Do Dogs Have a Concept of Time?

Kate Barrington
by Kate Barrington
Can your dog tell the time? When you’re at work all day, it’s not like your dog can watch the clock until you get home.

They say that time flies when you’re having fun, but even when time seems to be passing more quickly than usual, you have an awareness of its passing. As humans, many of us live in a 9-to-5 world where 8 hours of each day belongs to someone else and that time often seems to creep by slowly while time off passes before you know it. Dogs have very few responsibilities and demands on their time, so it may lead you to wonder whether they understand the concept of time at all.

Many animal experts say that dogs live in the moment – they are not haunted by past events or anxious about the future like humans are. But are they actually aware of the passing of time or do they have a concept of time at all? Keep reading to find out.

Related: Is Your Anxiety Contagious to Your Dog?

How Do Dogs Understand Time?

There are days when you don’t even have to say a word to your dog – he automatically knows when it is time to head to the dog park. And you’ve probably noticed that your dog is waiting by the door when you come home from work at the usual time. Dogs often seem to have a strangely accurate concept of time, but it begs the question – do they actually know what time it is, or is something else going on?

It is difficult to explain a dog’s perception of time, because the only point of comparison is a human’s concept of time. Humans have the ability to quantify time and to break it down into artificial measures such as seconds, minutes, and hours. This is possible because humans have episodic memories that enable us to recall past events and to anticipate events in the future. Dogs don’t perceive time in this same way, but that doesn’t mean that live stuck in the moment. Though your dog may not be able to recall the details of an entire day six months ago, they can distinguish how much time has passed since a certain event. For example, they may know that it has been six hours since they went outside.

Related: 5 Stress-Free Ways To Deal With Dog Separation Anxiety

How Dogs Understand the Passing of Time

Scientists suggest that, like humans, dogs have an internal clock called a circadian rhythm which operates on a roughly 24-hour cycle. This cycle responds to cues like daylight and darkness and can be used to keep track of time by associating a particular event with a time of day. Some even say that dogs may respond to changing scents throughout the day and, in this way, can actually smell time.

Another interesting concept to address is how a dog’s concept of time changes when left alone versus time spent with its owner. Studies have shown that dogs display a greater degree of affection toward their owners if they have been separated for a significant amount of time. As the duration of the separation increases, so does the dog’s excitement. This highlights the fact that dogs are able to recognize and respond to different spans of time, a concept that comes into play for dogs with separation anxiety. The difference between one hour of separation and five hours could be the different between mild agitation and a full-blown anxiety attack.

Time is a strange thing, whether you’re a human or a dog. Though your dog may not experience time in quite the same way that you do, he does have his own concept of it and learning to work around your dog’s perception of time could help you better understand him.

Kate Barrington
Kate Barrington

Kate Barrington is the loving owner of two cats (Bagel and Munchkin) and a noisy herd of guinea pigs. Having grown up with golden retrievers, Kate has a great deal of experience with dogs but labels herself a lover of all pets. Having received a Bachelor's degree in English, Kate has combined her love for pets and her passion for writing to create her own freelance writing business, specializing in the pet niche.

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