However, that doesn't mean that dogs can't tell that time has passed. As humans, we tell time by seconds, minutes, and hours. Dogs may not do that, but there is evidence out there showing that dogs understand time "based on changes in their behavior when left alone by their human companions for different lengths of time."
The importance of this research is that it shows that "dogs are capable of recognizing and responding to different spans of time." So while they may not be able to read the hands on a clock, or tell you down to the second how long you've been gone, they can at least perceive when their favorite human has been gone for longer amounts of time. So, in a way, dogs are capable of understanding, at least in their own way, how much time has passed, especially in relation to you leaving!
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Signs Your Dog Understands The Passage of Time
"The dogs [in one study] became much more excited when their owners returned after 2 hours compared to 30 minutes," with researchers reporting behavior of increased tail wagging, alertness, and basically just a happier, more excited pup. "This indicated that dogs knew that time had passed, and that they seemed to care." So, the longer you're gone, the more ecstatic your dog will be when you get home!
Another way that dogs can "tell time" depends on routine. You may notice that your dog seems to know when it's time for a walk, time for dinner, or time for bed. That's because dogs also notice routines and patterns.
If your normal routine is taking your dog out first thing in the morning when you wake up, your dog will know that it's time for their walk when you open your eyes in the morning. If you usually get home and feed your pup shortly thereafter, your pup will know that they're going to get fed quickly after you get home.
Studies have shown that some dogs learn to associate certain things with certain events - "your dog may know, for example, that when the sunlight coming through the window starts to dim, its almost dime for her dinner." In regards to routine, your dog will become more alert when they see something that they're used to that leads to another action, like walking towards their leash or cleaning out their food bowl.
Lastly, like all animals, dogs have a circadian rhythm. "Circadian rhythms are the physical, mental and behavioral changes that follow a 24-hour cycle, responding to light and dark in the animal's environment." Circadian rhythms are essentially biological clocks that tell animals when it's time to sleep, when it's time to be hungry, and more.
While all species have different circadian rhythms (humans are active during the daytime, cats and bats are more nocturnal, etc.), dogs have rhythms that are somewhat similar to ours. As a result, they'll be tired when we usually are, hungry when we usually want to eat, and everything else that our internal clock tells us. This "internal" or "biological" clock is another way your dog can distinguish time! Signs that your dog understands time in regards to their circadian rhythm are getting tired when the sun sets or begging for food around the time you start to get hungry!
- Jumping up
- Wag tail
- Being Extra Excited It it's Been a While
- Waiting by the Door
- Getting Tired in the Evenings
- Sitting by Their Dish at Dinner
The Science Behind Dogs Telling Time
Additionally, it's also important to remember that while dogs can sense a generalized passage of time, studies show that "a dog cannot make a connection between a behavior and a consequence if there is more than a 4 second lag in between." This means that if your dog gets into trouble while you're gone, there's a chance they won't understand what you're mad about by the time they get home.
So while your dog may get that you may not come home for a while, that food becomes available at a certain time, or that the sun setting means it's time to go to sleep, they may not understand the connection between your anger and the trash they went through 6 hours ago.
Training Your Dog to Tell Time
A great way to do this is to wake up at the same time every morning (okay, maybe not on the weekends!). After you get up, serve yourself breakfast and give Fido his as well - yep, at the same time each morning.
If you have consistent work days, you can keep Fido at ease by coming home for lunch at the same time, or arranging for a dog-walker to pop in at the same time each day. This breaks up his day so that he's not just moping around, waiting for you.
Finally, keep dinner time, evening play and bedtimes consistent, and soon your pup will be a master of routine!
Dealing with Your Dog and Time Passing:
Separation Anxiety: some dogs get super anxious when they realize that their owners have been gone for extended periods of time. If your dog gets into trouble or seems to bark or cry the entire time you're gone, try putting him or her in a small room of the house where your scent is the strongest, and where it's quiet, so they can relax.
Getting Into Trouble: if you notice that your dog gets into trouble while you're gone, it's probably because they notice that you've been missing for quite some time! We humans are dogs' main sources of entertainment, and as a result, some will get into trouble if we're not there to keep 'em happy. Give your dog a toy that will keep them occupied, or tucker them out before you leave so they're more likely to sleep while you're gone.
Stick to a Routine: if you want your dog to be able to "tell time better", try sticking to a pretty consistent routine. The more often you do something at a certain time of day, the more readily your dog will realize it's time to do that thing!
Be Patient: our dogs are all brilliant in their own way, but most won't learn to read the hands on a clock. If your dog gets into trouble while you're gone, try to remember it's probably because they miss you! Additionally, adding something to your routine will take some time for your dog to recognize. Make sure to give your pup lots of love and positive reinforcement!