There’s no denying it- dogs have a sense of time- or at least something resembling it. That much is clear when my dogs start following me around everyday at 5:30pm asking for dinner with their eyes.
It’s often got me thinking, “How does my dog know when it’s time to eat, every single day without fail…?”
While the research isn’t completely clear yet, there are a few theories as to how dogs know when it’s time to eat. Some researchers believe it’s due to interaction between conditioning and a particular type of memory called “episodic memory”.
Others suggest that dogs know it’s dinner time due to their body clock or “circadian rhythm”. Finally, there are theories that dogs tell time simply through learning social cues and even by “smelling” the time!
Hold On- How Do Dogs Tell The Time By Smell??
It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds. We all know that dogs have an extraordinary sense of smell. According to canine expert Alexandra Horowitz, dogs are able to tell what time of day it is by their noses.
Dogs are able to smell what time it is by analyzing the relative strength or weakness of a particular scent.
Think of it as a draining battery or hourglass.
When you prepare your dog’s dinner at 6pm everyday, the delicious aroma of his favorite kibble drifts into his nostrils. The scent will be the strongest at this point, letting it know that it’s time to eat.
After dinner and into the next day, the scent of food fades more and more. The strength of the scent goes from 100%, to 50%, to 20%. The scent is nearly completely faded close to 6pm, and this alerts your dog that it’s time for dinner again.
Rather than wearing a watch or reading a clock, dogs seem to be able to “tell time” by using their noses to tune into daily scent routines.
Knowing It’s Dinner Time Through Other Means
Dogs aren’t solely reliant on their noses to tell them it’s time to eat. There are other ways their bodies and minds let them know that they can soon expect/demand their daily meal.
Conditioning, Routines and Episodic Memory
Episodic memory is the memory of a specific event that has happened some time in the past. It allows a human, or dog, to ‘travel back in time’ in their mind and revisit the event and all its associated emotions. This lets the dog know how to react to the situation in the present day.
It is still debated whether dogs remember specific events, and even to what exact extent their episodic memories extend.
What is hard to argue against is that dogs are fairly suggestive to conditioning and routine, and this shows that dogs do have episodic memories to some degree. After all, how else would they remember their training?
When a dog is told to sit, he is relying on past memories that tell him that his owner will be happy and will give him praise and treats in some order. So, he gladly sits and awaits his positive reinforcement- that’s training.
Dogs are also able to become conditioned by daily routines, and in many situations actively rely on routine to know what time it is.
Dr. Clive Wynne of Arizona State University asserts that dogs are able to learn time by providing them with some kind of positive stimulus. Paired with a regular schedule, this can explain how dogs know the exact time their dinners should be every single day.
However, this memory doesn’t apply over seasons or longer intervals of time. That’s why your dog will remember to bug you for food tomorrow night, but won’t remember that it’s his birthday in 3 weeks.
Body Clock Keeps Your Dog Ticking
Most living organisms have a circadian rhythm, and dogs are no exception.
A circadian rhythm is an internal biological clock which helps an animal keep track of certain times throughout the day. It is heavily influenced by the natural cycle of light and dark, letting the dog know when to sleep and when to wake.
If you feed your dog on a regular schedule, the circadian rhythm will also let it know when it is hungry. The internal mechanism instructs the dog to respond in a certain way as they reach a certain part of the day. In this way, it is the dog’s body rather than any conscious thought process that is letting it know when it’s time to eat.
Picking Up On Environmental and Social Cues
Rather than having any concept of time the ways humans do, dogs may be using clues in the environment or from their owners to gauge when events are about to happen.
For example, they may look at where the sun is in the sky, or how long shadows are in a room. Though this might seem hard to believe, dogs originate from nature and may have an innate sense of how to keep track from the Earth’s movements.
Dogs, being the social animals they are, can definitely pick up cues from their humans. These can be even the most subtle of clues, such as tiny changes in body language or tone of voice.
They are constantly on the lookout for any cues that might tip off your next move, whether that be getting ready to go out for a walk or to prepare food.
Your dog could be interpreting your movements and getting excited to eat without you even noticing at all!
Dogs may not have a human understanding of time, but that is only to be expected. However, they are able to track the passing of each day in their own way.
When it comes to the all-important meal times, dogs use techniques such as tracking scent trails or picking up on various social and environmental cues. Their biological system also alerts them to regular events that should be occurring at any time.
So next time your dog starts barking at you at 6 o’clock on the dot- you know it’s dinner time!
Heather Abraham is an owner of two dogs, one cat, a leopard gecko, and a parrot (who her dad still cannot teach bad words to), and an avid blogger. From the time she was a young girl, she always felt a connection with pets. She brings her love of every type of pet to you, with information on animal nutrition, medication, toys, beds, and everything else in between. Along with newly-on-board veterinarian DVM editor Elena, she puts pups first while offering other various fun tidbits along the way.