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Do Dogs Have a Sense of Time?

01/22/2019 by JoAnna Pendergrass, DVM
January 22nd, 2019 by JoAnna Pendergrass, DVM
        

dogs know what time it is

With uncanny accuracy, your dog knows when it’s time to eat or go for a walk. He waits expectantly at the door for your return home from work, as if he’s watching the clock each evening. Of course, we know that dogs don’t wear watches or really watch the hands of a clock. As a pet parent, though, you may wonder if your dog still somehow “knows” what time it is.

Research has shown that, without the benefit of being able to tell time like people do, dogs have their own ways of sensing time. Keep reading to learn how your dog uses the world around him to gauge what time it is.

Circadian Rhythms

Let’s first discuss how a dog’s body naturally senses time. Like people, dogs have a circadian rhythm, commonly known as a “body clock.” This body clock is a biological process that uses the amount of light and darkness outside to tell a dog when it’s time to be awake, asleep, and even hungry.

A small gland in the brain called the pineal gland helps regulate the circadian rhythm. It produces the hormone melatonin in response to the amount of light outside. Melatonin determines when and how much a dog sleeps.

As you can see, the brain has a lot to do with how a dog senses time during the day. However, there’s more to the story. From a practical standpoint, dogs can also use their senses to “know” what time it is.

Using the Senses

The relationship between humans and dogs began tens of thousands of years ago. Over this time, dogs have become extremely adept at interpreting and reacting to human behavior, including patterns of daily activity. In other words, your dog is probably watching you more than you realize!

Dogs will use their senses, such as sight and hearing, to study their pet parents’ daily behavior and associate that behavior with certain activities. This is called ‘associative memory.’

For example, a dog will hear a pet parent’s footsteps down the hall in the morning and associate that with meal time. The sight of a pet parent grabbing the leash will be associated with going for a walk.

When these activities are repeated often enough at the same times each day, a dog’s associative memory will kick in. Although you may think your dog is somehow telling time, he is likely using that memory to know when certain events are going to happen during the day.

In addition to sight and hearing, dogs can also use their sense of smell to sense time. Research has shown that dogs can smell changes in the environment and associate that with how long a pet parent has been gone. If you leave and return home at roughly the same times each day, your dog will learn that, when the smell in your home is weakest, you’ll be home soon. In addition, your dog can smell you approaching the door. Either way, your dog’s sense of smell will help him predict your return home and know when to be ready and waiting at the door.

When Sensing Time Becomes a Problem

Sensing time doesn’t always work in a dog’s favor. For dogs with separation anxiety, sensing how long a pet parent has been gone induces anxiety that can lead to destructive behavior, such as scratching, inappropriate urination or defecation, and chewing. Dogs with separation anxiety can also bark, howl, or whine incessantly when left alone.

If your dog has separation anxiety, create a home environment that will reduce the anxiety. For example, you can put him in a small room or area of your house that is quiet. You can also leave an article of your clothing, the scent of which may calm your dog. Puzzle toys, especially food puzzle toys, can provide hours of mental stimulation and distraction until you come home.

Sensing time can also be problematic if your dog has misbehaved. Dogs can associate a behavior with a consequence within only 4 seconds of the wrong behavior. Any longer than 4 seconds and your dog will have no idea why he’s being punished.

Bringing it Together

Dogs and humans perceive time differently. Although you’ll never find your dog watching the clock or checking a watch, he will likely be using his body clock, senses, and understanding of your daily patterns to sense time. Being aware of how your dog senses time will help you manage his separation anxiety or correct misbehavior, if necessary.

Content provided by JoAnna Pendergrass, DVM. Dr. Pendergrass is owner and founder of JPen Communications, a medical communications company specializing in consumer education.

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