- Not a substitute for professional veterinary help.
People have a strong concept of time. That’s how you recall what happened yesterday afternoon, how many days left until the weekend, and how long since you hung out with your best friend. Dogs have a sense of time, but they don’t have the same concept of time as you.
For instance, your dog has no idea it’s 7:45 a.m.—but they do know it’s time for their morning walk! “Dogs know time is passing through their daily routine,” says Frederica Caneiro, a certified dog trainer with Woofz and a founder of the Academy of Modern Training for Dogs and Families.
Researchers have discovered a lot about how dogs perceive time. Read on to get the details!
4 Signs A Dog Is Aware Of Time
“While dogs have a sense of time, they don’t experience time the same way humans do,” says Beth Brown, CDBC, CSAT, and owner of Ear To Tail. Their concepts of the past and future aren’t well-developed, like yours are, Brown adds, which affects their perception of time.
And of course, dogs can’t tell time by reading a clock, but they do know their daily routines and can recognize patterns, says Darris Cooper, CPDT-KA, FFCP, and National Dog Training Manager at Petco.
You can tell your dog knows time has passed by a few key behaviors:
- They perk up, move around, or get a little vocal at their scheduled feeding time.
- They walk to the door or wait by it, right around the time someone usually comes home.
- Around the time you’d typically walk them, they get excited and run to the door every time you move.
- They can tell the difference between day and night and when to wake up and go to sleep. For instance, you may have noticed they might head off to bed at your usual bedtime, even if you stay up later than usual.
Why are dogs so happy when you come home?
Experts have found evidence to suggest that time does, in fact, affect dogs.
Dogs can tell the difference between a short and long period of time. Case in point: The mild interest your dog shows when you walk back into the house after leaving for 2 minutes to check the mail may differ quite a bit from the intense excitement they show when you come home after a full day at work, according to Cooper.
Brown echoes this sentiment by explaining that while dogs more or less live in the moment, they do have a good sense of time when it comes to patterns and routines. If you leave for an hour, the routine doesn’t change much—but if you leave for a week, the routine gets completely disrupted.
That said, while dogs do know something’s different in their routine, they don’t have a concrete concept of how long you’ve been gone.
Caneiro says that while dogs don’t have the ability to count the days while you’re away, their sense of smell lets them you’ve been gone a long time because your home smells a lot less like you.
What Research Says About A Dog’s Sense Of Time
Experts confirm that dogs and people experience time differently.
For instance, one study found that dogs can process more visual information than we can—at a 25% faster rate! So, a period of a single day (24 hours) may feel longer to you than it does to your beloved pup.
A dog’s circadian rhythm—the 24-hour cycle that regulates sleep time, wake time, and other biological processes—does work similarly to a person’s circadian rhythms. In fact, experts believe canine cycles adapted to human cycles during domestication.
Dogs are also diurnal, or active during the day and asleep at night. But dogs have polyphasic (multi-phase) sleep cycles. They mostly sleep at night, but they get in plenty of short naps throughout the day, too.
In a 24-hour period:
- A dog’s sleep-wake cycle length lasts, on average, 83 minutes.
- They average about 10.1 hours of sleep.
- They get about 2.9 hours of REM sleep (people typically get 1.9 hours of REM sleep)
Experts still have plenty to discover about dog sleep cycles, particularly in relation to their sense of time. One study even notes the importance of re-evaluating dog sleep patterns, since many more pet parents now let their dogs sleep in the same room or bed.
How Routines Help Dogs Understand Time
Dogs thrive on routine and generally do best when they know what to expect out of the day. They have an associative, episodic-like memory. To put it simply, they link a behavior or object with a specific activity. Your behavior and routines will clue them into the time of day, Cooper says.
For example, when you get up in the morning, put on your shoes, and grab your dog’s leash, they know you’re about to take them for a walk. When you get back from your walk, they head to their bowl because they know it’s time to eat.
Dogs also use sensory cues, like the sound of their food being opened or the jingle of a leash, to pick up on the activity that follows, Cooper adds. That’s why you’ll often find them usually for you at your front door when you come home.
Using a dog’s love of routine to handle separation anxiety
In some cases, a dog’s sense of routine can help them adjust to time apart from you. They watch you prepare to leave for work and head out the door, but they know you’ll come back eventually because you always do, Brown says.
But dogs who get distressed by separation might begin to get upset before you leave, as soon as your routine begins.
Cooper says knowing you’ll return as part of their routine will help your dog adapt to alone time more easily.
“Start by leaving them alone for shorter periods of time and gradually increase the length of time,” he says. “With time, they’ll learn that you will come back, and they’ll get more comfortable with alone time for longer periods.”
A professional trainer can help you strengthen your bond with reward-based positive reinforcement, but all dogs are different. Some dog who feel like time alone is torture may do better with a familiar face in the room, like a pet sitter or family friend. If your dog still has a hard time when you leave, your vet can offer more guidance.