Can Dogs Tell The Time?

Do you ever wonder if your dog can tell the time? Your dog may not look at the clock but most dogs do know when it is dinner time or time to go for a walk. How do they do this?

It’s biological
All animals have a circadian rhythm. Circadian rhythms are the physical, mental and behavioural changes that follow a 24 hour cycle, responding to light and dark in the animal’s environment. They may also be affected by other factors such as temperature and social cues. Humans, dogs, other animals and even plants have these rhythms.

An animal’s response to these circadian rhythms is coordinated by the brain which enables neuronal and hormonal activities in the body. This internal mechanism that controls our regular activities is often referred to as our biological clock.

Circadian rhythms and biological clocks enable us to recognise that, when it becomes light, for instance, we begin to feel hungry or when daylight ends, we start to feel sleepy.

Dogs and human differ

While both dogs and humans have circadian rhythms and biological or body clocks, we differ in our habits. Dogs, for instance, are flexible in their sleep patterns and can very quickly be woken and ready to go for a walk, even when they have been in a deep sleep seconds before. And, of course, most dogs are ready and willing to eat at any time, not just meal times.

Do dogs know when you are coming home?
There have been many claims that dogs know when their owners are coming home and may respond by greeting them at the door, gate or even the local train station! Perhaps one day we will know if dogs do have a true sixth sense but for now we believe they are highly attuned to our routines and environmental associations and triggers.

Dogs know our routines, often better than we do. If we get up a little later at weekends, for instance, your dog may immediately know that they are going for a walk, whereas the rest of the week, they understand that walks are unlikely to happen. Many dogs also know they are about to be left alone as soon as you pick up your keys.

Time passes
Owners often wonder if dogs have a sense of time passing and if our dogs miss us when we are gone. Well, the answer to that is a definite yes. When dogs in one study were left home alone for varying periods of time, they responded with differing levels of enthusiasm on their owner's return. Generally, the longer the time left alone, the more enthusiastic the welcome the owner received on returning home. Chances are, however, many of our dogs just snooze while we are gone.

To sleep
While adult humans tend to have one main sleep per day, lasting roughly eight hours, dogs may have many more sleep-wake episodes during the eight-hour overnight period. When the sleep-cycles of dogs were video recorded, they were discovered to consist of 16 minutes of sleep and five minutes of being awake, the latter accompanied by barking in many dogs. Due to this discrepancy between canine and humans sleep cycles, dogs often disturb our sleep - or that of our neighbours! Interestingly, dogs within multi-dog households do not synchronise their sleep cycles and will only wake one another up when there is a major disturbance.

Adams, G.J. & Johnson, K.G. (1993). Sleep-wake cycles and other night-time behaviours of the domestic dog Canis familiaris. Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci., 46: 233–248. 2. Rehn, T. & Keeling, L. (2011). The effect of time left alone at home on dog welfare. Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci., 129: 129-136.


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