Can dogs tell time?

Can Reggie tell time? I’m pretty sure that he knows when I’m coming home before I even get to the door. And I’m pretty sure he knows when it’s a weekend versus a weekday. Or maybe, when I’m gone it feels like an eternity to him. What does time feel like for for dogs?

Well, in short, Reggie can’t tell time. Dogs live in the moment. They have no sense of “I’ve been left alone for 5 hours!” or “you’ve only been gone for 5 minutes!”. They have no sense of self-awareness to do self reflection. They can only, minimally, draw cause and effect connections in the moment. This is part of the training where professionals will tell you that reinforcement has to come within four seconds of the behavior (desired or not). This is why timing is so important in training. But every dog owner (myself included) will tell you their dog knows when feeding time is, walk time, bed time, potty time, or a host of other routine things in their lives are about to happen. How can that be?

Dogs, like humans, use circadian oscillators. These are the natural rhythms of hormones, body temperature, and neural activity of your body that tell you to sleep when it’s dark and get up when it’s light. Your dog has adjusted to life with you and her rhythms have adjusted to your schedule, to a degree. She’s still a dog- she needs a walk, she needs “dog things” not human things.

Because of the circadian oscillators, dogs can’t tell time like “oh it’s 6:00 time for dinner” but they can feel in their body that your car should be pulling up and you should be ready to feed them. This is why he’s waiting at the door when you come home- he does know.

It’s important to note the distinction between time and memory. Dogs live in the moment and have no sense of time but this is different from memory. Dogs can have excellent memories (Reggie does) and this harkens back to the ancestral need of knowing where food was buried to retrieve it. From John Bradshaw in Dog Sense, dog’s memories have been studied and show that they can remember where a toy has been hidden for days and even weeks. Reggie will look under the couch for a tennis ball that used to be there days ago, he looks on a neighbor’s porch for a ball every time he’s there- this is days and weeks (he has ball issues).

Dogs build memories based on landscape and landmarks. This is not a complex learning process and how most insects find their way around. The complexity that is added for canines is that dogs use smell too, and this is how after a couple walks your dog knows that walk route and can probably find her way home without you.

This memory building process also explains the unfortunate situation of abuse. Just like in training, repeated landscape markers of abuse can make a dog afraid of anything- your hand, a gender, children/adults, specific situations, etc.

So can dogs tell time? I guess I have to amend my statement. They can tell your time. They are adjusted to your rhythms, and you are adjusted to theirs. Harmony.

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