Can Dogs Tell Time?

Our lives are ruled by the clock. We stumble out of bed to the jarring sound of alarm clocks. We tackle the morning chores and start the commute to work. The work day is punctuated with time frames. Our lives are full of self imposed deadlines; errands, social engagements, a trip to the gym, our kids sports and activities. Staggering with exhaustion at the end of the day, we collapse for a few hours sleep until the next day’s alarm starts the cycle again.

Dog with ClockAs far as we know dogs cannot tell time. Their lives are not ruled by a clock, at least not an external one. As dog owners, we know that they have extremely accurate internal clocks and are masters of routine. Their sudden appearance, forlorn glances at the food cupboard accompanied by a crescendo of short staccato barks reminds us of dinner time. Admonishing us to not stay up too late, Moe will offer a heavy sigh and shake of his head as he leaves the room at night to go to bed. His attitude reminding us that morning comes early and there are dogs to be fed before we go to work.

Our dogs also know when the work day is finally finished. Over the years as early evening approached, I watched our dogs rouse themselves from their slumber in various parts of the house and gather at the door. Every noise from the street would be greeted with a short round of barking and vigorous tail wagging. When it was determined that it was not my husband returning from work they would settle down uneasily to wait some more. If it was my husband, the barking would increase as they ran in circles too excited to contain their enthusiasm.

During the time that we lived in a rural area east of Vancouver, BC, my husband’s nightly commute included an hour train ride and a twenty minute drive. It was about the time my husband was leaving the train station for the drive home that Moe would start to howl. This was new. At first it would be a low keening moan, which would increase in volume to a full out howl. Soon Moe would be joined by our other dogs. A chorus of four distinctive voices, sounding like wolves calling a missing pack member home, filled the house and spilled out across our acreage. It was a haunting mournful sound that cut straight through to your heart. As we moved several times across Canada and the US, the nightly routine remained the same. Shortly before my husband’s return from work the dogs would gather by the door and the soulful yowling would start.

We currently live in Arizona and our new routine includes my husband flying out on Monday morning and returning Thursday evening. Our dogs have adapted to this new situation and have settled into a new routine. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday evening, after their not so subtle reminders, I feed them and they then settle down for a quiet night. This all changes on Thursday evening. Around 7:00 pm they become unsettled, running to the door at any noise from the street. After a few minutes of pacing and barking they realize my husband has not returned. They settle down, looking more like wound springs than sleeping dogs, to wait some more. Finally about 10:00 pm a cacophony of dogs barking and howling marks my husbands return. Sometimes I fear that Willa, my husbands loyal companion, will turn herself inside out with joy. Moe spends the first few minutes of my husbands return running between my husband and myself, as if to say “Look Mom, I knew I had a Dad.”

One Thursday it took me awhile to realize that the dogs were spread around the house sleeping, the normal Monday to Wednesday routine. There was no pacing anxiously around the front door. “How weird,” I thought during the unusually quiet evening. Around 7:00 pm my husband called from LAX; his flight was delayed. Several phone calls later, he called a final time; after numerous delays his flight was now canceled. Our four dogs slept through it all. Did they know my husband was not returning home that evening?

Now when my husband calls from the airport, he asks if the dogs think he is coming home. If they are restless we know his flight will be okay and he will be arriving home soon to the welcoming chorus of his dogs.

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4 thoughts on “Can Dogs Tell Time?

  1. Just another sign that dogs have ESP. 🙂 Like your Moe, our little Mal also has decided opinions about bedtime and the wisdom of her people, who routinely stay up later than she does. Loved this glimpse into your dogs’ ideas of routine.

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  2. I have a 7 month old lab puppy, and I swear he knows my schedule better than I do! A few minutes before my alarm goes off every morning, he sits up next to my bed and starts breathing in my face because he knows it’s breakfast time. If I don’t get up right away, he paws me in the face!

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