Can Dogs Tell Time? The Answer Will Surprise You

Dogs have a sense of time, but they probably don't think about time like humans do.

Updated February 25, 2024
Woman with pet dog sitting and working indoors at home

Incredibly, our dogs often seem to predict precisely when certain events will occur. Whether it's preparing for their daily walk, getting ready to leave them alone to do errands, or reaching for their food dish, dogs often appear to anticipate our actions before we even start. Does this mean our dogs can understand time? It's not entirely clear. Researchers think that dogs do have a sense of time, although it may not be as sophisticated as knowing exactly what time of day it is. Here’s the science.

Your Dog Understands Time Intervals

Dogs seem to understand when more time has passed in an abstract way. For example, dogs respond more strongly when someone who has been away for a long period comes home, suggesting they are able to understand when more time has passed than usual. According to a study published in Applied Animal Behaviour Science, “the effect of time left alone was shown by a more intense greeting behaviour by the dog towards their owner as well as by a higher frequency of physical activity and attentive behaviour when the owner returned.” 

Your Dog Has an Internal Clock (P.S. — So Do You!)

Our dogs (along with us and other animals) have an internal clock that tells them when it's time to do something, like go out or come in from playing outside. Our dogs’ understanding of time is deeply affected by their circadian rhythm, AKA their internal clock, which is essential in determining how they act and react throughout their day. 

By syncing their daily activities with this internal clock, dogs are able to predict changes and events in their routines with remarkable accuracy. This connection between their internal timing and external signals shows a complex link between their natural cycles and how they sense the passage of time in an organized way.

Episodic Memory

Research has found that timing cells, scientifically called neurons, that are located in a specific region of the brain known as the MEC (medial entorhinal cortex) are critical for navigation and memory. This area of the brain is responsible for helping dogs recall past events and navigate their surroundings, which could assist in their ability to perceive time.

This allows our dogs to remember what happened before and guess what might happen next, almost as if they can travel through time in their minds. The study, published in Nature Neuroscience, explained, “These so-called hippocampal 'time cells' fire briefly and consistently at specific times during the task such that behavioral time periods are tiled by a sequence of brief neuronal activations.” In other words, neurons fire during certain tasks, which helps with memory in time intervals. 

Old Labrador Retriever Looking Up During Beautiful Sunrise

Telling Time Based on Smell

Dogs' remarkable sense of smell plays a significant role in their perception of time. Unlike humans, who heavily rely on visual and auditory cues to gauge the passage of time, dogs utilize their acute olfactory abilities to detect subtle changes in scents over time. For example, when a dog's owner leaves for work in the morning, the familiar scent left behind gradually fades throughout the day. 

NPR interviewed Alexandra Horowitz, an expert in canine cognition research, at Columbia University. She explained, “Dogs are living in basically an olfactory world. And they're probably able to track time through smell.” She continued to make the following points:

  1.  “Humans smell. You know, we stink, right? You know, we might not want to think we do, even the very clean among us.”
  2. “We leave our odor signature everywhere.”
  3. “Given that things like school buses arrive at about the same time every day, pretty quickly they would associate a weaker odor with the person being about to return.”
  4. “We have to imagine that they might experience faces and recognize things and have memories, even in smell.”

The decay of scent molecules provides dogs with a unique way to "smell time," allowing them to associate specific scents with particular times of day or events. This association between scent and routine helps dogs predict and prepare for upcoming activities, like if you give them their dinner when you start making your own, for example.

Need to Know

This variation in how strong a smell is helps the dog form a time-based map of their day, helping them predict when their owner will come back by using their sense of smell.

Dog in a coffee shop cafe with vintage clock

Additional Research Is Needed

In our world of dog experts, we've got a pretty good grasp on how dogs perceive time, but honestly, there's still so much more to learn. From my own observations, it seems like dogs get a rough sense of time from their daily routines, whether it's light or dark outside, and their own body clocks. 

I don't believe they know the exact time, though. But I'm really excited to see what new studies will reveal about this. 

Trending on LoveToKnow
Can Dogs Tell Time? The Answer Will Surprise You