Do Dogs Have a Sense of Time?

This is an interesting question and one which many dog owners wonder about, especially when they have to leave their dogs at home, in kennels, or with a dog carer.  In this Holiday4Dogs article, we ask whether dogs have a sense of time. If so, how might this affect their behaviour when they have company and when they are left alone?

While dogs do not understand the concept of what a minute, an hour, or day means, they do have their own unique way of understanding the passage of time.

Time and Memory.

Having a concept of time is very much linked to the capacity for memory. Studies have shown that dogs have a type of episodic memory, which means they can remember certain events in their lives. Episodic memory is useful for many animals – for example, it helps them to locate food they may have stored over the winter.

Scientific studies.

A study carried in 2011 and published in Applied Animal Behaviour Science found that when dogs were left alone for short and long periods, the dogs in the study greeted their owners more enthusiastically after being left for longer, rather than short periods.

Researchers carrying out the study concluded that dogs were affected by the duration of time left alone. Therefore, this suggests they have some concept of the passage of time.

A dog’s perception of time.

Many owners believe their dog can tell the time. Dogs might wait for their dinner to arrive, or they may wait at the door for someone to return home, for example.

However, dogs are very astute when it comes to picking up cues from their owners, or from the environment and, interestingly, the latter is where a sense of smell can be related to a sense of time – for a dog at least. In a certain sense, dogs can use their sense of smell to tell the time.

A dog’s sense of smell is infinitely better than ours – 3oo million olfactory receptors, compared to just 5 million in humans. Dogs can take in smells continuously, whereas we have to breath in to really get our noses round a particular scent. Dogs are such experts at smelling, they are able to detect cancer cells in people, or predict when someone is going to have a seizure.

Crucially, dogs are able to tell the difference between a recently laid scent and an older scent. Dogs can not only sense time past – where you went on your outing; but also what’s to come by sniffing scents in the air.

Signals associated with time.

You may notice, as soon as you pick up your walking shoes, or a dog lead – your dog becomes excited. This may appear that your dog is a mind reader, but in reality he is reacting to cues. This will be easier for him if you walk him, or give him his meal, at the same time every day.

A dog can sense subtle signals in your body language. You may brush your teeth, or shut windows before you get ready for your walk. These signals will not go un-noticed by your dog. Therefore, you may find that your dog appears to know that it is the correct time for his walk.


While dogs aren’t capable of reading a clock, or a calendar, they may have a stronger sense of time passing than we think. There is much we still just don’t know about a dog’s sense of time. However, if left alone for very long periods, dogs do get bored. This can then have a detrimental effect on their welfare.

For further information on separation anxiety and how to deal with it, please read our other Holidays4Dogs articles on the subject.