You likely have never met a dog that could read a clock, but it does sometimes seem like dogs know the time. They know when it’s time for dinner, to head out for a walk, or even to greet a family member at the door when they get back from work. But if dogs can’t tell time like we do, can they tell how long we’re gone from home?
The short answer is that nobody truly knows. However, research and studies have been done that offer an idea of how time works for a dog and why they might be able to anticipate when we’re coming home. Experts also believe that they know whether our pups miss us when we are away. Here’s the lowdown.
Do Dogs Have a Sense of Time?
While dogs cannot tell time like we humans can, a study done at the Department of Neurobiology at Northwestern University discovered that neurons in the brains of animals become activated when waiting for an expected outcome. So, dogs judge time more so than they tell time. The neurons responsible for this are located near the temporal lobe, where spatial memory gets encoded.
The point of the study was to determine whether this area of the brain also encodes time memory in animals. The research was completed using mice that ran on a treadmill combined with virtual reality technology. When the mice ran, they would come to a virtual closed door. After 6 seconds, the door would open, and the mice could run on to receive a reward.
After a few repetitions, the virtual doors were removed altogether. Yet, the mice would stop where the doors would be and wait for 6 seconds before moving on to their reward, just as if the door were there. This tells researchers that animals may indeed harbor some time memory, which can help explain how they anticipate things like walks and meals at the same time every day.
It’s also thought that dogs can “tell time” through scent. They might smell changes in the air depending on what time of day it is, or they might simply realize that it’s time for food again soon because the smell of their last meal is finally gone. Habits and repetition can both play a role in a dog’s seeming ability to tell time.
Researchers also found out that dogs greeted their owners more robustly after 2 hours than after just 30 minutes, suggesting that they can tell the difference between these timelines. But no indication of knowing the difference between 2 and 4 hours was detected. Therefore, it’s not likely that a dog can tell precisely how long we’re away from home.
Do Dogs Miss Us When We’re Gone?
A study using an MRI machine was conducted to determine whether dogs could understand what their owners were saying (they could!) and whether they miss us when we’re away from home. The researchers used scents to conduct the study. A dog would be exposed to their own scent, their owner’s scent, and the scent of an unfamiliar human, a familiar dog, and an unfamiliar dog.
It turns out that when the dog smelled their beloved human companion, the region of their brain called the caudate nucleus lit up like holiday lights. This region is responsible for how a dog perceives positive expectations and physical and mental rewards. Another study confirmed the findings that dogs tend to miss their human companions more than anyone else or any other familiar dog.
Does Changing a Dog’s Walking or Feeding Schedule Affect Their Sense of Time?
Any changes to a dog’s regular routine will affect their overall sense of time, but it isn’t something that will harm them. They will just readjust their internal clocks to accommodate the changes made to their schedule. However, if you don’t create and maintain a feeding, walking, and general daily schedule for your dog, they may become stressed or anxious because they never know what to expect and cannot as easily get a feel for what “time” it is throughout the day.
How Can I Tell If My Dog Missed Me While I Was Gone?
You likely won’t miss the signs that your pup is excited for you to get home! Aside from the obvious greeting at the door, signs that your pup missed you while you were gone include following you around for the first few minutes, not leaving you alone until you take the time to cuddle them, and/or destroying stuff in your absence.
Can Dogs Get Depressed When Left Home Alone?
Dogs that are dependent on or attached to their human companions may develop separation anxiety. When their human companions leave them home alone, they may feel depressed, stressed, and/or anxious, which can lead to problems like destructive behavior and excessive barking. Establishing a daily routine for your dog to count on, making sure they have enrichment toys to interact with, and doing crate training can all help alleviate separation anxiety.
Dogs cannot tell time as we can. However, they do have a sense of time that enables them to keep track of things like meals, walks, and even when we come home after a long day. Many owners like being able to rely on their canine companions to keep them on track during the day—though some could probably live without their dogs being their morning alarm clock!