember is one thing that sets us apart from other species. Our understanding of time is in the passing of seconds, minutes, hours and days. We have an episodic memory that gives us the ability to remember contextual information of past events. It records life experiences and specific events we can recall at different times in our lives. We can travel back in time as well as look forward to something in the future. Most people remember where they were on 9/11 or when JFK was assassinated. Star Wars fans remember the six movies from the past and the order they were released. We can remember good and bad things from childhood, and continue family holiday traditions based on our stored knowledge of past years. Our concept of time includes what, when and where something happened, and encompasses the past, present and future.

Our canine friends use associative memory when learning commands and when certain events are about to happen. They remember things by associating smells, sounds and activities with specific things. This is one way they can gauge time. Dogs are so observant to what’s going on in their environment, and they pay attention to everything we do right down to the smallest details. Theme music from your local news as it signs off could be enough of a trigger to tell your pet it’s time to eat or go outside. Then Dog-Animated-no-offeragain, a growling stomach is a good reminder that it’s time for a bowl of CANIDAE dog food. If you do certain activities before the kids get home from school or just before your spouse is due home from work, that tells your dog it’s time to go watch from his favorite waiting place.

Circadian rhythm is an internal biological clock that tells us when it’s time to wake up, eat and go to sleep. Animals also have circadian rhythms, and it’s possible dogs can get a general sense of the time as daylight fades to darkness. Of course, a dog’s perception of time isn’t the same way we perceive the passing of hours. Two Swedish researchers discovered in 2011 that dogs have an idea of how long you are gone when you leave the house. When you come home after being gone two hours, your dog likely greets you with more excitement than he does after just 30 minutes. But apparently dogs can’t tell the difference between a two or four hour time span. According to the researchers, this shows that dogs know the difference between a 30 minute and two hour time span, but can’t tell the difference beyond two hours. The study suggests that canines are aware of the passage of time and it does matter how long it’s been since you’ve been gone.

It’s possible that dogs use their nose 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. However, there hasn’t been any dedicated research to confirm this.

Gregory Berns is a neuroscientist and lead researcher at Emory University. He is the first scientist to train dogs to lie still in an MRI machine while scans were taken to look at brain activity in dogs who were alert. His research has given us a better understanding dogs tell time michael gilabout how our canine friends think. Based on research done on rats, Berns suspects that dogs may have episodic memory, but the question is still open as to whether dogs have a perception of time. He hopes to one day test his theory with his team of MRI dogs.

If dogs have a perception of time, it likely isn’t in the same way we humans perceive time. But as I write this, Keikei has joined me in my office because it’s getting close to the time when I usually take her outside. Often, dog owners are one step ahead of researchers. However, we will have to wait for scientists to confirm or disprove whether or not dogs understand the concept of time.

Top photo by Anna Fox/Flickr
Bottom photo by Michael Gil/Flickr

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