Are Dogs Capable of Perceiving the Passage of Time?
Do Dogs Perceive Days and Time Differently than Humans?
Your dog is never late for dinner, and he punctually assumes a position near the door just in time for Daddy to come home from work. You may be wondering if his clockwork precision derives from an uncanny ability to understand time. You won't find for sure Scruffy's agenda filled with appointments, and you'll understand why when you learn about how dogs perceive days and the passage of time.
For starters, it helps to compare the ways humans perceive time and the passage of days compared to dogs. This is not a form of anthropomorphism; it's just getting a better grip on how humans sense time compared to a four-legged companion.If you're capable of remembering what you ate for lunch yesterday, you have your episodic memory to thank. The capability of remembering past events and planning future ones arises from a human's ability to perceive time. The tendency to track days, months and years originated from early human societies and is a standard for planning daily, monthly, yearly or indefinitely. The fact of time is one thing; perception of it is crucial to human existence.
Animals appear to have no sense of time and lack the episodic memory seen in humans, suggests William A. Roberts, professor at the Department of Psychology University of Western Ontario. This means dogs are incapable of anticipating long-range future events. It's almost as if poor Scruffy was stuck in time. Therefore, you shouldn't expect him to remember he already had his heartworm pill yesterday or that tomorrow it's time for his annual shots!
How Can Dogs Predict Meal Time or Walks?
You may wonder how your dog is capable of knowing when it's mealtime. Indeed, around the same time each day, it may not be unusual to see Scruffy place himself in front of a bowl anxiously awaiting it to be filled up. How does he do that? Does he know it's 8 o'clock or what? Likely, it's the animal's internal biological rhythms, which supplied by circadian oscillators, regulates a hunger trigger that's ingrained according to your feeding schedule. Basically, internal cues triggered by the daily fluctuations of hormones, body temperature and neural activity seem to prompt animals to do certain things or go to certain places at given times of day, suggests Roberts.
Another explanation comes from very tiny cues your dog is attentive to, but you may not be aware of. Let's say you are watching television, and then look at the clock and remember it's time to walk your dog. Right when you think about it, Scruffy gets all excited and walks where the leash is and brings it to you. How did he do that? It may feel as if he looked at his watch too and got ready. Most likely though, you may have done a certain something that makes your dog anticipate what you are about to do. It may be the simple action of turning off the TV, or touching the arm rest to get up. If you do these actions every day before taking him on his walk, granted, he will soon learn to readily respond to them. Dogs have great observational skills and tend to form associations. Never underestimate them!
If Dog's Don't Think in the Future, then Why do They Bury Bones?
Good question. If animals don't plan for the future, then you may wonder why your furry pal likes to bury his bones in the yard for later consumption. While the behavior of burying bones may imply a dog's need to set up a “food bank" for future use, the underlying dynamics may be different than what they seem. Indeed, studies suggest that, given the opportunity, animals choose small immediate rewards over larger delayed rewards. This poor self control further seems to suggest that Scruffy lacks the ability for future planning compared to humans. So should a large winter storm soon approach, don't expect Scruffy to be parsimonious in saving his food; most likely he'll wolf down his bag of chow like there's no tomorrow.
And what about the famous cliche' of dogs burying bones to save them for later? We may assume this behavior may derive from a dog analytically thinking about saving food for some leaner times ahead. Instead, looks like there are chances that animals who appear to hoard food for future consumption don't do so rationally as thought, but mostly out of instinct, according to Robert's studies.
The Bottom Line
Unfortunately, not many studies have been conducted on an animal's ability of travelling mentally in the past and forward in the future, leaving many questions unanswered. While some studies on food-catching birds have revealed the ability to plan for the future, it must be considered that birds are ultimately a different species and lack a structure similar to the cerebral cortex found in mammals, according to the University of Michigan. More studies are therefore necessary to determine the ability to recollect past events and plan future ones in mammals.
The bottom line is that while Scruffy may care less about what he ate yesterday or about those vet visits that seem to come out of nowhere, cues chained to one another and his internal clock seem to aid him in predicting several happenings during the day. As much as being stuck in the moment may sound like a disadvantage, it has its own advantages. Living in the present without worrying about tomorrow offers the luxury of seizing the moment, a life lesson all humans should take from their dogs.
Eager to learn some more doggie wisdom? Read next "Important Life Lessons From a Dog
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Watch how my Rottweiler Kaiser has learned to predict when the coffee is ready!
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