If you’re a dog owner, you may be all too familiar with the panic that ensues when it’s time for you to head out and leave your pooch at home. Sometimes it can seem as if your dog thinks you may never come back. After all, the long hours spent home alone may feel like an eternity to him since he doesn’t have a way to tell the time. Or does he?
Many dog owners say that it seems like their dogs “just know” when family members usually come home, or even when other routine events are about to take place (such as going out for a walk). Yet, if dogs can’t read clocks or count hours, how is this possible? With some creative thinking, scientists are beginnning to answer the question “Can dogs tell time?“.
One theory is that dogs “tell time” by using their sense of smell. They keep track of how much particular scents fade, and remember that specific things happen when a scent reaches a certain level of faintness.
So, for example, your dog may know that you’re about to come home because your personal scent always fades to the same point by that time every day. A couple tested this theory in the video below, successfully tricking their dog into losing track of time.
In an interview1, dog cognition researcher Alexandra Horowitz2 talks about the scent theory:
Smells tell time, in other words, strong odor is probably newer odor, laid down more recently. A weaker odor is something that was left in the past. So being able to detect the concentration of a smell, they’re really seeing not only what it is, but how long ago it was left.
Another theory is that dogs use something called “circadian oscillators” to tell time. This means that they rely on the way their bodies feel at certain times, influenced by hormone levels and other physiological changes. This way of telling time has been observed in pigeons.2
While it may come as no surprise to dog owners, research has confirmed that dogs get more excited about reuniting with their owners when they’ve been apart for longer.3 Dogs who had been separated from their owners for 2 hours were much more excited about reuniting than dogs who had only been separated for 30 minutes.
What’s interesting is that dogs seem to be able to tell the difference between 30 minutes and 2 hours, but there’s no indication they notice a difference between 2 and 4 hours.
Much research still needs to be done on the subject of canine time-telling. Given how surprising the current findings are, it’s clear that there’s fertile ground for even more fascinating discoveries regarding this complex ability.
This article was written by Amanda Pachniewska, founder and editor of Animal Cognition.
Video by BBC Two
1 – Alexandra Horowitz
Fresh Air – NPR
2 – Alexandra Horowitz
Being a Dog
3 – Therese Rehn, Linda J. Keeling
The effect of time left alone at home on dog welfare
Applied Animal Behaviour Science
4 – Lisa M. Saksida, Donald Wilkie
Time-of-day discrimination by pigeons, Columba livia
Animal Learning & Behavior