The animal world is still a brilliant mystery to us. Dog owners have all sorts of theories about the behaviour of their best friends. I’m definitely convinced that my dogs are more intelligent than we give them credit for, and don’t get me started on their emotional intelligence and personalities. Similarly, I’m also convinced that my dogs understand the concept of time. Why else would they know when breakfast is due, or what time I’m going to come home?
Do Dogs Have A Perception Of Time?
In my opinion, pet owners are usually a little ahead of animal behaviour scientists in understanding pets. It is their experience and theories that can inform research, and scientists then confirm exactly how these theories may, or may not, hold true. This is, broadly speaking, what has happened in the last 10 years on the issue of dogs and time.
For decades, dog owners have been convinced that their dog can understand the concept of time. Their behaviour often seems to demonstrate this. For example, they might:
- Stand by their food bowl ahead of meal times
- Come get you to feed them when it is time to eat
- Wake you up in the morning
- Stand by the door when it is time for their walk
- Go to their bed at a similar time each night
- Wait by the door when you return home from work
Two Swedish researches decided to put this to the test. Specifically, they tested that last example, they recorded dogs’ behaviour when their owner had left them for a variety of different lengths of time. They found that dogs do know how long you have been gone when you leave the house, but in a limited way. The dogs were demonstrably more excited to see their owners after 2 hours of being left alone than just 30 minutes. However, leaving for more than 2 hours had little effect. Ultimately, this makes it clear that dogs can distinguish different lengths of time.
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Physical Influences on Dogs’ Concept of Time
But what best explains this behaviour in dogs? How does my dog know how long I’ve been gone? A more general initial answer is your dog has a Circadian Rhythm. This is the internal biological clock that animals and humans largely share. It tells us when to wake up, eat and sleep.
But the Circadian Rhythm doesn’t necessarily explain why your dog might understand the smaller, more specific details of modern life, such as when you are coming home or what time you normally take them for their walk. This can be better explained by your dog’s keen sensory observation skills.
Your dog might use day light, noises on the television, an understanding of your normal routine, and their sense of smell to deduce when it is time for something to happen. For example, it has been theorised that dogs use your scent to figure out how long you have been away. The fading of your scent is like a clock or a timer for them to figure out how long it has been.
Dogs undoubtedly have a basic concept of time which is tied to their biology, but this does not necessarily mean they understand the perception of time as we do. Time is a much more complex than that. In simple terms, is your dog waiting for you when you get home because your scent has faded the normal amount that it fades when you then come home? Or do they genuinely understand that you come home at the same time every weekday, and stay home at weekends?
Types of Memory
I’ll be honest, I’m not sure I can satisfactorily delve deeply into the theory of time, and I’m also not that sure you want me to. So, if we put Einstein and philosophical discussions to one side, instead we can use the concept of memory to help us come up with a practical understanding of the concept of time because, generally, our experience of time can only occur due to our memory. Our memory is what allows us to understand the concept of the ‘past’, and, therefore, to imagine the future.
Our understanding of memory is constantly developing, but broadly speaking there are two key forms of memory:
- Implicit Memory:
This is your unconscious memory and can be compared to going on ‘autopilot’. Examples of implicit memory might include walking, riding a bike, or singing a song.
- Explicit Memory:
This is your conscious memory, your thoughts and ideas about the past. This is how you might remember your wedding or your first day at school. Some people argue that this is what distinguishes us from animals as we can recall, order and assess specific and unique memories from our past.
Our explicit memories can be further understood in terms of:
- An episodic memory: the ability to recall unique memories that differ from others, such as where you were when you heard about 9/11
- A semantic memory: the facts surrounding a particular memory, such as your wedding date or a future doctors appointment
- Autobiographical memory: a collection of episodic and semantic memories that may inform someone’s life experience
Memory and Time
The human concept of time is arguably closely tied to explicit memory. Our understanding of the past largely stems from autobiographical memory. In short, we remember facts surrounding the events in our past and we remember what we saw and felt. We can then compare that to the present and use what we have learnt to plan for the future. Essentially, our concept of time is being able to understand ‘what?’, ‘when?’ and ‘where?’ an event occurred
So what does this all mean for dogs? I think we can all agree that our dogs have an implicit memory as this is what can make them so trainable. Once they have learnt to sit, they will automatically sit. But this doesn’t necessarily influence their concept of time. This makes the real question: Do dogs have an explicit, episodic, semantic or autobiographical memory?
For a long time, it has been assumed that animals don’t have an episodic memory, dogs included, but recent evidence has suggested that maybe some do. Birds, for example, have been found to remember where they have hidden their food and one Hungarian study has suggested that dogs have a form of short-term episodic memory as they can recognise an event for a short period of time, even with distractions in-between.
Thus far, however, regardless of whether dogs may possess elements of an episodic memory, it is widely understood that dogs have an associative memory. This means they associate good and bad events with certain smells, sounds and activities. For example, while your dog might associatively remember you and your scent positively, they aren’t likely to specifically remember the first day you met.
How Is This Different From Humans?
The difference between associative memory and autobiographical memory can help us to understand dog time vs human time. As we’ve established, dogs might have a concept of time, but this is not necessarily the same concept that we have. For example, it is highly unlikely that dogs experience aspects of memory or time like nostalgia or bucket lists.
Think about when you train your dog. It is unlikely that your dog remembers why he remembers a certain trick like we could. Your dog isn’t thinking ‘Ah, I remember the first time you asked me to beg, and I was so confused, but once I had done it and received a treat, I knew to do it again in future’. It is more likely that they remember, generally, that begging when they hear ‘beg’ results in feeling good, maybe physically with a treat, or emotionally with praise.
Explaining Dogs and Time
Ultimately, while dogs have a perception of time, it is probable that they do not have an understanding of time that is comparable to a human’s. This makes sense, in my opinion, when I consider my dogs’ behaviour. A well known trait of dogs is that they live in the moment and mine certainly do. They are always alert at a moments notice, they become distracted easily and I have never seen evidence that they plan for the future.
Evolutionarily, this makes sense. Humans have the luxury of getting lost in their own thoughts, but, genetically, it is imperative for their safety that dogs stay alert and in the moment so that they can protect themselves. While they can learn from their past experiences, as certain smells and sights might trigger memories of feelings such as fear, their general thoughts are not likely to be able to flit around the past and the future the way ours can. But who knows? Maybe scientists of the future will demonstrate that dogs do have a more autobiographical memory than we once thought.