Can Dogs Tell How Long You are Gone?

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Introduction

It seems whether you leave your dog for five minutes or you leave them for a full day of work, your dog gets just as excited to see you when you return. They meet you with that smiling face, wagging tail, wiggling butt, and some barks and howls! They could not be any more excited to see you. But this raises the question whether or not dogs can tell how long we have been gone. Do they know whether you have been gone for only a few minutes, or all the way up to a few hours?

Although this is not a black and white answer, many do believe that dogs can sense time in their own way and do have an idea of how long you have been gone. We will take a further look at how dogs sense time and research that suggests dogs can tell if you have been gone for only thirty minutes versus a few hours. 

Signs of a Dog Telling How Long You Were Gone

Your dog is able to tell time in their own way, although it is a bit different than how humans experience time. If dogs can sense time in their own way, it would make sense your dog may react differently to if you left them for a minute versus if you left them for 5 hours. You are likely familiar with how your dog reacts to you coming back home after being gone for a good portion of the day. They show different signs and have different reactions. 

If you leave your dog for only a few minutes compared to leaving them for a full day at work, their body language and reactions will be different when they greet you. When you are away for a long time, your dog will act much more excited and be much more hyper. Your dog will jump up at you, bark, howl, wag their tail, be alert, have their ears forward, lick your face, wiggle their fluffy butt, and much more. These signs suggest your dog is so happy to see you after being left alone for a long period of time. They greet you as if they have not seen you in years! 

If we compare this intense reaction to when you just step out the door to grab the mail for a minute, they may be excited to see you, wag their tail, and run up to you when you come back into the house. However, they will appear much more subdued and won't have as much of an intense reaction. 

Body Language

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

Other Signs

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

History of Dogs Sensing Time

As long as dogs have been alive, they have had the ability to sense time in their own way. The ability to sense time is inherently bred into all living animals, including dogs. Whether dogs needed to know when it was time to start hunting for dinner before it got too dark or when it was time to return home to their pack by the end of the day, wolves and dogs could sense time to some capacity. 

One of the biggest ways sensing time has changed with domesticated dogs is the fact they don't have to know when it is time to begin hunting or when they have to return to their pack. Dogs now just simply need to understand when they eat in the morning, when it is time for their walk, or what times they usually go potty outside. It is not that their ability to sense time has changed, but how they perceive time and its significance is slightly altered. 

We hear all the time from other dog owners how their dogs go crazy when they get home after a full day of work or when they return from a week-long vacation. Many also claim their dogs know exactly when it is time for breakfast and dinner, when they go on walks, and they bark to go outside in the morning to go potty like clockwork. This may be a combination between a precise inner clock and their ability to sense time in their own way. 

Science Behind Dogs Telling How Long You've Been Gone

In 2011, a study was conducted by Therese Rhen and Linda Keeling, two Swedish researchers. Their study looked at a group of dogs and observed how they reacted before their owner left, what they did while their owner was gone, and how they reacted when the owner returned. 

The study found that dogs did, indeed, react differently when their owner had been gone for a long time compared to a shorter period of time. 

An owner gone for two hours elicited much more tail wagging, face licking, and excitement compared to the owner being away for only thirty minutes. It is important to note that after the two-hour mark, it was much more difficult for the study to identify different or more intense behavior in dogs if the owner had been gone for three or four hours. 

This study suggests that dogs do have some form of time-sensing capabilities. However, it is much less clear if your dog can actually tell how long you have been gone in a human-like sense. 

Training Dogs to Tell How Long You are Gone

Fortunately, your dog already knows how to sense time and can more or less tell how long you have been gone. Your dog will not need any additional training from you to help them understand how long you have been gone during the day. 

You do not have the ability to stop your dog from getting excited when you come back from vacation or get home from work after a long day away from them, and there is no reason to completely stop this behavior unless it is excessive or dangerous. It's often one of the best parts of a human's day and is even more exciting for your dog! 

It could be fun to observe your dog's behavior and compare their reaction to seeing you after being gone for thirty minutes compared to two hours, just like the study we discussed above. This is an easy experiment to conduct at home any day of the week that you have time! 

Leave your home like normal and see how your dog reacts when they know you are leaving. Write down the time you leave and set a timer for thirty minutes. After the time is up, come home and record your dog's reaction to when they first see you. Do the same exact thing the following day, or even later in the day if you have enough time, and observe the differences in reaction when you come home from being away for two hours. Is your dog more excited and spastic? Do they jump up at you and lick your face more? Do they run around like crazy, bark, howl, cry, or whine intensely? 

You will likely find your dog is much more excited when you get home after being away for two hours compared to thirty minutes. 

How to React if Your Dog Gets Excited When You Get Home:

  • Give them lots of love and attention back!
  • Don't get angry at them for getting excited.
  • Teach them polite ways to give and receive affection so no one gets knocked over.

Safety Tips for When Your Dog Gets Too Excited When You Get Home:

  • Don't let them become too aggressive.
  • Don't let excitement turn into biting, snapping, nibbling, or other unwanted behavior.