You’d think after some 40,000 years of domestication that humans and dogs would know each other pretty well. After all, they have adapted to be our companions in so many ways. Their behavior and biology have changed. We have selectively bred them for specific jobs. They can read our emotions. But can dogs tell time?

The short answer is yes and no.

Of course, dogs can’t read a clock the way we do. However, they can learn our routines, which are often time-based. You wake up at a certain time every weekday to go to work. You probably feed them on a particular schedule. They undoubtedly know when you come home and recognize the sound of your car. We can safely conclude that dogs understand patterns.

The Intelligence of Dogs

It should come as no surprise that dogs are intelligent. Think of all the things they can do. They can learn how to find and flush upland game. They can do tricks. They can learn commands and some words. Our pets can even figure out when we’re not telling the truth. If they can grasp these aspects of our lives, it follows that our dogs maybe are smarter than we may think.

The most intelligent breed is the Border Collie. These pups are the ultimate herding dog. They are alert to the movements and actions of livestock. They are independent when they do it, too. These dogs use problem-solving skills to get the job done. Border Collies also have some sense of time as it fits in with their work.

However, dogs’ primary way of navigating their world is through their sense of smell. Some estimates put their superior ability up to 10,000 times better than ours. Unless it’s something vital, telling time isn’t on the front burner for dogs. Nevertheless, timing is still critical for them, too, with their circadian rhythms that tell them when to wake up and go to sleep.

Behavioral Conditioning

Dogs can learn some rudimentary aspects of timekeeping as it applies to their everyday life. Perhaps the main one is feeding time. Of course, other things are at work, too, such as their growling tummies. But our pets can also pick up on other time-related clues, such as the time of day.

Dogs fed in the morning are probably keenly aware of daybreak. As any pet owner will tell you, the biannual time change is just as hard on them as it is on people, especially when it delays feeding time. That tells us that dogs have memories, just as the work of Ivan Pavlov taught us. Maybe what our pets learn isn’t the time as much as it is our habits leading up to some events.

That isn’t surprising, given the importance of the daily patterns in a dog’s life. The length of daylight or photoperiod is another vital clue for many wildlife species, undoubtedly other canids, such as wolves and coyotes, too. The photoperiod is their clock for the change of seasons which dictates mating and other events. It’s the same for their prey.

Deer, elk, and moose go into runt when the photoperiod gets to that particular length in the fall. You also see it in livestock that learns when it’s time to come back to the farm for the daily milkings. It only makes sense that dogs can also tell time to some degree, just not in the formal sense of knowing that it’s 4 p.m. or 5:30 p.m.

Human-Dog Bond

We can also consider the answer to this question from the perspective of the bond that people share with their dogs. After all, time is a human invention. It makes sense that what is essential for us would also become important to our pets. It’s a valid point, considering that we share 84 percent of our DNA with our dogs.

It turns out that we also share similar brain functionality with dogs that can also explain whether or not they can tell time. Areas of the brain that control emotions and voice reside in common areas between humans and canines. That suggests that our pets can pick up on the auditory cues for time. It’s logical, given our close association.

Family at Cottesloe beach

But just as we can inadvertently provide clues for our dogs, we can also modify their behavior. Think of how we teach our pets to wait before eating a treat placed before them. In that sense, the pup has a sense of time. Researchers put this concept to the test. Experiments done with mice suggest that animals have special nerve cells that have spatial memories that may encode time.

While your pup may not know exactly what time it is, he may have some capability of understanding the time interval between some events. That may explain why your dog wakes up suddenly from a nap as it gets closer to the time when the kids are going to come home from school. It’s not that he knows it’s 3:30 p.m. but that he’s aware of the timespan between them leaving and returning.

Recent research has taken these ideas one step further to see if dogs can perceive fixed time intervals. The findings point demonstrated that they have some concept of short time spans that may expand to longer ones that suggest dogs can indeed tell time.

Final Thoughts

We see the intelligence of dogs on display in so many ways. They never cease to amaze us with the things that they can learn. Perhaps one of the most endearing is their uncanny ability to match their patterns with ours. They may not know the exact time that it is. However, they certainly know our time-based routines as well as we do.

In many ways, dogs are better than an alarm clock when it comes to the time you have to wake up for the day to begin, especially if food’s involved. If one thing is for certain, a hungry pup will make sure that you’re never late for work.