Are Dogs Capable of Perceiving the Passage of Time?

Is it time for the walkies? Your dogs sure does seem to know how to perceive time.
Is it time for the walkies? Your dogs sure does seem to know how to perceive time. | Source

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

Alexadry© All rights reserved, do not copy

References:

Psychological Bulletin; Are Animals Stuck in Time?; William A. Roberts

University of Washington: Can Animals Recall the Past and Plan for the Future?

Learning and Motivation; Animals May not be Stuck in Time; Thomas R. Zentall

Animal Planet: How Do Dogs Perceive Time?

Watch how my Rottweiler Kaiser has learned to predict when the coffee is ready!

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Comments 42 comments

torrilynn profile image

torrilynn 3 years ago

alexadry, unique hub that you have here. i never thought if a dog could understand time or events. interesting indeed. thanks and voting up.


wetnosedogs profile image

wetnosedogs 3 years ago from Alabama

Oh, I love that video! Kaiser is definitely on the ball. Great job, Kaiser!

Seems dogs are blessed with the "time" thought they have.


alexadry profile image

alexadry 3 years ago from USA Author

Thanks again for the vote up Torrilynn! It's quite an interesting topic, yet more studies are needed on this, but obviously they're not easy to conduct!


alexadry profile image

alexadry 3 years ago from USA Author

Hi Wetnose dogs! Kaiser is now more than a coffee guru. Interestingly, he also has learned to let me know when the popcorn is done popping and when something is burning in the kitchen. He has saved countless trays of lasagna from burning!


Faith A Mullen profile image

Faith A Mullen 3 years ago

Great hub! My dachshund is able to predict when it's time for dinner, usually down to the half hour. If I'm caught up working and forget, he'll start running back and forth from the kitchen to let me know it's time. Love the video of your smart Kaiser. You have beautiful dogs!


alexadry profile image

alexadry 3 years ago from USA Author

Thanks Faith! Smart dachshund you have there, he'll never go hungry for more than half hour for sure! Thanks for stopping by!


torrilynn profile image

torrilynn 3 years ago

your welcome alexadry. best of wishes to you.


agilitymach profile image

agilitymach 3 years ago

I also loved the video of Kaiser and the coffee. Too cute!!


Larry Fields profile image

Larry Fields 3 years ago from Northern California

Hi alexadry,

Outstanding hub! Voted up, interesting, and shared. You wrote:

"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."

I have another hypothesis. In the canine value system, a real bone is somewhere between food and a toy.

Yes, there's nutrition in the marrow. But if we did an EROEI (energy realized over energy expended) study on bone-chewing, we'd probably find that this ratio is less than one. So much for the survival value hypothesis.

Analogy: A bone to a dog is like a bicycle to a child.

Why does a child will lock his bike when he visits the public library? It's not because he hates walking. He simply enjoys riding more than walking, and he doesn't want someone else to run off with his treasured wheels.

It's the same with dogs. For them, bone-chewing is an enjoyable pastime in its own right, and it has precious little to do with survival. They bury the bones, because they don't trust other dogs to respect their personal property. Or as people sometimes say, "What's mine is mine."

Instinct? Pshaw! We silly humans are always underestimating canine intelligence.


DrMark1961 profile image

DrMark1961 3 years ago from The Beach of Brazil

The bottom line? It is just another theory, and will probably go the way of the alpha wolf.

Nice video of Kaiser. Did you upload that to Youtube?


alexadry profile image

alexadry 3 years ago from USA Author

Dr Mark, unfortunately, there aren't many conclusive studies on this, so we must rely on what Roberts' and Zentall's studies reveal, yet we have so much to learn from a dog's philosophy of life of living in the present.


alexadry profile image

alexadry 3 years ago from USA Author

Thanks Agility Match, he's been doing that too when things sizzle (as when burning) or when pop-corn has stopped popping. Interestingly, he started doing this when my hubby developed a bit of loss of hearing. I'm not sure if this is a coincidence or not!


agilitymach profile image

agilitymach 3 years ago

Interesting about it developing at the same time of your husband's slight hearing loss. While it may be coincidence, dogs have been known to do amazing things like that!!


Farkle profile image

Farkle 3 years ago

I don't see the research set forth in this hub as a theory. Somebody correct me if I am wrong, but in my perspective the term theory depicts a guess, belief, or proposal that is sort of hanging in there with no substantial basis.


alexadry profile image

alexadry 3 years ago from USA Author

Larry, and let's not forget that chewing releases endorphins in dogs, so a bone is food, a toy, and even a form of doggie Prozac! You make interesting points that are very thought provoking. We might want to question Roberts on that. In the case of hiding something valuable from others, then we're talking about another instinct "the guarding/defense instinct", but what about those dogs who don't live with other dogs in the household and continue to do that? Also, isn't hiding bones in the dirt or in a couch a good opportunity for another dog to gain the goodies? I have seen that happen;)Thanks for stopping by and the votes up!


alexadry profile image

alexadry 3 years ago from USA Author

Agilitymatch, I wouldn't be surprised with the way how dogs are well in tune with us. Another interesting thing is that he''ll alert about the coffee only when he is another room, if he is there taking care of it, he doesn't find it useful.


