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  • Writer's picturePositive Paws

Dogs and Cognition

How Do We Know If Dogs Have a Sense of Time?

Dogs can’t tell us what time means to them – but maybe we can try and understand if dogs have a sense of time and how they perceive it. If you have a dog, you’ve probably had an experience like this. You head out of the house, realize you forgot your phone, pop back in to grab it, and your dog greets you as if you’ve been gone 10 years. Dogs appear to have no sense of time. Yet that same dog waits lovingly by the door precisely when it’s time for the kids to get home from school. What gives? Can dogs tell time or not? What does time even mean to a dog?

“There’s a lot of evidence that dogs know when somebody’s supposed to come home,” says Greg Bryant, a cognitive scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles. “But a lot of those stories don’t include details that are probably important.”Dogs have better hearing than humans; perhaps they can hear the car coming and distinguish it from other cars long before it pulls into the driveway. Or there might be more subtle clues, Bryant says, things we wouldn’t even think about: the slant of light at that time of day, or a very slight sound the clock makes, or maybe something the neighbor in the upstairs apartment always does at that time of day. “I think you have to be careful about attributing an effect like that to time perception,” he says.

How Dogs Perceive Time

More interesting, perhaps, is how dogs perceive the passing of time. There is evidence that dogs perceive time as passing more slowly than humans do. So the reason your dog goes bonkers when you’ve been away 15 minutes may be that those 15 minutes of clock time seemed a lot longer to Fido than they did to you. Besides, we all know how tricky time perception can be, even for a species like us, that surrounds itself with clocks and calendars. If we can’t get a better handle on our own sense of time, how can we be expected to figure out what it’s like for our dogs?

Do Dogs Have a Sense of Time?

Of Course, we can’t know what time passing feels like to our dogs because they can’t tell us. And that lack of language might be the crux of the whole issue. Our sense of how quickly or slowly time is passing is a function of the way we think about time. And the way we think about time – even the fact that we can think about it at all – is a function of our ability to communicate about it. In fact, a lot of time perception involves contemplating about the past and the future, and dogs probably don’t engage in a lot of introspection. 

“We’re weird in that we have this conception of time that we can talk about, but for every other animal, including dogs, [time] is just what it is.”

Gail Moscato

Founder – Positive Paws BHC

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