Do Dogs Have a Sense of Time? Well, Sorta—and It's All Because of Us
While many dogs can learn to talk to tell you it's time for walkies or treats, they can't really grasp the concept of hours and minutes. But do dogs have a sense of time? Absolutely, for a lot of different reasons.
Can Dogs Tell Time?
"Dogs most certainly have a sense of time passing," she says. "They most likely mark the passage of time in relation to other stimuli, such as the location of the sun in the sky, hunger, thirst, or the location of the moon in the sky."
That's right: canines respond to their innate circadian rhythms, just as humans do. Radosta says they're influenced by external factors as well such as how much light and dark they're exposed to in 24 hours.
Research from the University of Illinois Urbana–Champaign states that mammals "have a biological clock located in the hypothalamus, a part of the brain that controls basic biological functions such as respiratory rate, heart rate, and reproduction." Further, pet owners often alter their animals' exposure to light or change the timing of other influences, such as feeding and playtime, "to help their pets adjust to living in the human world."
So it's less about your furball knowing it's 10 past the hour and more that certain ingrained cues in their environment tell them what should be happening or what patterns correlate to certain events and consequences. You know, like dinner!
How Do Dogs Know When It's Time to Wake Up, Go for a Walk, or Eat?
Our pups don't necessarily equate daylight with 'morning' or darkness with 'night'. Rather a dog's sense of time is reinforced by our routines and behavior.
"While daylight to us may mean morning, it also means a lot of other things, like coffee, breakfast, showering, and getting ready for school or work," Radosta says. "For dogs, it's no different. Daylight means the start of the day: eating breakfast, going out to eliminate, taking a walk, getting table scraps, their pet parent going to work, and so on."
She adds the same habitual expectations happen in the evening: their parent comes home from work, dinner is served at a certain time, and long walks happen before bedtime. When we turn our house alarm on for the night, the 'day', as every creature in the household understands it, is over.
All dogs thrive with positive reinforcement training, as they learn there's a direct cause and effect—quite often good!—associated with every action. This is also how they master tricks. Radosta says that since dogs live with us and, more importantly, rely on us for everything, our behaviors and routines impact their sense of time.
So, if your habits help establish their needs are being met, naturally they'll come to recognize and respond to those many moments of cause and effect throughout the day.
"For example, dinner is reinforcing. The food tastes good and hunger goes away. The cues leading up to dinner, not just getting the bowl ready, but even those things prior to that such as coming home from work then get paired with dinner," she says. "Dogs use those events to predict dinner. So what looks like a sense of time to the pet parent is their dog linking a lot of events together."
Dogs are so smart.
And they're born to connect with us. A study from the Arizona Canine Cognition Center explored exactly when puppies show social skills and an interest in human faces. The findings suggest as early as 8 weeks old, puppies have "the ability to follow human cues—which starts even before puppies have been extensively socialized with people."
Biological Needs Help Dogs Have a Concept of Time, Too.
Does your dog's tummy rumble with hunger? Of course. Is he ready for a potty break? Absolutely. But Radosta says those biological functions are less driven by the clock and more about personal need—and routine sometimes dictates this behavior, too.
For example, if you and your veterinarian determine that the best time to feed your pup is first thing in the morning and again in early evening, and it's a specific amount of food each time, his body adapts to that schedule. Sure, he'll take a treat any ol' time, but if normal breakfast and dinner servings are running late, he's going to feel peckish and let you know! Maybe he follows you around more than usual or paws at you. It's not so much that he's saying, "Hey! It's 5:00 p.m. and time for dinner!" but more "There's no food. I know this, 'cause I feel hungry. And, um, well, there's usually food right about now. Feed me!"
Our pet pals need some semblance of daily structure, usually reinforced by the pawsitive choices we provide them. In this way, time is relative, but they'll always follow our lead. "Dogs spend their lives watching us and the world around them," Radosta says. "Then, they connect those things to help them gain stability and a good quality of life."