It’s hard not to break down in tears when you watch a video of a dog reuniting with their beloved human after being separated for months, or even years, on end. You’ve probably seen some of the viral videos of soldiers returning home to be greeted by pups that have emotional breakdowns after finally being together again. The videos would suggest that dogs miss their humans more intensely with time, but can dogs really tell time the way humans do? We know the difference between an hour, day, week, month, year, and so on because of the way we experience, record, and remember time. Are dogs capable of telling time the same way, and do they have emotional responses based on how much time has passed?
How Do Humans Experience Time?
There are many factors that contribute to the way humans experience time, which include our natural circadian rhythms, the constructs we’ve created such as seconds and hours, and our memories. It may be the way our memories work that separates our experience of time from that of other animals, including dogs, more than anything else.
Humans have good episodic memories, meaning we can recall specific events, relate them to other events, and anticipate future events. We can create a timeline in our heads and place memories in order, and that gives us a pretty good sense of how much time has passed, whether it’s a short time or a long time. A minute feels different from an hour, which is different than a day, a week, a year, a decade, etc. based on our specific episodic memories.
It used to be thought that episodic memories were unique to humans, though research suggests otherwise. Some birds, for example, return to locations based on where they store supplies and what they have stored. If they are gone for a long time, they return to places where they stored items that weren’t perishable, which suggests they know when they’ve been gone for a significant amount of time versus a short of time. Humans, however, don’t just know the difference between a short time and a long time; they differentiate time lengths more specifically and live their lives based on that ability to differentiate. But what about dogs? Can they tell the difference between specific lengths of time? Do they react differently when we’ve been gone for a long time than when we’ve been away for a short time?
How Do Dogs Experience Time?
Most dog owners will tell you that dogs record day-to-day time very well. They know within minutes each day when it is time to wake up, go outside, eat, and so on. You may be able to set your watch by your dog’s ability to stay on schedule. Does that mean dogs can construct timelines the way humans do with episodic memories?
Maybe, but not necessarily. There are many ways that dogs can tell time, as most animals can, that don’t depend on episodic memories. Most forms of life on earth have developed circadian rhythms, which are natural biological clocks that are tied to the length of a day. Dogs rely on this rhythm to tell them when to address their needs for food, sleep, and other necessary activities.
Dogs are also pretty good at creating associations between events, which is important for conditioning behavior. For example, dogs understand when you punish them for going potty in the house so long as you catch them in the act. If you punish them even a few seconds later, they probably don’t understand what’s wrong. They may just think you have a general problem with urine or feces, but it would be hard for them to connect their actions with the consequence.
This is a form of pattern recognition, and that can help dogs tell time fairly well, too. Dogs can use pattern recognition along with their senses to keep a schedule. For example, they can smell your scent when you are home. When you’re gone, your scent dissipates a bit. If you come back home at the same time every day, your dog can anticipate when you’re about to walk through the door based on how much of your scent is still present. They may also be able to determine when it is time to eat based on the amount of daylight that they see through the window. They recognize the pattern and tell time accordingly.
But what about episodic memory? Biological clocks and pattern recognition are alright for telling time on a given day, and they can affect the way dogs behave, learn, and adapt, but they may not account for how dogs can tell the difference between one full day or a week, a year, and so on, if they can tell the difference at all. What does actual research have to say about dogs’ ability to tell time?
Dogs can’t just tell us if they know how long we’ve been gone, so researchers have to run experiments to see if dogs can really tell time. There are surprisingly few actual studies of whether dogs can differentiate between lengths of time, but one experiment in 2011 conducted by Swedish researchers placed hidden cameras that recorded how dogs reacted when their owners were away for a half hour, two hours, and four hours.
The experiment showed that dogs reacted more enthusiastically when their owners were gone for two hours versus a half hour, which suggests that dogs can, indeed, tell the difference between these times. However, dogs did not react differently when their owners were gone for two hour versus four hours. So is there a limit to how long dogs can tell time?
This is a question for further research. Right now, it seems that there aren’t many scientific measurements of whether dogs can tell the difference between us being gone for, say, a day versus a week or a month versus a year. All we can conclusively say from the studies we have is that dogs can tell the difference between some lengths of time. But we may be able to use our own experiences as dog owners, as well as the experiences of others, to form some guesses that we can test in the future with new science and research.
Do Dogs React Differently Based On How Much Time Passes?
If you ask a dog owner whether their dog can tell how long they’ve been gone, most will tell you that their dog does have a sense of how much time has passed since they left. They’ll tell you that it goes beyond their dog not getting a meal on time. Their dogs just know, and pups have emotional reactions that prove it. Why do dog owners feel that way? Are they just projecting their own feelings onto their dogs?
That may be a part of it, but maybe dogs can really tell time. Dog owners who have pups that suffer from separation anxiety can tell you that their dog reacts very differently depending on the exact number of hours they’ve been away. Maybe they shake during hour one, have an accident at hour two, start tearing up furniture at hour three, and so on. Do these anxious pups really tell time accurately, or are their symptoms just getting worse because they aren’t being addressed? We don’t know the exact answer because we don’t seem to have enough studies to form a consensus.
Then we come back to the videos of dogs being reunited with their owners. The pups always seem to be clearly more enthusiastic than most dogs would be after their owners are gone for, say, one day. Of course, we don’t really get to see how these dogs in the videos react to being separated for a normal amount of time, so we can’t say for sure that they are reacting differently, but dog owners rely on their experiences to draw some conclusions.
Our opinions about whether dogs can tell time are mostly based on anecdotal evidence, but that doesn’t mean we’re wrong in thinking that our dogs can tell time. In fact, these experiences can be very valuable for creating new research and experiments that can one day add some objectivity to our understanding of how dogs tell time. Finding out answers may affect the way we treat problems like separation anxiety, how we handle leaving our dogs alone, and how we address our dogs’ life experiences.
What do you think? Can your dog tell exactly how long you’ve been gone? Let us know in the comments below!