Do Dogs Have a Sense of Time, Really?

Written by Emily Wolfel
Updated: September 29, 2022
© Dora Zett/Shutterstock.com
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Key Points

  • While dogs have some sense of time, science has thus far shown that they do not perceive the passage of it the way humans do.
  • They use external stimuli, biological rhythms, and pattern recognition to gauge how much time has passed and when certain events will occur.
  • So while they don’t perceive time in the same terms that humans do (seconds, minutes, hours, etc.), they understand it enough to know when their owners have been away for a short vs. long time.

As a dog owner, you would notice your furry pal getting antsy as mealtime gets close. Or maybe they are extra energetic right before you take them out for their usual walk. Sometimes, your dog is more reliable than an alarm clock when waking you up in the morning.

All that can usually lead you to ask, does my dog have a sense of time? Sometimes, it seems like they know how to read a clock. But there is more to this than you think.

Can My Dog Tell What Time It Is?

The answer to that question is complex. It is both a yes and no at the same time. We do not know how your dog perceives time because we cannot ask them. Dogs have their way of gauging and measuring time.

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Think You Can?

Just because a dog can gauge time does not mean they perceive each passing second the same way you do. One thing is for sure, though, they do not know what a clock is. Most likely, what happens is they have one of two types of memory:

  • Semantic memory is the type that includes general knowledge collected through time. That includes facts, meanings, and ideas. A good example is knowing the name of your dog and its color.
  • Episodic memory revolves around recollecting previous experiences and events in your life. For example, you can think about the first day you got your furry pal from the pound or the first time they completed a trick.

While humans have both types of memory, dogs only have a semantic one. They understand verbal commands, body language, and other cues learned throughout their lives. That is why they can respond to commands and their name.

What is unclear is their episodic memory. More research is needed to find out if they can recall memories from their past or if it is all instinct.

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Why Do They Know When Dinner Is?

With that level of understanding about their memory, we can answer why your dog somehow knows when their next meal is coming. If you usually give dinner at 5 p.m., you will notice your pet walk back and forth in anticipation of the food. The question is, do they know the clock is ticking towards that fateful time?

Most likely, they do not know the exact time. They pick up on a series of events that indicates dinner is on the way.

Your dog will recognize a pattern you do leading up to food getting into their bellies. For example, you can do specific things like start closing the windows and then prepare your food. After that, they will hear the distinct sound of the can opener doing its job.

They see signs that they learn from before indicating what they are doing. Whether it is preparing to serve dinner or when you are about to go out. If they see these signs, that is when they react to them.

The next time you prepare to go out, try to see what patterns you do. You can get into the shower, get dressed, then pick up your keys, which will make familiar sounds. Your dog can pick up on these things, remember them, and know you are about to go out of the house.

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Does My Dog Have Memories?

Based on the above explanation, you can conclude that your dog has other memory. They can pick up on patterns and remember them. Well, this is where things get confusing.

The argument is that they can form memories related to different circumstances. A good example here is when you plan to go to the vet. Something triggered the trip there before. Maybe they got cut or injured. Something upsetting happened that led to going to the vet. That event instills in them the idea that when something upsetting happens, it will trigger a trip to the vet.

Which is the same as how they know they are getting food. They can hear the familiar sound of you opening a can, which means food is up next. Or if you pick up your keys, that familiar rattle means you are leaving.

It may not be a memory in the sense that they remember specific events. Rather they have a memory that if A happens, B will be next.

Do Dogs Measure Time?

A study by the Applied Animal Behavior Science journal shows the relation of dogs and tracking the amount of time that has passed. The researchers studied the dogs’ reactions to their owners coming home after varying periods of time.

The findings were that the dogs who were left longer greeted their owner more enthusiastically than those left alone for a shorter period. That unveils a correlation between how long you are away and their reaction to you when coming home. They can tell if you left for a few minutes to buy something from the corner store or if you went out the entire day for work.

Dog trainers also attest that they have a sense of time. They can teach these amazing animals to do something for specific lengths of time. For example, they can ask a dog to sit straight for 10 or even 15 seconds.

