Dog time

If you I have a dog, you’ve probably had a similar experience. You leave the house, realize you forgot your phone, go back in to get it, and your dog greets you like you’ve been away for 10 years.

Dogs seem to have no sense of time. But that same dog waits lovingly by the door just when it’s time for the kids to come home from school. What gives? Can dogs tell time or not? What does weather even mean to a dog?

This is a difficult question to answer, and what precious little research has been done is frankly not that helpful. But when it comes to the second example above, there’s probably a pretty straightforward answer.

Read more: What time is it?

Time passes or not

“There’s a lot of evidence that dogs know when someone should come home,” says Greg Bryant, a cognitive scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles. “But many of these stories don’t include details that are likely to be important.”

Dogs have better hearing than humans; they may be able to hear an oncoming car and distinguish it from other cars long before it stops in the driveway. Or there may be more subtle clues, Bryant says, things we wouldn’t even think about: the slant of the light at that time of day, or a very faint sound the clock makes, or maybe something the upstairs neighbor always does at this time of day.

“I think you have to be careful about attributing such an effect to the perception of time,” he says.

Perhaps more interesting is how dogs perceive the passage of time. There is evidence, Bryant says, that dogs perceive time as passing more slowly than humans. This is based on research on different species showing differences based on metabolism, ecology and lifespan, as well as other factors. So the reason your dog freaks out when you’ve been gone for 15 minutes may be because those 15 minutes on the clock seemed a lot longer to Fido than to you.

Read more: How does your dog understand you?

Also, we all know how complicated the perception of time can be, even for a species that surrounds itself with clocks and calendars. The pandemic, for example, really messed up our sense of time, leading to the creation of the word blursday. During the lockdown, many people felt as though time had almost stopped and become meaningless.

Now we often find ourselves simultaneously feeling that the beginning of the pandemic it was years ago and this is it still summer 2020 If we can’t get a better handle on our own sense of time, how can we expect to understand what it is for our dogs?

Dogs and the perception of time

Of course, we can’t know how our dogs feel because they can’t tell us. And this lack of language may be the crux of the whole problem. Our sense of how quickly or slowly time passes is a function of how we think about time. And the way we think about time—even the fact that we can think about it at all—is a function of our ability to communicate about it.

“Language has opened up all these possibilities for things we can think about,” says Bryant, who specializes in the evolution of communication. And time is one of them.

In fact, much of the perception of time involves thinking about the past and the future, and dogs probably don’t do much introspection. Humans are probably the only species that can wonder how other species (and other members of our species) conceptualize time, Bryant says.

“We’re weird in that we have this concept of time that we can talk about, but every other animal, including dogs, [time] is just what it is.”

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