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Do you ever feel like your pet knows what time it is? Maybe Pancakes always wakes you up promptly at 6:00 a.m. for her breakfast or Spot is waiting by the door when you get home—just as if he was expecting you. But how is that possible?
Since it’s doubtful your pet wears a watch, it seems like there’s something else going on. petMD describes the findings of animal cognition researcher and psychologist Dr. William Roberts, who identified many instances of animals appearing to tell time.
For example, oystercatchers (coastal birds known for their distinctive orange beaks) were observed by researchers arriving at shellfish beds at exactly the correct time of day to snack on shellfish that could only be accessed at low tide.
Similarly, pigeons on a college campus were spotted flocking to certain areas at lunchtime every day to scoop up dropped food. According to petMD, domestic animals have also been observed seeming to track time—a 2010 study published in Applied Animal Behaviour Science documented the behavior of dogs whose owners left for different periods of time and then returned.
The dogs greeted their owners more energetically, and displayed more excited or nervous behaviors like tail-wagging and lip-licking, when they had been left alone for two hours as opposed to 30 minutes—suggesting that the dogs did perceive the passage of time.
And there are plenty of anecdotes that echo this finding. Dogs wait for their owner to come home from work, know when they’re about to be fed, seem to anticipate their walks, and so on. Maybe you’ve experienced your dog’s time-keeping skills for yourself.
HowStuffWorks cites Roberts’s hypothesis that dogs are “stuck in time,” meaning that they can’t mentally move backward or forward to consider past events or plan for the future. Rather, Roberts suggests, their memory is much like that of a small child. Both dogs and young children can learn to do things, like crawl or sit up, but may not remember the specific moment when they learned that activity.
That is, they are thought to lack episodic memory—the ability to recall a specific past experience and its associated sensory input.
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Recent studies, however, have suggested that dogs may have some form of episodic memory. Scientific American has a great piece about our evolving understanding of how dogs form and access memories. Which is to say—there is plenty still on the horizon when it comes to understanding a dog’s mind.
So to the best of our knowledge, how does your dog know precisely when it’s time for their evening meal? HowStuffWorks posits that the answer may lie in their circadian rhythm. This is a physical cycle that is approximately 24 hours long, and syncs to environmental cues like temperature and light levels.
Like humans, dogs have circadian oscillators—fluctuations in physical systems like their hormone levels, neural activity, and body temperature—and these oscillators may cue your dog into the approximate time of day.
Your Dog’s Sense of Smell Plays a Role
There are also some straightforward physical cues that may help your dog keep an orderly schedule. For example, if Pancakes eats breakfast at the same time every day, her hunger will peak right before she’s due for her food, and she’ll react to that stimulus by alerting you and seeming to predict that it’s breakfast time.
There could be another explanation for dogs who always seem to know when you’re due back: they might be using their keen sense of smell. petMD refers to dog cognition researcher Alexandra Horowitz (Inside of a Dog), who has posited that dogs may be able to smell the passage of time—that each part of the day has its own accompanying scent profile.
According to Wired, your pet may be using scent to predict your arrival. After you’ve left your house, your smell dissipates slowly over the day. Your dog might be able to guess when you’re on your way back based on the decreasing concentration of your scent in the air. That’s assuming you have a relatively regular schedule, of course.
Similarly, the strength of the scent around the food bowl might be a way for your pet to track when their next meal is on its way. Fascinated? Check out our article for more info on how dogs perceive time via smell.
However they process time, chances are that your pet misses you while you’re out—and a lonely dog might get into trouble without their human present. Fortunately, you can help your best friend stay happy, calm, and occupied while you’re away from home.
And remember, if you’re worried about how your pet is doing while you’re gone, Rover has you covered. Break up a boring day for your dog by booking a trusted pet sitter or dog walker to check on them, give them a treat or a cuddle, or take them to the park.
Featured image: Flickr/cutenadevil