Can our furry friends comprehend the passage of time in the same way humans can? This perplexing question has long stumped canine cognition researchers and veterinarians, but recent research may finally be close to an answer — and it may even help pet owners better understand their pups.
Do dogs have a sense of time?
“It’s hard to say how dogs experience time,” Chyrle Bonk, a veterinary consultant at PetKeen, tells Inverse.
If you’re a dog owner, you may have heard a myth tossed around that canines lack a sense of time. According to this myth, there is little cognitive difference for them between, say, two minutes and two hours.
In this sense, Yui Shapard, a small-animal veterinarian and educational director of the Association of Asian Veterinary Medical Professionals, states that one minute of pain can feel like “forever” for a dog.
“In a similar sense, when their humans leave them at home even for 30 minutes or three hours, to the dog it doesn't matter the length of time,” she says. And “because dogs do not have a clear concept of time the way we humans do, they are always ‘living in the moment.’”
This common belief leads veterinarians to strongly advocate for quality of life, including, for example, pain relief for dogs during surgical procedures, she explains.
But not all veterinarians and animal behavior scientists agree that dogs have no sense of time. In fact, Katherine Pankratz, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist, believes the idea is actually somewhat of a misconception. “They do have a grasp of time intervals and the differences between a short duration and a long duration.”
Some dog owners would probably agree. After all, it’s not uncommon for dogs to wake up and wait by the door or window not long before their human comes home.
Scientific research also lends support to dogs understanding the difference between varying chunks of time.
A 2011 study found dogs “are affected by the duration of time at home alone,” even if the researchers could not confirm if the dogs were aware of the length of time they were left alone.
But it gets trickier when we compare the general sense of time in a dog’s mind to our precisely calculated human clocks. As Pankratz notes, we can’t really ask them if they understand time as we comprehend it.
Do dogs perceive time like humans do?
Shapard believes dogs have a sense of time, but not in the numerical fashion that humans tend to think.
“The concept of time itself is human-made, so I don't believe dogs have the same understanding of time the way we do,” Shapard says, though she adds dogs may have an “intrinsic” understanding of time, based on their internal clock.
Bonk agrees, stating that “dogs do have an internal clock that depends on natural circadian rhythms, hormonal fluctuations, and so forth.” Circadian rhythm refers to the changes in the body that correspond to a 24-hour cycle — humans have it too.
This internal clock signals your pup to “tell time’ in a way that allows them to know when dinner will be served or when their owners will come home,” Bonk adds.
Going further, Pankratz says environmental cues — like the presence of light — “set” an animal’s biological clock. Known as “zeitbergers,” these cues can also help your dog understand the passage of time.
“Animals, including dogs, do have a sense of time.”
High-frequency rhythms and changes in heart rate can occur in dogs over 30 minutes or less, while longer “ultradian” rhythms — such as body temperature changes or feeding — occur over “periods of time that are less than 24 hours,” Pankratz explains.
The latter ultradian rhythm helps dogs that are fed regularly anticipate mealtimes. “When meal fed, dogs anticipate their meal times with increased activity,” Pankratz says.
Recent scientific research also bolsters the notion that dogs have a more concrete understanding of time than we perhaps realized.
A 2018 study on mice lends support to the idea that mammals — including dogs — can probably distinguish discrete amounts of time. Daniel Dombec, a Northwestern researcher who co-authored the study, said in a press statement their study confirms “animals really do have an explicit representation of time in their brains.”
Can I help my dog understand how long I’ll be gone?
“As far as we know, dogs do not use wristwatches to know when it is 1:36 p.m. and they have a meeting to attend,” Pankratz says jokingly.
But her comment speaks to a real concern: We can’t just tell our dog we’ll be back by 6:30 p.m. — they have no understanding of the human construct of time on that very specific level.
So how can we communicate to our pups how long we’ll be gone without them worrying?
Bonk emphasizes the importance of sticking to a routine. “Try to leave and get home at the same times every day so that they can expect you,” Bonk says.
Short outings, such as quick errands, are okay, but they should be “short enough that they don’t really matter.”
Pankratz agrees, adding that predictable routines can help lessen anxiety. So if your dog typically expects you to leave once during the daytime for work but you unexpectedly head out for a night with friends, that may leave your pup in a nervous state.
Dogs are primed to associate certain cues with humans leaving, such as putting on a jacket or shoes. We can use these cues to help signal to our dogs how long we’ll be gone. For example, a suit and tie might indicate you’re heading out for a long day at work compared to running sneakers, which will indicate a short outing to your pup.
“You could use a ‘safety cue’ such as a special phrase — ‘I'll be right back’ — prior to a short departure and a different phrase to signal a different type of departure,” Pankratz adds.
Though she stresses you should “avoid the temptation to ‘trick’ the dog by later mixing up these safe cues,” since that can weaken the effect of the cues and confuse your canine. A common example of this — not recommended — trickery occurs when owners tell their pet they’re going for a “walk,” only to drag them to the veterinarian.
For dogs with separation anxiety, Shapard suggests working with a dog trainer or veterinary behaviorist can help you provide enriching activities to ease your pup’s mind “at times of separation,” similar to how veterinarians provide painkillers to dogs in discomfort or pain.
Pankratz agrees, suggesting that concerned dog owners ought to speak with a veterinarian, who may recommend further consultation with a board-certified veterinary behaviorist.
Humans aren’t mind-readers, but we can help our pups thrive, despite the inevitable passage of time.