Do dogs understand the concept of time?

posted: 05/15/12
do-dogs-understand-the-concept-of-time0
Read more Read less
Do dogs understand the concept of time?
Wilfried Krecichwost/Corbis

Does your dog seem to know when it's time to go to the dog park, even before you've taken out the leash? Is his face pressed against the window waiting for you to come home from work each day? To many dog owners, canines may seem to have an uncannily accurate concept of time. But do our four-legged friends really know what time it is, or is there something else at work in their minds?

In trying to understand dogs' concept of time, humans cannot help but reference their own concept of time. But that's tricky since humans have the unique ability to construct artificial measures of time such as the second, minute, and hour. This is mainly because humans use episodic memory in order to travel through time, recalling past events and looking forward to future ones. It's what many scientists believe makes humans unique.

But just because dogs don't perceive time in this way doesn't mean they are completely stuck in the moment, as a lot of the research on this subject would suggest. Dogs are capable of being trained based on past events and taught to anticipate future events based on past experiences. This argues in favor of a kind of canine version of episodic memory, according to research conducted by Dr. Thomas Zentall of the University of Kentucky.

The essential difference appears to be that humans can pinpoint when something happened in the past by relating it to other events. For example, we remember our wedding day as well as who attended, what songs were played, and the happiness we felt. Dogs, on the other hand, can only distinguish how much time has passed since an event has occurred (e.g., "My food bowl has been empty for six hours."). Of course, they don't need only memory to tell them this; a growling stomach says it all.

There is also research evidence for dogs' understanding of the concept of time based on changes in their behavior when left alone by their human companions for different lengths of time. Studies show that dogs display greater affection toward their owners if they've been separated for longer periods of time. As the amount of time away increases, so does the dogs' excitement. This will come as no surprise to dog owners; most canines get excited about the return of the master to the castle, especially after long absences. But this research is also important because it shows that dogs are capable of recognizing and responding to different spans of time.

For dogs that suffer from separation anxiety, the difference between one and five hours can mean the difference between mild agitation and a full-blown panic attack. Separation anxiety in dogs is often expressed as barking, howling, whining, chewing digging, pacing, scratching, and/or urinating and defecating in inappropriate places while an owner is away or upon his or her return.

There are several ways to help your pet cope with the problem of separation anxiety. It may help to put him in a small room or area of the house that's quiet and calm since having the run of the house can be overwhelming for a dog. You should also leave behind an article of recently worn clothing. Your scent is likely to have a calming effect on your pet. Try leaving a few toys as well. They can provide a much-needed distraction for your dog while you're away.

Dogs often get anxious when separated from their loved ones, but usually have little trouble coping with that anxiety. Most will simply sleep through it. That's because canines are equipped with a natural instinct to live in the moment, despite having an understanding of the concept of time. It's that devil-may-care attitude that allows them to forget about what happened yesterday -- good or bad -- and not worry a bit about what will happen tomorrow.

More on