Can dogs understand time? This is the age-old question many guilt-ridden owners ask when leaving their four-legged companions for extended periods of time. To put it simply: yes, dogs do have a concept of time, but not in the way you might think.
While humans have constructed a measure of time in hours, minutes, and seconds, dogs navigate time through their circadian rhythms -otherwise known as their body clock. All animals, including humans, have a circadian rhythm that responds to the changes in the animal’s surrounding environment. Environmental cues such as light and dark, temperature, and even social cues affect an animal’s physical, mental, and behavioural changes through a 24-hour cycle.
For dogs, this biological clock is reinforced with certain associations they have learnt through observation and interaction with their owner and environment. For example, a dog would experience hunger when the sun rises; around the same time, its owner goes to the kitchen every morning before returning with a bowl of food. The dog starts to associate its physiological cue of hunger with the external stimulus of the owner going into the kitchen. It makes the connection between its hunger, the kitchen, and food, and learns that waiting at the kitchen when he is hungry might get him food. To the owner, their dog has figured out that 8am is breakfast time, but it is more likely that the dog is responding to its hunger.
Studies have shown that dogs do react differently to their owners coming home depending on the length of time they were gone for. It is common for an owner to get a more enthusiastic reaction after a long trip than a day out, so it’s clear that dogs do have a concept of time passing.
Some theories attribute a dog’s sense of time to its powerful sense of smell. As the ebb and flow of scents alters according to how much time a stimulant is present or absent, it is possible that dogs associate the strength of lingering scents to how much time has passed. In other words, the strength of your scent by the front door may be giving away how long you’ve been gone for.
Research surrounding dogs and their sense of time is still in its primitive stages, but there is no doubt that dogs have a way of figuring out time. If your dog is one to show signs of separation anxiety, try giving it a t-shirt or towel that has your scent on it. Toys and chews are good to distract it from boredom, though I know many owners will agree that their dog snoozes the day away.