Can Dogs Tell Time (& Do They Miss You When You’re Gone)?

Every evening, just moments before my husband’s car pulls down the driveway, our dog, Jason, jumps on the back of the couch to look out the window. He doesn’t need to look at the clock to tell that “dad” will be home any moment now.

Jason is not unusual in these skills. Many dog owners say that their dogs have an uncanny sense of when family members are due to arrive home or when it’s time to meet the school bus or eat dinner.

So, can our dogs tell time or are they picking up some sort of cue from us?

Like us, dogs have a natural circadian rhythm tied to the length of the day. It tells them when to sleep or when to be active. But what about their ability to sense when a family member is due home or it’s time for dinner?

Can Dogs Tell Time (& Do They Miss You When You're Gone)?

Can dogs tell time?

Some researchers believe that dogs use their amazing senses of smell to tell time. In her book Being a Dog: Following a Dog Into a World of Smell, Alexandra Horowitz, founder of Barnard College’s Dog Cognition Lab, suggests that dogs might be able to tell when an owner is coming home by the strength of the odors they leave behind.

The idea is that an owner’s odor is stronger when they first leave the house and fades as the day progresses. Maybe our dogs have figured out that when our scent fades to a specific level each day, it’s almost time for us to arrive home.

In an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, Horowitz said she believes that dogs also draw on their senses of smell to tell the time of day.

“Smells in a room change as the day goes on,” Horowitz says. “Hot air rises, and it usually rises in currents along the walls and will rise to the ceiling and go kind of to the center of the room and drop. I think dogs can literally smell the movement of air through a room.”

Those of us lucky enough to share our lives with dogs know that they are also really good at making associations between activities and events. For example, when I grab a particular pair of sneakers the dogs jump up from wherever they are laying and assume we are going for a walk. They associate the jangling of the car keys with me leaving the house and will often automatically just go to their places to settle down.

According to an NC State University News article, while there aren’t many studies on how dogs know when their owners are coming home, there are a number of hypotheses that hinge on associative learning and dogs’ sensitivity to environmental cues.

A dog, for example, may have learned the sound of his owner’s car, and when he hears that sound, it triggers the behavior of sitting at the window or waiting at the door.

What if you take a subway home, and your dog still seems to know when you are due? The article suggests that could be the result of a different trigger. For example, if you usually get home at 5:30, the dog may be triggered by the local bus that drives by every day at 5.25.

Can Dogs Tell Time (& Do They Miss You When You're Gone)?

Do dogs miss us when we’re gone?

Many owners wonder if their dogs can distinguish lengths of time and if they miss us more the longer we are away.

A 2011 study at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences studied the effect of time left home alone on 12 privately-owned dogs. The study found that after two hours, dogs greeted their owners with more intensity than after 30 minutes of being left alone.

However, there was no difference between two and four hours.

Researchers concluded that while the study cannot distinguish between whether the dogs were aware of the length of time they were alone or whether they were unaware until reminded of it by the return of their owner, it does confirm that dogs are affected by the duration of time at home alone.

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Photo credit: Thinkstock

78 comments

Chad Anderson
Chad A29 days ago

Thank you.

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Clare O
Clare O1 months ago

th

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Clare O
Clare O1 months ago

the most important thing in their lives is their people

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Clare O
Clare O1 months ago

cats know too

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JoAnn Paris
JoAnn Paris1 months ago

Thank you for this very interesting article.

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Shirley P
Shirley P2 months ago

I'm convinced animals have gifts humans are still learning of, God Bless Them.

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Latoya B
Latoya Brookins2 months ago

I'm babysitting my parent's dog and he knows when it's walk time.

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Melanie St. Germaine

I believe that dogs can sense when there owner is close to home.

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Danii P
Past Member 2 months ago

Thanks for posting.

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Danii P
Past Member 2 months ago

Thanks for posting.

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