Can Dogs Sense Time?

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Time is such an important concept in our lives. It provides us with the ability to function properly on a daily basis, let us know what time of the day it is, and approximate how long we have been doing any given task.

But can your pup sense time? Can Fido tell how long you have been gone when you get back from work? Does he/she know how long you have been away on vacation? 

Maybe your dog even knows when its 4 pm and it is time for their walk. Although dogs cannot tell hours from minutes or seconds they way a human can, they do have their own special way of sensing how times passes. Let's explore how dogs are able to sense time and how it is very different from the way humans do. 

Sings of a Dog Sensing Time

Since your dog can tell time in their own way, it makes sense they would be able to show signs in their behavior and body language when time has affected them. The best way we can see signs in a dog's behavior when their sense of time has affected them is when we come home from being away for a long period of time. 

If you have left your dog for only a few minutes compared to leaving them for 8 hours while you are at work, their behavior is going to be significantly different when they greet you. For example, when you are gone for a long time your dog will likely greet you with an abundance of excitement. They are likely to jump up at you, bark, howl, wag their tail feverously, be alert, have their ears forward, lick your face, and more. These signs show they are aware you have been away from them for a longer period of time and they are happy and excited to see you. 

If you can compare this experience to when you have only left them for a few minutes to run something to a neighbor, they will be excited when you get back, but most likely will not show the same level of excitement and greeting. This is because they can sense a much shorter period of time has passed since you left and such an extravagant welcome home is not necessary. 

Body Language

Here are some signs you might notice when your dog senses you have been away for a long time:
  • Alert
  • Barking
  • Jumping up
  • Howling
  • Wag tail
  • Raise ears

Other Signs

These are other signs you may notice if your dog has sensed you've been gone for a long time:
  • Running in Circles
  • Exuberant Behavior
  • Licking Your Face
  • Excessive Tail Wagging

History of Dogs Sensing Time

Dogs have always been able to sense time in their own ways and it is likely not too much has changed since their pre-domesticated days. Dogs have always needed to know when it was time for them to hunt for their daily meals, how long they may have been separated from their pack, and when it was time to wander home from a long and eventful day out exploring. 

The only thing that is likely to have changed is why dogs need to perceive time as they have been domesticated and began living in close quarters with humans. Today, most dogs don't need to know when it is time to start hunting for their dinner or if they need to start looking for their pack. Rather, dogs now have to worry about pulling from their memory bank the command to sit and stay, when it is time for them to have their kibble for dinner, and how much energy they need to use to greet you after you get home from work. 

Many owners have stories of their dogs going crazy when they get home from a week-long vacation. The dog will act as if they have not seen their owner for months and will run around the house, spin, chase their tails, jump all over them, howl, bark, and lick their faces relentlessly. Some dogs will even have this high energy greeting when their owner gets home from work at the end of the day.

Science Behind Dogs and Sensing Time

Humans tell time through something called episodic memory where we construct artificial measures of time like hours, minutes, and seconds. This allows us time "time travel" through the ability to remember and recall past events and look to future events with a concept of time. We are the only species able to have this type of memory and time recall.

Even though dogs are not able to tell time in this manner, it doesn't mean they don't use their own variation of episodic memory. Although a dog cannot pinpoint a memory to a specific time, what they can do is tell how much time has passed between certain events or experiences. 

For example, a dog can tell that their food bowl has been empty for 8 hours and they are ready to eat because it must be time for dinner now. 

Studies also suggest dogs can sense a concept of time by how they react when their owner comes back home after different periods of time. Studies on dogs confirm that a dog is much more likely to show greater and more intense displays of affection when their owner has been gone for hours compared to minutes. 

A dog's biology also plays a role in their ability to sense time. Their circadian rhythms are the physical, mental, and behavioral changes that occur and change during a 24-hour time period. They can sense the changes of light and dark during the day and this helps them tell time. The brain helps coordinate this response and is often referred to as a biological clock. The neural and hormonal activity in the brain helps control regular day-to-day activities and our sense of time through these events. For example, a dog will know that when it gets light outside in the morning this means it is time to wake up, get out of bed, and get feed their breakfast. 

Training Dogs to Sense Time

Fortunately, your dog already knows how to sense time and will not need any additional training from you to help them. However, that doesn't mean their sense of time and their biological clock cannot be trained or manipulated just a bit. 

You won't be able to stop your dog from getting excited when you come back from vacation or home from work, and why would you? It's often one of the best parts of a human's day. But, it can be frustrating if your dog thinks it is time to wake up and get fed and walked just as soon as the sun comes up. This is where you can manipulate their biological clock to fit into your daily rhythm and schedule a bit better. 

Dogs are creatures of habit and love consistency and routine. If you work with them consistently and establish a set routine they will grow accustomed to their daily schedule and begin to follow that timeline. Therefore, if you always wake up at 7 am, get out of bed, do what you need to do, and then feed them, this will become their new routine and that is what they will expect to happen. They will be a lot less likely to wake you up at 5 am to eat if their routine is strict and consistent. 

You can apply this to any aspect of their routine like when they have potty breaks, go outside to play, eat dinner, go to bed, and expect when they will go for their walk. The schedule will help reset their biological clock and allow their sense of time to function in the best way possible. 

How to React to Your Dog Sensing Time

  • Try not to leave them alone for too long.
  • Establish a daily routine.
  • Feed them at the same time each day.

We Want to Hear Your Story About Your Dog's Sense of Time!