How dogs think of time is a fascinating concept– one we only partially understand based on current science.
Dogs don’t understand time like humans– they can’t read clocks or calendars. However, they do feel time passing, learn their routines, and seem to have some concept of the past and future. They may feel time passing more slowly than we do.
In this article, we’ll discuss whether dogs understand time, what they seem to comprehend, and what they don’t.
Dogs Don’t Understand the Man-Made Concept of Time
Animals like dogs don’t understand our concept of time, because it’s man-made. For instance, your dog cannot read the clock on your nightstand or tell you it’s Tuesday.
They also don’t know what we mean when we ask them to wait a minute or an hour. While dogs do have some sense of time, they don’t know how much of it has passed in numbers.
Even humans have trouble with this! Have you ever felt like something took ages, then looked at the clock and only fifteen minutes had passed? Or gotten invested in an activity and then realized you’d been doing it the whole day without noticing?
Dogs likely feel this too, and don’t have clocks to correct them!
We also seem to consider time more than dogs, who live more in the present moment.
But, Dogs Do Feel the Passing of Time
That said, dogs do know that time is passing. They have the ability to think about the past and at least the near future. This is evidenced in them remembering people or animals they used to know, and by their getting excited about things like dinner or riding in the car to get to the park.
They also know their routines. Dogs don’t know it’s Tuesday, but if you do something special every Tuesday, they will recognize the pattern and begin to anticipate it. For instance, I used to take my dog to the park every Saturday morning and he would wake me up if he thought I’d slept in too long– something he didn’t do the rest of the week.
Your dog will also know when their mealtimes occur, when it’s time to go for a walk, when you get home from work, and any other parts of your daily routine. This is why it’s important to keep these things the same so that they know when to anticipate important things like food and exercise.
They May Experience it More Slowly than Us
Dogs might also have a different sense of time than humans, though we can’t know for sure how they perceive things like this.
We do know that younger humans process time differently, and this might be related. Five minutes is forever when you’re a toddler, but to most adults, five minutes pass by quickly. This has to do with our amount of lived experience.
So, it makes sense that your puppy and even your 14-year-old dog feel that time moves slower than you if you’re an adult many years older than them, who has experienced more time.
We know that dogs can be pretty impatient, especially when young! This might also explain why some dogs will act super excited to see you, even if you’ve only run out to the car for a few minutes. For them, it might seem like you’ve been gone longer than it felt to you.
Dogs May Not Think About the Future
We can’t read dogs’ brains, so even scientists can’t say with certainty how dogs think and feel about the future. But, we do currently believe that dogs and other animals live primarily in the present moment.
There have been studies such as this one on monkeys that show that animals will choose larger quantities of food over smaller quantities of food (two bananas instead of one banana) when the numbers are low.
But when the amount of food exceeded what they could eat right away, the monkeys in that study seemed to choose at random. This might mean they didn’t plan for being hungry in the future, only now. Studies on other animals have shown similar results.
However, it could also mean that they didn’t recognize the difference between the quantity of food, or that the ones who chose the smaller pile had other reasoning.
It’s also possible that if the monkeys were used to being fed, they simply didn’t fear hunger.
You might also be wondering about dogs’ instincts to hoard and bury their food. Well, there are studies that show that hoarding animals continue to hoard even when their food disappears. So, scientists think it might just be an instinct rather than conscious thought.
Again, though, this study is flawed as we can only guess what an animal is thinking or why they take the actions that they do. Perhaps the animals in this study knew they needed the food, and didn’t know what else to do with their stash, so they kept going knowing it might disappear again.
Dogs Remember the Past
While it’s hard to say whether dogs think about the future, we do know that they remember the past. This is showcased by their long-term memories.
Dogs can remember people or animals they used to know, such as their previous owners or their littermates. They also remember the commands they’ve learned, and it’ll take your dog time to forget a trick even if you don’t repeat it every day.
Dogs also have great senses of direction that are likely, at least partially, impacted by their memory.
While we don’t know how much dogs dwell on the past– if it all– we do know that they can recall memories. Many people believe that dogs think about the past only when something reminds them, such as if they see a person they remember.
But, we can’t really know this without being able to communicate with them or climb inside their heads.
Dogs are Affected by Time Spent Alone
We also know that dogs can be affected by large periods of alone time, even if they might not perceive time itself as humans do.
Dogs get more excited when their people come home after long amounts of time away. They also show more stressed body language like lip licking and trembling when their people come home after a longer time period.
Interestingly, many dogs don’t seem to react strongly to being alone until their owners come home, which is when they communicate their excitement or stress.
Dogs shouldn’t be left alone for more than four hours regularly– so those working full time without someone else home should heavily consider a dog walker to drop in halfway through their workday.
Some dogs can adjust better to time alone than others. Those bred for close human companionships such as lap dogs or some hunting breeds do best in homes where someone in the family is home most of the day.
Leaving your dog for long periods that they cannot handle makes them susceptible to separation anxiety.
Dogs Get Bored When Alone
If dogs are left alone for long periods, they’re bound to get bored. This often shows itself in destructive behaviors like chewing or attempting to escape confinement, repetitive stress behaviors like pacing or excessive panting, or vocalizations such as barking, whining, or howling.
When your dog misbehaves while you’re away, don’t get mad. Instead, have compassion and seek the root of the problem.
Usually, your dog hasn’t had enough exercise, mental enrichment, or attention. Some breeds need to have someone around most of the day. In addition, no dog should be consistently left alone for more than about four hours at a time.
Misbehavior while alone can also stem from separation anxiety, which is an illness. If your dog has separation anxiety, working with a veterinarian or veterinary behaviorist can help ease its symptoms.
Hopefully this article has cleared some things up when it comes to dogs and their understanding of time. Dogs do have a concept of time, learn routines, and have some understanding of the past and future. However, they don’t seem to think of time in the precise way that humans do. This is mostly because we can read things like calendars and clocks.
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