The Perception of Time in Dogs

The Perception of Time in Dogs

🐶 “Pfff… But how… you’re leaving already? When will you be back? Will you come back?” How Dogs Perceive Time: Past, Present, and Future in Our Furry Friends

In the book "Alice in Wonderland," the protagonist asks the White Rabbit: “How long is forever?” to which the White Rabbit responds: “Sometimes, just one second.”

This dialogue reveals how personal and unique the perception of time can be for us humans. Yet, time is a physical dimension that allows us to represent events in succession. There's always a before, a now, and an after, and our lives revolve around these moments, from when we wake up in the morning to when we go to bed at night.

But what about our four-legged friends?

Animals don't have a natural unit of measure for hours or minutes, but they are equipped with refined tools that, in a sense, define the passage of time and help them navigate this dimension.

These are internal clocks, synchronized based on environmental stimuli and regulated by mechanisms such as the circadian rhythm (sleep-wake cycle), hunger, or the need to move or groom themselves.

For our pets, this pertains to the biological aspect, but what about the 'sense' of time? How do they experience its passage?


Dog looking at their pet mate in front of the door: "Where are you going, Mom? Stay here with me!

How do dogs perceive time?

It's morning, we're ready to go to work, giving our hair one last touch in the hallway mirror, and our furry little heart is there, looking at us with its head tilted, sweet eyes, and a face that seems to say, “Are you leaving? Where are you going? Will you come back? When will you be back?”

The most pragmatic answer we can give is: “Sweetheart, I'll be back soon, I promise.”

We know exactly what 'a few hours' means—it could be 4, 6, or 8 hours, depending on our workday. But do those hours feel the same for them? Will they recognize that 4 hours or more have passed since we said goodbye and left the house?

The answer is no. Dogs perceive time differently than humans because their perception doesn't follow the logic of the clock that governs our minutes and seconds.

Dogs’ perception of time primarily relies on their senses, particularly their sense of smell, which provides them with clues about environmental changes and, consequently, the passage of time.


How long does time last for dogs?

An insightful article on dogs' perception of time, written by Luca Spennacchio and published by Kodami, introduces a very intelligent and in-depth reflection.

If we were to ask the first person we meet on the street how they perceive time, the answer would probably be, "It depends." A long work meeting might stretch out time, while a coffee break might fly by quickly. Yet, a minute is always a minute.

To understand dogs’ perception of time, we must first forget the temporal dimension we rely on (hours, minutes, seconds...) and shift to the plane of experiences.

Imagine being at home with your furry little heart, playing and having a great time. If you asked them their perception of time at that moment, they would likely say it’s flying by.

Now, imagine going out for a walk, almost reaching the park, but meeting a friend on the way who tells you all about their recent experiences. Time passes, and your furry friend is eagerly waiting to play, but has to endure the long conversation, possibly without whining or pulling the leash toward the park.

How will they perceive time during this forced pause? Probably as prolonged, because it’s marked by the boredom of having to sit and wait, while all they want is to run to the park.

Dogs’ perception of time is therefore tied to the experience that generates states and emotions, but this also happens to us humans. The key difference is: how can we establish it?

We can understand it from their behavior: in the case of the friend at the park slowing down the walk, our pet will be restless, giving us signals that they want to play, like pulling the leash or casting pleading looks.

Do dogs have a sense of time?

Dogs track time through their sense of smell. For them, each day has a new scent. Alexandra Horowitz explains this beautifully in her book "Being a Dog" (Scribner, 2016).

One passage from the book is particularly poetic:

“The past is underfoot, the odors of yesterday are on the ground. Brought by the first breath of morning wind or left by nocturnal animals, the message is right at the door alongside the folded newspaper. The scent of the future is around the corner, reaching the dog's nose before our eyes can see it. For them, it’s like a rubber band that pulls a bit of the past and a bit of the future into the present.”

The Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College, New York City, led by Dr. Horowitz, studies canine behavior and cognition. Their study, "How Do Dogs 'See' with their Noses?" explains how dogs can sniff out the past and the future.

How? Our four-legged friends can perceive the past through residual scents left by people and objects and anticipate the future by detecting approaching odors.


How do dogs perceive time when they’re alone?

To logically answer this question, it's essential to reiterate that our pets’ perception of time is not dictated by the clock's hands but by their internal biological mechanisms.

If we free ourselves from the human concept of time, defined by past and future scents linked to past and future experiences, we can return to a more primordial and natural concept of time, guided by the senses—in this case, smell.

We need to switch perspectives and consider time as dogs do, measured not in minutes but in scents that indicate how much time has passed since a certain event (the past) and how much will pass until another event happens (the future).

How long does time last for dogs when we’re not with them?