GiblinGirl profile image

GiblinGirl 3 years ago from New Jersey

I've always wondered about this. Thanks for sharing a little insight!


mperrottet profile image

mperrottet 3 years ago from Pennsauken, NJ

There are times when I swear my dog can read my mind or has the ability to understand every word I say, but my husband has said that it's just picking up on cues that we give her. I love the video of your dog on coffee alert. Awesome hub - voted up ++ and sharing.


StockholmWriter 3 years ago

I loved the video of Kaiser on coffee guard. He is a beautiful dog.


alexadry profile image

alexadry 3 years ago from USA Author

Thanks for stopping by Giblingirl, I am glad you enjoyed the read.


alexadry profile image

alexadry 3 years ago from USA Author

Thanks for stopping by Mperrotet, dogs are great in picking up cues. There are words we cannot pronounce or our dogs get all excited, so we now spell them. "Is it time to take the dogs for a w-a-l-k?" That's also how dogs start developing separation anxiety. They pay attention to all the cues that you are about to leave and start getting anxious. But of course, there are many things dogs do that leave us bewildered and we cannot find a logic explanation.


Larry Fields profile image

Larry Fields 3 years ago from Northern California

Alexadry, there's a lot of doubt about the idea that dogs can 'live in the future' in the same way that people do. Border Collies sure can! Here's a link to "Gurr the Toy Maker," my guest article at Jennifer Marohasy's blog.

http://tinyurl.com/b8ssgs4

One of these days, I may rework it into a hub.


alexadry profile image

alexadry 3 years ago from USA Author

Indeed, that's why I emphasized in the bottom line that more studies are needed before drawing conclusive conclusions. There are many things we underestimate in dogs. But we can't ignore that the studies make some very valid and interesting points. With my dogs, what looks like the equivalent of predicting a future event is triggered by an almost reflexive response to cues they have been conditioned to through several reps. My female dog, for instance, knows that a beeping noise coming from my computer means I am shutting the computer down and about to go to bed. Indeed, she'll get up as she hears it. Dogs unlike humans though don't rely on time-keeping technology such as calenders, clocks or planners, and after all why should they? Don't we all feel like ditching cell phones and planners and just seize the day? I'm interested in learning how exactly your borders can predict any long-range future events. How do you think they're able to? Did you find a history of conditioned cues or is it more deliberate and almost unexplainable? I read your blog and was impressed how your border managed to make the stick easier to carry (aren't they impressive dogs?), but couldn't find how it relates to predicting some long-term future events. I'll read it again in case I skipped it. Eager to hear your thoughts-or perhaps I'll wait and read them in your future hub! Thanks for stopping by and providing as usual "food for thought."


Gypsy Willow profile image

Gypsy Willow 3 years ago from Lake Tahoe Nevada USA , Wales UK and Taupo New Zealand

This is a question I have often pondered. The anxiety dogs feel when left alone may tie in with this. More study needed I think. Thanks for another interesting dog hub


alexadry profile image

alexadry 3 years ago from USA Author

Farkle thanks for stopping by. I had to actually look this up;) There are two definitions of theory, the scientific theory is when a hypothesis or group of hypotheses have been supported with repeated testing. In this case, from a hypothesis it becomes a theory, and as such, becomes accepted as a valid explanation of a phenomenon. In a non-scientific context, “theory” implies something is unproven, basically an hypothesis people like you and me can make without conducting an actual study. That's ultimately why I like to incorporate studies and add research to my articles:)


alexadry profile image

alexadry 3 years ago from USA Author

Thank you StockholmWriter, he's always looking for little things to do around the house, and these little tasks seem to fulfill a part of his working dog role.


alexadry profile image

alexadry 3 years ago from USA Author

Gypsy Willow, indeed, when I deal with cases of separation anxiety I work on transforming all those cues that came to predict the owner's departure into losing their meaning. It's a time consuming process, but needs to be done! Thanks for stopping by.


Suhail and my dog profile image

Suhail and my dog 3 years ago from Mississauga, ON

Very informative and well written hub. Voted up!

Having recently read Alexandra Horowitz's 'Inside of a dog', I liked the hub immensely, because it agreed with the viewpoint expressed in the book.

My personal two bits from reading the book and your excellent hub:

1. Dogs don't have a need to think about future as their cousins wolves do, because dog is a species of wolf that has specialized in leveraging humans. Dogs know that their humans will be taking care of them.

2. Due to their well developed sense of smell, sight and hearing, dogs world is much faster than ours. Also, they are extremely good observers of us. So you are correct. they are able to get certain cues from our behaviour much earlier that we cannot even relate to.


alexadry profile image

alexadry 3 years ago from USA Author

Hi Suhail, I love that book; it's one of my favorites. I didn't recall those parts, thank you for sharing them here. It's interesting to read them, as I was thinking "why do dogs need to worry about the future when humans can do every thing for them?" In the same way, wolves used to regurgitate for their pups and mother dogs don't. Why? Perhaps (and this is just an assumption) because breeders have taken over this task by feeding the puppies mush? (which resembles mama dog regurgitate, I know, yuck!) Thanks for sharing those excerpts from the book!


