Let’s start with how humans tell time, so we can get a more accurate sense of how our dogs do it.
Humans tell time by using a clock and episodic memory, which is the ability to recall past events and look forward to future ones. But dogs do not do this. However that does not mean that they are perpetually stuck in the moment, either.
According to Animal Planet, “Dogs are capable of being trained based on past events and taught to anticipate future events based on past experiences.”
That’s great, but it still doesn’t answer our question: How do dogs tell time?
One way to measure that is by how long you’ve been gone.
“Studies show that dogs display greater affection toward their owners if they’ve been separated for longer periods of time. As the amount of time away increases, so does the dogs’ excitement. This will come as no surprise to dog owners; most canines get excited about the return of the master to the castle, especially after long absences. But this research is also important because it shows that dogs are capable of recognizing and responding to different spans of time,” notes Animal Planet.
Another suggestion is that dogs tell time on a more biological level.
“Dogs might use circadian oscillators – daily fluctuations of hormones, body temperature and neural activity – to know when food is likely to hit the bowl or when owners are likely to return from work. Instead of remembering how much time passes between meals or what time meals are given, dogs react to a biological state they reach at a particular time of day. And they react the same way at the same time every day to this stimulus,” writes Animal Planet.
In other words, their bodies tell them and they just “know” that it’s time for dinner, bed or going for walk.
Some experts think dog’s posses the ability to track how much time has passed since the last walk or feeding, and based on this, figure out time.
Dr. William A. Roberts, a former pyschology professor at the university of Western Ontario, told ABC News, “Instead of remembering when an event happened within a framework of past time, animals are keeping track of how much time has elapsed since caching or encountering a particular food item at a particular place and using elapsed time to indicate return to or avoidance of that location.”
In short, dogs can tell time based on the events in their lives. They do not have the ability to recall time based on past memories, but rather based on events like eating and walking.
One of the first things we are told when we get a dog is to create a routine for easier training. Take your dog out to potty at the same time, feed him and walk him at the same times every day. So you could argue that humans train their dogs to “tell time” when they establish a routine.
“Any pet owner will tell you that if you feed your dog or cat at a certain time of day the animal will start hounding the food bowl at the appropriate time of day,” Roberts added. “They are very good at recognizing specific time intervals, like 30 seconds from the last time his ears were scratched, or three hours since the last walk, but they can’t remember time as a dimension that extends into the past.”