Do Dogs Have a Concept of Time?
If your dog is anything like mine, he knows exactly when it's his dinner time, when it's time to go for a walk, and even what time his favorite playmate—AKA dog dad—comes home. Can he really "tell" time?
"I've never met a dog that can read a clock, but anyone who owns a dog can confirm that their pet certainly seems to always know the exact time they are fed a meal," says Dr. Kristin Wuellner, practicing veterinarian and Hill's Pet Nutrition employee.
"Dogs definitely pick up on our daily routines and both our verbal and non-verbal cues very well, which leads us to the perception that they have an internal clock," she says.
So, can dogs tell time?
Researchers discovered that when dogs are in "waiting mode," anticipating one of their known activities like a walk or a meal, for instance, neurons in their brains are activated. The neurons are housed in the brain's temporal lobe, where the researchers speculate their time memory may be stored.
We know dogs have a circadian rhythm, an internal sense that helps them know when to sleep and when to be active. Perhaps it's more advanced than we think. Scientists have also theorized that dogs could be sniffing time. The scent of their meal lingers for so long and when it's gone, they know it's time for the meal to come again, for example.
What's more, a large part of your dog's seeming ability to read the clock also stems from his habits and repetition. Dogs are little robots, where if you feed them promptly at 6 and head out for a walk promptly at 7 every day, they begin to anticipate when it's close to 6 or 7 by what's happening in the home, by the light or shadows outside the home and with other cues, like their hunger or need for exercise or a potty break.
Dr. Wuellner says, dogs are very adept at picking up on our routines and communication, both verbal and non-verbal. "Similar to people, they also experience their own hunger and biological cues. I think the combination of our routine and their own needs is what makes dogs incredible time-keepers."
Should you mix it up and feed or walk your dog at different times?
While every dog is an individual and has their own unique preferences, Dr. Wuellner says she typically recommends that pet owners try to stick to a routine as much as possible. "In my clinical experience, many dogs that exhibit anxious behaviors may benefit tremendously simply from having a normal daily schedule."
That said, you can still spice up your dog's daily routine by mixing it up in other ways. Try adding a wet food topper to mealtime, going to a new park, or varying your regular walk route. Even things like rotating their available toys can help your pet stay engaged and, on his toes, since he never knows what fun trick or treat you might pull on him.
"I've always joked that my dog wears a wristwatch because his excitement for mealtime is always right on schedule," says Dr. Wuellner. Perhaps all our canine companions are sporting the same internal Timex.
As always, consult your pet with any questions regarding your dog's behavior.