Do Dogs Have a Sense of Time?

Find out whether our canine friends comprehend time the same way we do.

Nov 2, 2023By Donna Hobson
do dogs have sense of time

It’s hard to know how a dog experiences something because we can’t ask them any kind of meaningful questions to get a fix on their perception. However, recent research may help us delve into this question further.

Find out how this research helps us understand more about our canine companions and whether they experience time in the same way we do.

Do Dogs Have a Sense of Time When Left Alone?

dog clock time
Credit: Image by THE 5TH on Pixabay

The question of whether dogs have a sense of time is a contentious issue that not all scientists agree on. Veterinarian Yui Shapard describes how just one minute of pain could feel like forever to a canine. And it’s this belief that leads several vets to advocate for additional quality of life measures for dogs, such as sufficient pain relief during medical procedures.

However, not all animal scientists agree with this philosophy. Animal behaviorists, such as Katherine Pankratz, argue that dogs have more grasp on time than some give them credit for. And they can tell the difference between a short interval and a more extended period.

This latter theory is backed by a 2011 study, which concluded that dogs are impacted “by the duration of time they spend home alone.”

Dogs possess a sense of time, but not necessarily a concept. While the episodic memory of a human allows us to focus on various points in the past and future; a dog’s associative memory allows it to live in the moment.

Do Dogs Perceive Time in The Same Way as Humans?

clock time
Credit: Image by Bruno /Germany on Pixabay

“Time” as we know it is an entirely human creation, a way for our minds to structure and organize the way we experience life's linearity. So, while dogs may experience some sense of time, it’s improbable that they would perceive it the same way as us or understand any human concepts.

What dogs do possess is an internal clock, which is driven by circadian rhythms, hormonal fluctuations, and other indicators. The term “circadian rhythm” refers to the changes that happen to the body through a 24-hour period; humans experience this too, which is why we wake up when it gets light in the morning.

This internal clock allows your dog to understand the basics of time, such as when their owner will come home from work or when it’s dinner time.

To help a dog regulate this internal clock, they use environmental cues known as “zeitgebers” to help them understand how time passes. Zeitgebers might include things such as the presence of light or the fluctuations in temperature throughout the day.

How Long Does an Hour Feel to A Dog?

dog sitting waiting window
Credit: Image by Amit Karkare on Pixabay

For years, many scientists have considered that dogs may have a basic understanding of time. Still, recent studies have suggested that animals may be able to distinguish between different periods. A research piece from 2018 (conducted on mice but likely applicable to many mammal species) concludes that animal brains can process different amounts of time.

Dogs have far shorter lifespans than humans, and their bodies age faster. The first year of a dog’s life equates to roughly 15 years of human life; after they reach the age of three, every subsequent year equates to about five years of human life.

For this reason, the basic theory is that dogs understand time at a ratio of 1:7 when compared to humans - so one human hour is roughly seven hours for a dog.

Using these calculations, a dog’s “day” would only last for around 3 hours and 37 minutes; meanwhile, our 24-hour day is the equivalent of seven full days for a dog. But with no accurate way to question a dog, these figures are based on science's best guesses.

Can My Dog Understand How Long I’ll Be Gone?

dog sitting waiting at door
Credit: Image by Sosinda on Pixabay

It’s okay to let your partner know that you’ll be back at 5:30 pm, but you can’t really strap a wristwatch onto your dog and tell them to watch the minutes pass by.

While it’s impossible for your dog to understand the concept of time on a human level, they can appreciate a rhythm or pattern of time. If you want the ability to leave for work each day without your dog worrying, then stick to a routine.

Leaving and returning at a similar time every day, your dog will become accustomed to your schedule and have an idea of when to expect you back home. A predictable routine can help reduce anxiety in your dog; for example, leaving at the same time for work each day will be less stressful for them than leaving your pup alone as you enjoy a spontaneous night out.

Your canine can understand when you’re getting ready to leave the house because we give many cues, such as putting on our shoes or picking up our keys. And these cues give your dog a clue where you might be headed. For example, if you put sneakers on, your dog can understand that you’re heading out for a jog.

Dogs use associative memories to understand the world around them, and it is these associations that can help your dog allocate an activity and a timeframe to your disappearance.

Donna Hobson
By Donna Hobson

Donna believes that keeping a pet is the key to a happy life. Over the years, many creatures have passed through her home - Sooty the cat, Millie the rabbit, Stuart (Little) the guinea pig, and Trixie the tortoise, alongside her pet goldfish, Zippy, who lived to the grand old age of 24 years! She currently resides with her black kitten Jinx and an aquarium full of fish and snails to entrance them both. When she is not looking after her pets, Donna enjoys researching and writing the answers to all your pet-related wonders.