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Do Dogs Have a Sense of Time?

Dog looking at clock
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If you’re leaving the house, you likely give your dog a pet and tell them you’ll be back in a few hours. But have you ever stopped to think about what an hour – or a minute or a day – means to a dog? Do dogs actually have a sense of time? 

Maybe your pup stakes out the door minutes before you’re due to arrive home. Or maybe they start doing circles to signal bedtime at the same hour every evening. Such experiences lead dog lovers to wonder how their canine companions experience time and if that experience is similar to our own.

To learn how dogs understand time, we spoke with two dog cognition experts, and what we discovered may surprise you.

Do Dogs Have a Concept of Time? 

Dr. Evan MacLean is the founder and director of the Arizona Canine Cognition Center. He’s also an associate professor at the University of Arizona, where he holds appointments in veterinary medicine, psychology, cognitive science, anthropology, ecology, and evolutionary biology.

“Although a sense of time hasn’t been studied much in dogs, there have been many studies on how animals make judgments about time,” Dr. MacLean says. “It’s almost certain that dogs share these basic cognitive processes with other animals.”

Dr. Mindy Waite, a certified dog behaviorist at Senior Tail Waggers, says that there is no research about whether dogs can perceive time in terms of hours and days. But that doesn’t mean our furry friends don’t understand time at all. 

“We have all had the experience where an animal’s behavior starts to change around the time of a certain activity,” she says. “For example, many dogs clearly can tell when their humans are about to arrive home, when it’s almost time for a walk, or when their food is about to be delivered from an automatic feeder.”

So, while research into the topic is relatively limited, experts agree that dogs do have a limited sense and understanding of time.

How Dogs Perceive and Experience Time

illustration of dog brain

Dr. MacLean says a dog’s brain has “at least two different cognitive systems.” These systems are periodic timing and interval timing. 

Periodic timing is another way of explaining the 24-hour clock or circadian rhythms that govern when we sleep and when we’re productive.

“Periodic timing controls things such as when to wake and sleep and when to forage or perform other behaviors that occur at approximately the same time each day,” Dr. MacLean explains. “This system probably allows dogs to anticipate fairly accurately when people might return from work or when the next meal is due!”

On the other hand, interval timing relates to specific training. Think of Pavlov’s famous dogs and their bell. “Interval timing tracks shorter, arbitrary durations. For example, you could train a dog that 30 seconds after a tone sounds, they will receive a food reward,” Dr. MacLean says. “If doing this repeatedly, dogs would become very accurate at predicting the moment food will be delivered.”

Additionally, research shows dogs have “episodic memories,” which means they remember events or episodes [1]. So yes, your dog remembers that you leave for work every morning at the same time and will be gone for an extended period. Combine such “episodes” with periodic timing, and you start to get a sense of how dogs perceive time.

A dog’s sense of smell also plays a part in how they experience time. Alexandra Horowitz is a psychologist at Barnard College and the author of “Inside of a Dog.” In her best-selling book, she says, “Scent marks time.” By that, she means dogs can use their strong scent receptors to gauge the freshness of a particular scent. When you first leave for the day, your scent is strongest. As it fades through the day, that must mean it’s time for you to return soon.

Dr. Waite explains that dogs may use changes in scents or other signals, like the location of sunlight and shadows, as predictive stimuli to measure time.

To summarize, it’s not so much that your dog is looking at the clock and counting down the hours as much as they’re paying attention to other cues. Your dog probably understands time through some combination of periodic timing, episodic memory, and environmental cues. 

Dog Time vs Human Time: Is There a Difference?

Humans have a history of creating constraints in their environment. Our modern lives revolve around the clock. You may have a 2 p.m. meeting or plan to meet up with friends at 7 p.m. However, your dog probably doesn’t understand time to that degree. Instead, dogs rely on daily routines and cues for a sense of time.

For example, if you leave home five days a week at 8 a.m. and return at 3 p.m., your dog may be able to gauge the “usual” amount of time you’re gone thanks to specific brain activity.

A study from Northwestern University cites a recent discovery of neurons that seem to “turn on” when an animal is waiting [2]. These neurons are known as the medial entorhinal cortex, and the study experimented with mice in a virtual environment. In the study, the mouse ran on a physical treadmill down a virtual hallway. The mouse arrives at a door, and 6 seconds later, the door opens, and the mouse continues down the hall for a reward.

After a few trials, the researchers made this door invisible, yet, a change in the floor’s texture identified the door’s location. The mouse stopped before the now hidden door, waited 6 seconds, and continued scurrying down the hall.

While dogs are not mice, they have a similar understanding of time. You can train them to expect rewards after a specific tone or command. They also rely heavily on environmental cues.

Scientists say there’s insufficient research to tell if dogs have a more complex understanding of time, such as how many hours, days, weeks, or months have passed. However, we do know routines are important for reinforcing your dog’s comfort.

The Importance of Routines for Dogs

Dog sitting by door waiting for owner

Dogs appreciate the structure and predictability of routines. There’s comfort in knowing when to expect the next outing and mealtime.

When the routine is disrupted – maybe you’re caught in traffic and get home two hours later than your dog expected – then your dog can feel upset and anxious. In some cases, dogs develop separation anxiety which is a way they show distress. While many things can lead to separation anxiety, it’s often a big change in routine – like a new work schedule for the humans, moving houses, or losing another pet.

After all, big changes can be stressful for everyone. To help your dog adjust, the quicker you can establish (or maintain) a routine, the better your pup will take it. Routines let your dog know when to expect walks, meals, and the household comings and goings – and ultimately help your dog feel more at ease. 

The Bottom Line

Dogs may not understand time in the exact way that humans do, but our canine companions do mark time using their senses, routines, and environmental cues. More research is still needed to know exactly how a dog’s brain comprehends minutes, hours, days, weeks, and years. 

However, one thing is for sure: while dogs may not comprehend what you mean when you say, “I’ll be back in a few hours,” chances are they will be waiting by the door when you return home.  


  1. Malanowski, S. Is episodic memory uniquely human? Evaluating the episodic-like memory research program. Synthese 193, 1433–1455 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-015-0966-z 
  2. Heys, J.G., Dombeck, D.A. Evidence for a subcircuit in medial entorhinal cortex representing elapsed time during immobility. Nat Neurosci 21, 1574–1582 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41593-018-0252-8