Bob Bamberg profile image

Bob Bamberg 3 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

Very interesting hub and comment stream. I knew about dogs picking up on various cues but only had some vague sense of an "internal clock" thing. I couldn't connect any dots. The hub did that nicely.

Similar to your dog picking up on the computer beeping, separation anxiety begins for some dogs as soon as the alarm clock goes off in the morning, or you they see or hear you grab your keys off the hook. We tend to be creatures of habit with our morning routines. Routines are important to dogs, and they're highly attuned to them.

I've always considered food burying to be instinctive and for the purpose of hiding it from scavengers. Certainly other canids could find the "burying dog's" treasure, just as the the "burying dog" could find the caches of other canids.

I've known of dogs that get aroused when the car they're in approaches within a couple of blocks of the vet clinic. I figured they picked up on certain landmarks which they associated with a negative experience at the clinic.

Some animals do think of the future...chipmunks, for example, which stockpile acorns. People who leave peanuts out for the squirrels will often see a chipmunk stuff some in each cheek and disappear into a rock wall. They'll do it for days on end, obviously carrying off more than they can consume in a day.

Some insects lay eggs in a food supply for the benefit of the hatching larvae. They'll paralyze prey and lay their eggs in or on the victim, which remains alive until the larvae hatch and do them in.

I believe in both of those examples, the behaviors are performed instinctively, not consciously.

It's fascinating to speculate and read other people's views. Enjoyed this immensely. Voted up and interesting.


alexadry profile image

alexadry 3 years ago from USA Author

Thanks for stopping by Bob, your insights are always appreciated!


Suhail and my dog profile image

Suhail and my dog 3 years ago from Mississauga, ON

Adrienne,

It is the part where Alexandra mentions increasingly complex experiments were conducted on dogs to determine their intelligence level for getting to the food source. She compared dogs' level of effort with wolves' and mentioned that that led people to believe that wolves are more intelligent than dogs. However, she reasoned that dogs gave up early because they could leverage on their owners to get them the food.


alexadry profile image

alexadry 3 years ago from USA Author

Thank you, I'll have to check it out. We recently moved so all my doggie books are still in my boxes;)


DrMark1961 profile image

DrMark1961 3 years ago from The Beach of Brazil

Suhail brings up a good point, and why I do not agree with intelligence testing. If I put a hood over my dog she does not struggle, so according to Coren she is less intelligent.

She is just waiting for me to take it off! That does not make her less intelligent. Some dogs just know humans will take care of things.


agilitymach profile image

agilitymach 3 years ago

I agree Dr. Mark. I train my puppies from a young age to love being under covers and material. I do this to prepare them for running through the agility chute. If I put material on my dogs, unless I am asking for speed or play, I expect them to sit with it on them. And they do. Not because they're "dumb," but because they are trained to trust me. I have yet to see a canine intelligence test that wouldn't be skewed by previous training and environment.

I think setting up tests to measure dogs' behaviors without those tests being skewed by the dog's past experiences would be very difficult.


alexadry profile image

alexadry 3 years ago from USA Author

I don't trust intelligence tests either, indeed according to one of these latest tests, my Rotts aren't that smart:(


DrMark1961 profile image

DrMark1961 3 years ago from The Beach of Brazil

Agilitymach makes a great point--it is a trust issue. Maybe the test needs to be how the dog responds to the coffee machine!


agilitymach profile image

agilitymach 3 years ago

LOL!! That sounds like a great test. :D


alexadry profile image

alexadry 3 years ago from USA Author

My female Rott would fail miserably then, she could care less about the coffee, but she would do well upon seeing bugs. As soon as she sees one she makes the most disgusted whine and then looks at us in hopes that we kill it. All dogs I have met are intelligent in their own special ways :) When owners tell me their dog is dumb, I know they failed somewhere in getting to unveil and fully appreciate his qualities.


kitkat1141 profile image

kitkat1141 3 years ago from Ontario, Canada

My dog goes and sits by the window at 2:50 every afternoon to wait for the kids to get off the bus at 3:00. I have tried to pay attention to see if there is something that can tip her off as to the time, but haven't found anything.

I know when I work and have coffee break every day at 10:30, my stomach starts rumbling on the weekend at the same time to alert me it is 10:30. I assume the same happens with dogs to tell them it is meal time, so I don't think this is higher level thinking!


alexadry profile image

alexadry 3 years ago from USA Author

Thanks for stopping by Kitkat1141 and sharing your experience. The school bus behavior is very interesting!


alexadry profile image

alexadry 3 years ago from USA Author

This brings me to think about that marvelous movie based on the true story of Hachiko, the loyal Akita waiting for his departed owner at the train station each day.

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