How do Dogs Tend to Know What Time it is?
My two year old English Shepherd, Bones, tries to get my attention on Mondays through Thursday at 3:30pm.
Right around 3:30pm on those days I usually began getting ready to take the dogs to the dog training yard. He enjoys the dog training, visiting with friends, and a chance to run and play so I can see why he’s excited to go. Once I noticed what Bones was doing I started paying more attention; I figured I must be giving him a cue so he knew what time it was. Then I realized he tried to gain my attention no matter what I was doing; if I was writing at the computer, working outside in the garden, taking a shower; it didn’t matter. I couldn’t find any cues that I was giving him, even inadvertantly, as my activities were so varied. Plus, his behavior was different on Fridays.
How did he know what time it was? How did he know which day was Friday? I wanted to know more about my dog and his time sense.
Taking a Look at Time
When I began thinking about time, my first thoughts of time were about specific times, such as 3:30pm each afternoon or 10:00pm each evening when I watch the news. People also measure time using units of measurement such as seconds, minutes, hours, days and so on. Time can also be recognized by sunset, sunrise, the phases of the moon and even the tides of the oceans. Even the length and directions of shadows in early morning, noon, and late evening can give us cues as to the time of day. Time is complicated, especially when you add in thoughts of times in the past, the present, and in the future.
People have a circadian rhythms that provide guidance as to the time of day (or night) and our normal schedule. If you prefer to go to bed and sleep at a specific time, get up and eat your meals at regular times, those are triggered by your circadian rhythms. Changing that can be difficult and many people see this each spring and fall when our clocks are moved forward or backward. These rhythms can be found in people and other animals, including dogs, as well as some plants and even some bacteria.
Researchers have said that people have the ability to travel through time because we have what is called episodic memory. We can remember something that happened in the past and can place it in time by recalling emotions, places, people who were there, music and other things important to us. We can do something similar for the future by making plans, often made with previous experiences in mind. For example, if you recently made some new friends and enjoyed their company, in anticipation of a good time you might plan for another get together with them in the future.
All of these help us, humans, organize our time and maintain order in our world. Do other animals, in particular our dogs, and my Bones, have any concept of time?
Dogs and Time
We know dogs have circadian rhythms, and are sensitive to day and night, as well as certain times of day. We know through living with dogs that they know when it’s time to go to bed and when it’s time to eat. Certainly a part of this is based on circadian rhythms and past experiences.
Many experts in the past have said that dogs don’t have episodic memory but recently that has been debated. Dog owners and trainers know dogs can remember training. When a dog sits upon hearing the word, “Sit,” he may anticipate the end result as he knows the word, the action, his owner’s smile, the reward, and treat all go together in a particular order. That’s episodic memory. It may not be as complicated as most people’s episodic memories but it’s still a memory.
Behaviorists also know that dogs will make associations between one action and another, including how the dog felt before or after the incident. After all, behavior problems can be the result of these types of incidents. For example, a dog who has been frightened by something happening in a certain place, loud fireworks at a local park, perhaps, may have episodic memories that trigger panic when he hears a firework type noise or he might be frightened at the park.
So dogs have circadian rhythms and have at least basic episodic memory; can they also predict or plan for something happening in the future?
Dogs Tracking Time
Both researchers and dog owners know that dogs have some sense of time passing during the day. Many dogs know when the postal carrier is due to delivery mail, or when a child is due home from school, or when you are due home from work. These dogs show a difference in their behavior when anticipating something or someone just as Bones knows when it’s time for me to get ready to go to the dog training field, his actions tell me that he’s aware of time.
This passing of time is probably (but as yet unproven) a combination of both circadian rhythms and episodic memories. If the postal carrier always comes to the house in late morning, and the dog always gets a chance to bark wildly and chase away this intruder (thereby protecting his home and gaining an adrenaline rush), then the dog will repeat this at this time of day for as long as it continues to be rewarding to him.
The anticipation of something happening in the future, such as the postal carrier coming to the house, shows that dogs do have a sense of the future. This sense may not be as detailed as ours, “Let’s plan on going out to dinner next Thursday 7:00pm after the baby sitter arrives.” For our dogs, it’s more likely tied to a sequence of events: people go to school and work in the morning and the dog is left home alone, time passes as the dog naps, plays with a food dispensing toy and then naps again, then as more time passes the dog wakes up and realizes it’s time for the postal carrier.
There May Be Other Cues
When looking at dogs anticipating something happening in the future, such as the postal carrier or Bones knowing it’s time to go to the dog training yard, we also have to look into the possibility there are other cues for the dog. The dog anticipating the postal carrier might be hearing the postal carrier’s truck on the street before yours. He may also hear footsteps, mail boxes open and close, and even greetings between the carrier and neighbors. The dog’s circadian rhythms, episodic memories and the daily cues probably all lead into the dog’s actions (and reactions).
Research is Mixed
Studies looking into animals (including dogs) sense of time (past and future) have shown mixed results. Animals can have long memories; my eleven year old dog remembers his breeder and will greet her enthusiastically whenever he sees her even if years have passed between meetings. But does he know that years have passed between meetings? Probably not.
However, when actions are tied to the passing of time in a 24 hour period that is repeated over and over (such as a child coming home from school every day) and emotions are tied to it (joy that the child is home) there seems to be more credibility that the dog can actually pay attention to time and anticipate the close future.
But Bones? I still haven’t figured out what and how he’s doing what he’s doing. Of course I may just be too close to the situation. After all, I think he’s pretty special so why can’t he tell time?