Can Dogs Tell Time?

November 8, 2021

Can Dogs Tell Time

Photo by Karsten Winegeart

 I believe many of us have recognized the awareness of dogs when it comes to meal time.  Equally impressive is their ability to recognize when family members are about to enter the door from school or work.  Despite this ability, do you believe dogs can tell time?

When we first adopted our dog, Elsa,  we taught her to go to her place while we prepared her meals.  At some point she started heading to her place without a cue from us around 7:59 am and 4:40 pm each day. She’d position herself in place anywhere between one minute and twenty minutes before her scheduled eating times.  Then patiently waited in that spot for the delivery of her meal. One would assume that her grumbling stomach elicited this behavior rather than her ability to tell time.   I can’t  disagree.

Elsa demonstrates a response to patterns and has learned our daily routine.  Here are a few examples to back up my assumption. Elsa has a lack of interest in getting out of bed in the morning until she hears the shower turn off.  Only then does she retreat to the hallway to wait outside the bathroom door. When we go downstairs, she hurries to her place and awaits breakfast. 

In the evening, she walks to her place after my husband stashes his work equipment in the closet.  Not when he walks in the door after work, nor when she hears him remove the mail from the mailbox.  She goes to place only after she hears the closet door open and shut.

Elsa is blind and has been from birth, so her brain may process things differently since she relies on her other senses.  What about dogs who know exactly when their owners are due home.  Can these dogs tell time?

Several scientists have looked into this behavior over the last few years.  We are going to share their work without getting too technical. We will briefly discuss each hypothesis and then include links to their work for those who wish to learn more.  

Sense of Smell

We begin with research by Alexandra Horowitz.  Horowitz indicates that dogs use the sense of smell to detect time passage.  According to Horowitz, “our scent dissipates the longer we are away from home.” Basically, judging on past experiences of you coming and going, your dog knows, based on the scent, or lack thereof, when you are likely to return home.  

An experiment based on this hypothesis was performed on a dog named Jazz.  Each day Jazz jumped on the couch and watched out the window looking for her male owner.  This consistently happened within 20 minutes of when the male owner arrived home.  One day the wife met her husband at the gym to retrieve the clothing he wore while working out that day.  The wife scattered that clothing around the house, in rooms Jazz occupied.  

That was the first day that she did not jump on the couch and look out the window around the time her husband returned home.  The clothing tossed around the house appeared to throw off the dog’s internal clock. To watch the the experiment with Jazz on Youtube, click here

Horowitz further indicates that “They [dogs] can also sense the change in the air as hot air rises over the course of the afternoon.”

Patterns and Past Experience
Can Dogs Tell Time

Photo by Karsten Winegeart

Most of us wake to an alarm clock every morning.  This signals dogs that it is time to start the day, which usually means breakfast time is approaching.  Dogs also know when you are about to leave the house due to your morning routine.  We may gather the belongings we take to work each day and place them on the couch just before we leave the house.  Maybe we prepare snacks for our dogs to enjoy in our absence.  My dog knows that I put my shoes on just before I leave.  Dogs often know our routine better than anyone else.   

It could also be things in the environment that alert the dog to the time of day.  The neighbor who walks her dog at lunch time each day, the sound school buses make when they stop at nearby bus stops. It could also be the sun changing position in the sky, causing the sunny, warm spot to suddenly cool down as it is replaced by late-afternoon shade.  

Circadian Rhythms

The National Institute of General Medical Sciences describe circadian rhythms as physical, mental and behavioral changes that follow a 24 hour period.    Circadian rhythms are controlled by light and darkness and it affects most living things. This inner clock helps us figure out when it is time for sleep, awaking, eating, etc. 

Animals have this same internal clock, although their clock may differ by species.  It dictates the timing of daily and seasonal behaviors, which includes when animals migrate and hibernate.

The schedule formed from their circadian rhythm helps them figure out when it is time to eat, sleep, play and prepare for winter. 

Which of these theories do you think plays a role in a dog’s ability to tell time — patterns and past experiences, circadian rhythms, different levels of smell in the home or something else?  We’d love to read your thoughts in the comment section.

Katie McKnight

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