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How animals tell time

Researcher William Roberts of the University of Western Ontario in London, Canada, and his colleagues in Western’s Psychology Department found that rats are able to keep track of how much time has passed since they discovered a piece of cheese, but they don’t actually form memories of when the discovery occurred. That is, the rats can’t place the memories in time, Roberts’ 2002 theory is that all but human animals are “stuck in time,” with no sense of the past or future.

Recent experiments with meadow voles indicate that animals may not be stuck at all. Time travel may be out of reach, but Michael Ferkin of the University of Memphis found evidence that mating behavior indicates meadow voles may act on past and future memory. Jonathon Crystal, a psychologist at the University of Georgia who studies rats, believes Ferkin’s studies show that voles are either planning for the future, remembering the past, or both.

Patricia McConnell, a Ph.D., Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, pioneering dog trainer, well known author and presenter blogs that she was happy to see a new study from researchers Therese Rehn and Lindsay Keeling, published in 2011 in Applied Animal Behavior Science: “The effect of time left alone at home on dog welfare.” They found that, if the dogs had been left alone for two to four hours, they greeted their owners with more intensity and were more active and attentive than when the duration of separation had only been 30 minutes. McConnell states that one way to interpret the finding is that the dogs did perceive a separation of two to four hours as very much different from a 30-minute separation. Cats also understand the concept of time as duration while waiting for prey. A growing body of studies on rats, pigeons, butterflies and bees demonstrates a broad animal understanding of interval time, the time to wait between rewards.



Pet owners tell of pets who know when family is coming home, exactly the moment dinner should be served, when it’s walk time and more. There are many explanations for animal consistency: changing light and outdoor temperature, the scent of the earth, ultra frequency sounds, fluctuations of hormones, heart rate and body temperature and human hints not detected by the humans themselves. 

In her best-selling book, “The Inside of a Dog,” author Alexandra Horowitz, a psychologist with a Ph.D. in cognitive science, presents how “dogs’ smell tells time. Odors are less strong over time, so strength indicates newness; weakness, age. The future is smelled on the breeze that brings air from the place you’re headed, including not just the scene currently happening, but also a snatch of the just-happened and the up-ahead.” Horowitz also relates canine vision to a sense of time: “One could say that dogs see the world faster than we do, but what they really do is see just a bit more world in every second.”




Improved understanding of how animals tell time has had positive impact. For example, positive reinforcement training recognizes that punishment creates fear which in many cases can not be reversed. The pet does not “connect the dots” because the pet’s sense of timing is here and now. In studying what animals feel, think, and how they do it, science has found that non-human animals are conscious of a whole lot more than has been credited to them. With enlightenment has come sensitivity to the humane animal needs. Animals – dogs in particular – embrace the concept of carpe diem in a way that many humans would like to emulate. In the company of animals, living in their moment is a natural mantra leading to less stress and more joy for people.

– Provided by the Lake Tahoe Humane Society and SPCA to help “Keep Tahoe Kind.” Dawn Armstrong is the executive director.


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