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How does your dog tell time?

How does your dog tell time?

Some say that dogs have no concept of time and only respond to environmental cues, but studies have shown that a dog is more excited to see an owner that has been absent for 2-4 hours than one that’s only been gone for thirty minutes.

We’ve all heard about or owned dogs that stand next to the door waiting for a family member to walk in at a specific time or that nose open the bedroom door right at bedtime. Most dogs that seem to tell time do this within five minutes on either side of the specified time. Some dogs hit it nearly on the nose.

So what makes them do that? How do they know?

There are varying theories on how this might work. They probably all contribute to how dogs tell time but one stands out from the rest.

Circadian rhythms

Circadian rhythms, or biological clock, affect how dogs experience their day. These rhythms are influenced more by light than by feeding schedules. Light influences hormone production which is what drives the inner clock to tell a dog that it’s time to sleep or time to play.

If you have certain habits that are time-dependent and those occur when your pooch feels a certain level of energy, that could be how your dog is telling time.


Or, it could be what a certain time of day looks or sounds like. If you wake up at six a.m. every day and the light looks a certain way and a specific type of bird is chirping out your window your dog will notice these as cues and will wake you up if you miss the alarm.

Our Behavior

When you pick up a leash or open the fridge door, your dog likely has a reaction. Those are obvious cues they get from us that something is about to happen. We give them other cues that are more subtle that we might not ourselves notice.

If you pat your own tummy when it’ s supper time or you scratch your head when you’re thinking about where you left your wallet – almost any little thing – your dog picks up on it if you do it enough.  They then take that cue to interpret what you’re going to do next.


While all of the above give us an insight into how Rover knows what’s about to happen, scientists are now thinking that if they have a concept of time itself, it comes to them through smell, or rather, the disintegration of it.

When you leave the house, your scent is fresh. Dog noses are highly developed and can smell things we can’t or can smell scents long after they fade for us. We often either smell something or we don’t. Scientists think dogs can smell things in degrees and as time passes and those scents lessen, dogs are, in a sense, sensing the passage of time.

So, whatever amount of your scent is lingering is present at a certain time of day, your dog knows that level of scent precedes your arrival. It could work on other things like how much bacon scent from breakfast is left in the air before you cook lunch, but studies have mostly looked at how they react to leftover human scent.

This concept sounds like the environmental theory but it also works in the wild. If you take your dog out for a walk and it smells a tree, special receptors in his nose that you and I don’t have tell him that another dog was there and how long ago that dog left his scent.

If the dog can sense by level of scent, maybe he is “telling time” by scent at 3 p.m., knowing he has an extended amount of time to chew shoes before you get home and catch him in the act.
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