What Does This Mean?

Dogs do have a sense of time. They can measure it and perceive it. But it is different than yours. Dogs do not rely on a calendar or a clock to say what the time is. Instead, they rely on instincts coupled with biological rhythms, temperature, and outside stimuli to tell what is happening around them.

While they perceive time and measure, it is not as precise or similar to how you see it. Dogs do not have seconds, minutes, or even hours. Again, they go by instinct and basic memory of what happens next to understand time.

And because your furry baby reacts the way they do when you are away for longer periods, you can safely assume that they miss you. And that can lead to some anxiety for them.

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Easing Separation Anxiety

Have you ever noticed that when you grab your car keys, your pup suddenly is active? They can jump around and tap you to get your attention. It is as if they are asking if they are coming with you. They know you are leaving; they also know it will be for some time, and it means they will be alone at home, missing you.

Separation anxiety is triggered when the dog is very attached to the owner. According to a recent study, anxiety tendencies also have a genetic factor, so some dog breeds are genetically more prone to separation anxiety than others. Dogs with the condition get stressed when you leave them alone. It is more than just a little bit of whining while you prepare to go out. It can develop into a serious condition.

Signs of separation anxiety in dogs include:

  • Lots of howling and barking, more than usual.
  • They chew things inside the house while you are away.
  • You will find scratch marks on the doors and windows.
  • Drooling or salivating more than usual.
  • Have a pee or poop in the house, even if they are trained.
  • They try to escape.

They would not do most of these things while you are around. But you will notice these behaviors a lot if they do have separation anxiety.

Fortunately, this can be treated. Like any medical problem with your beloved pup, it starts with talking to your vet. You want to confirm the condition first before doing anything drastic.

For mild problems, you can end up trying the following things:

  • Give your dog a specific treat while you are away, like a puzzle toy with peanut butter. That gives him something to do and keeps the dog’s mind off of you.
  • Leave around clothing smelling like you so that the dog feels your presence.
  • Try to keep things low-key when you leave. Once you are home, do not give all your attention to your dog right as you walk through the door. Try resisting the urge to snuggle and ignore it for a few minutes.
  • You can also use calming supplements or treats.
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If the problem is serious, the distraction technique may not work. Your dog will start getting antsy as soon as you wear your shoes or show any other sign that you are leaving. You can repeat your actions before leaving, but instead of going out, do something else like watch TV. That will help their anxiety to disappear based on specific activities.

Another great trick for dog separation anxiety is to disappear slowly. Once you get out of the door, go back inside after a few minutes. Gradually increase the time of coming and going. That will help them relax as you leave.

Make sure you keep your dog exercised. If your pet is tired and happy, they will feel less stressed when you leave.

While it is heartwarming and sweet that your dog misses you when you go out, it is up to you to ensure that they do not get too stressed about it. Give your dog enough time to adjust to everything, and he will love you even more for it.

Up Next…

Do you want to keep reading? Try one of these resources next:

All of Your Dog’s Strange Behaviors, Explained – Learn the reason for some of the strange behaviors your dog sometimes exhibits.

Types of Dogs: All Breeds from A-Z – Find out interesting facts about different types of dogs in our comprehensive guide to all breeds.

Sure-Fire Ways to Treat Your Dog’s Separation Anxiety – Discover proven methods for treating and reducing your dog’s separation anxiety.

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The Featured Image

Border collie with one blue and one brown eye lying next to an alarm clock
Dogs ability to make associations with events and distinguish patterns give them a rudimentary sense of time.
© Dora Zett/Shutterstock.com

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About the Author

Emily is an editor and content marketing specialist of five years. She grew up in rural Pennsylvania where you can regularly encounter anything from elk to black bears to river otters. Over the years, she raised livestock animals, small animals, dogs, cats, and birds, which is where she learned most of what she knows about various animals and what allowed her to work as a dog groomer and manager of a specialty pet store. She now has three rescue cats and two high-needs Pomeranian mixes to take up her love and attention.

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