Regarding the present, for dogs, it is fluid, just as it is for us humans.

At this moment, we might mentally travel to our childhood or project ourselves into old age. We can be in the past and the future while remaining physically in the present.

Dogs do this too with their sense of smell, which answers the question of how dogs perceive time even when we’re not by their side.


How do dogs spend their time when they’re home alone?

There isn't a single answer because it depends on the dog's character, temperament, and environment.

Common behaviors include sleeping, guarding the home, licking their fur, or barking.

Unfortunately, some pets suffer from being home alone and may express this by barking incessantly or exhibiting anxiety-driven behaviors such as causing damage to the home, which indicates significant stress.

In such cases, it’s crucial to seek advice from a veterinary behaviorist to mitigate and resolve the situation.


Do dogs miss us?

Yes, dogs miss us and show this through behaviors that can vary widely.

For puppies, for example, they should never be left alone for too long to avoid triggering difficult-to-manage emotions like the sense of abandonment.

As adult humans, however, we must balance work, which takes us out of the house and is necessary for our and our furry friends’ sustenance.

Every situation should be considered individually, with the understanding that a dog left alone for extended periods may experience a range of emotions from boredom to sadness, which we have discovered in the blog article "Do animals have feelings?".

Will dogs that sleep all day while we’re gone sleep at night?

Many people wonder if dogs that rest a lot during the day will also sleep at night. On average, a dog sleeps 14 hours a day, but this depends significantly on breed, age, and living environment.

From a neuro-cognitive perspective, dogs' sleep is divided into two phases: slow-wave sleep and REM sleep.

During slow-wave sleep, dogs relax their muscles and breathe slowly and deeply, while during REM sleep, they may appear restless and tense, often making strange noises, like barking or whimpering.

Today, dogs follow a sleep cycle that aligns with the humans they live with, making it essentially diurnal and nocturnal.

During the day, dogs’ sleep is fragmented, but they manage interruptions well, which can be due to various factors, from external and internal noises to the presence of other animals in the house.

At night, however, dogs sleep more deeply, but they still maintain a great ability to quickly switch between wakefulness and sleep.

So, if dogs rest during the day when we’re not home, they will likely also sleep at night but more deeply and peacefully, knowing we are nearby.

But there’s more: dogs have an innate connection to time, regulated by their biological clock.


The Biological Clock in Dogs

If we were to lock ourselves in a dark room, after a few hours, we’d likely lose track of time, unable to tell the exact hour. After a while, however, our biological clock might kick in.

How? For instance, through hunger or sleep. We would eat and rest, and the cycle could start over, without knowing the exact time, eventually losing track of the number of days passed.

Does this happen to our furry friends?

What is the biorhythm in dogs?

The biorhythm is a natural cycle that marks changes in bodily functions, such as the circadian rhythm regulating the sleep-wake cycle, lasting 24 hours.

Dogs, like all animals, have internal clocks synchronized with external environmental stimuli. These clocks are crucial for their health, connected to functions like metabolism, temperature, blood pressure, and heart rate.

To understand dogs' perception of time, we must consider their biological clock as well.

Dogs are in tune with their body's rhythms, which indicate when to wake up, sleep, and eat. Some studies suggest that dogs can gauge the passage of time based on the last event, such as if the food bowl was filled 6 hours ago or 1 hour ago.

This perception of time can also be related to dogs’ habits and routines, from meal times to walks and play.

Do dogs have an innate understanding of time?

As previously mentioned, dogs perceive time based on experiences, habits, and biological mechanisms.

Each dog may have its own rhythm, influenced by various factors. For instance, a younger dog may be more active during the day and need more stimulation, while an older dog may rest more and be less active.

Dogs can also adjust to our schedules and routines, adapting their own time perception accordingly.

Can dogs perceive our return?

Yes, dogs can anticipate our return home. They have a keen sense of smell and hearing, allowing them to detect our presence from afar.

They can also recognize familiar sounds, like our footsteps or the sound of our car, and associate them with our return.


How can we help our dogs feel less lonely when we’re away?

  • Routine: Establish a consistent routine for meals, walks, and playtime.
  • Enrichment: Provide toys, puzzles, and activities to keep them engaged.
  • Comfort: Create a comfortable space with their favorite items.
  • Companionship: Consider a pet sitter or doggy daycare if they struggle with being alone.
  • Training: Work on separation training to help them feel secure when left alone.


Conclusion

Dogs' perception of time is unique and differs from ours. They rely on their senses, routines, and biological rhythms to navigate the passage of time. By understanding their perspective and providing a supportive environment, we can help them feel more comfortable and secure when we're not around.

 

Article written with the consultation of Chiara Festelli, Canine Educator.

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