You would all have experienced that knowing look from your dog at dinnertime. Some dogs go as far as to give reminders, collecting their own food bowl or sitting by it patiently. Oscar & Hooch also displayed this behaviour first thing in the morning (dog walk time) and again in the evening (second dog walk time).

When it came to food, Oscar was very happy for Hooch to do the badgering until the food bowls came out and then he would spring into action. But does this behaviour suggest that dogs can tell the time? Anecdotally, all dog owners will be convinced that dogs must have a good grasp of time, otherwise how else would they know when its dinner time??

The similarity between dogs and humans

Biologically all animals and also plants will act in response to the circadian rhythm. This rhythm is built in and in simple terms is a 24-hour internal clock. Your body will naturally lose energy at different points in the day thus know when sleep or food is required. The circadian rhythm also responds to external stimuli such as light and dark. This would explain why tiredness may creep in more when it is dark for example.

As the circadian rhythm is present in all animals, this is the obvious similarity between us humans and dogs. The circadian rhythm in some part would also help explain a dog’s timekeeping regarding food and dog walks. Aside from the circadian rhythm it may also be that subtle external stimuli help a dog realise what is coming.

From switching your oven on at dinnertime, to grabbing your keys if you’re going out. Even a suitcase in the hall can trigger the dog’s perspective on time, knowing the break between you might be longer than normal.

So then how do we know if dogs can really tell the time?

The science of dog’s behaviour

Let’s start with sleep, G.J.Adams and K.G.Johnson found that a dogs sleeping pattern was very different from a human one. Dogs in the study (Sleep-wake cycles and other night-time behaviours of the domestic dog Canis familiaris) slept in a cycle of 16 minutes and then had 5 minutes awake. Straight away we can see this is very different to our own sleeping patterns.

This can be coupled with other studies that have reviewed a dog’s reaction to being left on their own for differing lengths of time. Generally speaking dogs in these kinds of studies showed more enthusiasm towards their owners return the longer they were left. This would suggest they do have an understanding of the difference between one hour vs. four hours.

Separately we should also consider how an owner’s behaviour can shape the behaviour of your dog (in very much the way a parent shapes a child’s behaviour, to an extent!). Another study conducted by Veronika Konok in 2015 looked at the influence between an owner’s attachment style/personality and their dogs separation related disorder (SRD).

This latter study does show a link between human influence and SRD.

Conclusions

What conclusion can be drawn from all of this information? Well firstly there are some indisputable facts:

  • Dogs have an inbuilt circadian rhythm, albeit sleep patterns are very different to humans
  • Dogs show higher levels of enthusiasm when left alone for great periods of time
  • Dogs behaviour can be in response to owner behaviour/personality
  • External stimulus (light, dark, food, keys etc) will provoke a response in your dog that could be time dependant or completely unrelated

Based on all of this we believe dogs do have ‘time perspective’. They understand the difference between thirty minutes and 2 hours. This is balanced with an acute sense of stimulus that will generate a response that could be an awareness of time or just a response to food going down (a Labrador will always act like its hungry!).

So, dogs can tell the time, a bit, just not in the sense of reading a clock. Or at least that has yet to be proven!

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