The Nose Knows: Telling Time the Canine Way
Is your pup always waiting by the front door to greet you when you get home from work? Or, maybe your dog gets restless right around walk time or dinner time every single day? Is it crazy to think that your dog knows exactly what time it is? It’s not crazy, it’s true! Our dogs have excellent senses and an associative memory that help them keep track of the most important times of day.
In humans, our circadian rhythm is kind of like an internal clock that runs our bodies. It tells us when to wake up and when to go to sleep. Different levels of alertness help maintain a regular sleep cycle. Dogs have a circadian rhythm too! Our dogs have a preferred morning wakeup time and a preferred bedtime. If you’re lucky, you can get your dog’s circadian rhythm to link up with yours. This basic, instinctual body clock lays the groundwork for our dog’s more detailed understanding of time.
As humans, we have something known as an episodic memory. Our brains use collections of events, locations and timing to keep detailed memories of past personal experiences. Episodic memories are believed to be exclusively human. But, our dogs have memories too!
Dogs have something called associative memory. Associative memory creates relationships between unrelated items. This type of memory allows our dogs to learn tricks and connect positive reinforcement to specific behaviors. It also helps our dogs tell time! If you walk your dog or feed your dog at the same time every day, your dog will begin to associate specific environmental cues (other than you getting ready for a walk or making their dinner) with walk time and food time, eg. When the evening news jingle plays on TV and your dog knows it’s time for their dinner.
Our dogs have one more trick for telling time, they use their nose! Smells have different strengths and they diffuse through the air at different rates. Try standing at one end of a room and asking a friend to stand at the other end. Now, spray a spritz of perfume into the air. The person closest to the perfume will smell it immediately. As the perfume diffuses through the air, it takes time to reach the other person. Wait 30 minutes, and the smell will be weaker than it was when you first sprayed the perfume. Our dogs have extremely powerful noses that can keep hold of specific scents for hours.
Our dogs use their noses to tell time by monitoring the intensity of a smell. When you leave the house, you leave behind your own personal smell with its own intensity. As the day progresses, your smell fades with each passing hour. Come 6 o’clock, when you return from work, your smell is still in the air at a very specific intensity. Day after day, your dog can identify the intensity of your lingering smell to determine exactly when you should be arriving home from work. How cool is that?!
Do you have a dog with separation anxiety? Try taking a towel or toy and sleeping with it in your bed for a few days. Once the item has your personal scent on it, leave it in your dog's favorite place to relax. The next time you leave the house, your dog gets to stay calm with your comforting scent.