We dog lovers have noticed that our dogs know when it’s time for their walk, or their treat, or time for mom or dad to come home. I remember my Yorkie, Fiskus, going to the window that overlooked the driveway, shortly before my husband was due to come home from work. He did this faithfully, every weekday.
We know that our dogs won’t give us quite the same enthusiastic greeting we get after being away for hours or days, when we have only been away for 15 minutes.
The question is, for animals that seem to live only in the moment, how are they able to anticipate these events?
There has apparently been very little in the way of actual scientific experiments done with dogs to try to understand their sense of time. Research has focused mainly on rodents and primates, but there have been experiments on dogs’ reactions to being left alone for varying amounts of time, which seem to confirm our observations that our dogs do, in fact, do give us more exuberant greetings when we have been away longer than 30 minutes.
Clearly dogs and other animals can’t tell time the way that we do with clocks. We have artificially constructed a way of measuring time with seconds, minutes and hours. We can also consciously look to the past and to the future, which it seems dogs can’t do. However, dogs can obviously be trained based on past events and be taught to look forward to coming events based on past experiences. Remember Pavlov’s dogs? They learned to associate the ringing of a bell with getting food. Every time they were fed, a bell was rung. Eventually, only the bell was rung. No food was given, but the dogs salivated in anticipation of it.
There is as yet no clear answer as to how dogs know when it’s time for their walk, or their treat, or for mom or dad to come home. Some hypothesize that it is actually circadian rhythms, that is, the fluctuation of hormones, body temperature, and neural activity, that explains it. Perhaps there are other external cues as well that our dogs are more attune to than we are, and perhaps our own behavior gives them clues at times.
Maybe someday there will be a better answer, in the meantime, we should be aware that our dogs do have a sense of how long they are being left alone, and no one should say that dogs have “no sense of time” in order to make themselves feel better about leaving their dog crated or alone all day.