Do dogs have a concept of time?7 December 2022
Reviewed by Dr Jill McMaster BVM&S MBA MRCVS, Veterinary Surgeon and in-house expert at BorrowMyDoggy on 6 June 2023
Are dogs able to tell time? We’ve done a bit of sniffing around to pull together the answers to this question. Read on to see if your pup can really tell how long it’s been since they last ate…
We hear different studies with how many dog years are equivalent to 1 human year, but is this really the case in terms of how they perceive time? Well, apparently not. This idea of “dog years” is actually to help us better understand their life expectancy rather than how they experience time.
Dogs don’t check the clock like we do, but most do know when dinner time is, when it’s time for a walk or even when a member of the family is expected home. So how do they do it? According to animal behaviourist Dr Jo Righetti it’s all biological and it’s to do with something called a circadian rhythm. So what is a circadian rhythm?
It is “the physical, mental and behavioural changes that follow a 24 hour cycle, responding to light and dark in the animal’s environment” and according to Jo, all animals have them. This along with our biological clocks, which refers to our internal process and mechanisms that controls our regular activities, we can recognise that when it becomes light we start to feel hungry and when it becomes dark we start to feel sleepy - and this is the same for dogs.
While both us humans and dogs have a circadian rhythm and a biological clock, our habits are very different. Dogs are very flexible, and unlike us, some of them don’t need to stick to a fixed routine. That being said, they’re very good at knowing ours. For example, if we get up later at the weekend, your dog may instantly know they’re going for a long walk, while in the week they understand that this is unlikely to happen. They also learn to associate what certain actions will lead to, like putting on your coat or picking up your keys means they might be left at home.
We can’t help but worry when leaving our dogs alone and while a borrower can help put your mind at ease, do our dogs have a sense of time passing or miss us when we’re gone? Well, the answer is yes. A recent study found that dogs that had been left at home for varying periods of time greet their owner with different levels of enthusiasm depending on the time they’d be away. So the longer an owner has been away the more enthusiastic welcome they received. But according to the researchers, dogs can roughly tell the difference between a 30 minute wait and a two hour wait, but not beyond that.
The study suggests that dogs are aware of the passage of time and it does matter how long it’s been since you’ve been gone. But chances are, however, many of our dogs just snooze while we are gone.
Humans have an episodic memory which means that we have the ability to remember information from past events while dogs have associative memory. This mean they remember things by associating smells, sounds and activities with specific things. So what’s clear from our digging is that if dogs have a perception of time it certainly isn’t the same as ours, and it can be difficult for us to get a real sense of their ability to gauge time. The most important thing as dog lovers is to make sure they’re spending their time doing something they enjoy, which help avoids them doing things we don’t enjoy (like chewing up things that aren't their toys!)
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