A dog's clock-watching life

Published 23 August 2018

Pet dogs perceive the passage of time, according to the first systematic behavioural study of its kind, conducted by UNE's Professor Lewis Bizo in association with colleagues from the University of Waikato, Dr James McEwan and Jessica Cliff.

The study established that dogs can remember and predict what may happen in the future - both of which are predicated on a sense of timing.

The team conducted an experiment to test whether six family pets of different breeds could tell the difference between different time durations. "We found that their temporal acuity [ability to sense time gaps] was very well developed; they could accurately discriminate between time durations in the order of fractions of a second," Lewis said. "I could compare this data with undergraduate students and you would be hard pressed to discriminate between a dog and a human in terms of the ability to judge time."

The need to hunt together and communicate makes timing critical to the survival of wild dogs, but it may be equally important to pets and society's many companion and service dogs. "The findings could have major implications for how we train and care for dogs," Lewis said. "Dogs are dear to many peoples' hearts. A better understanding of their psychology and cognitive capacities could help to improve training regimes and ensure better animal welfare."

If dogs are indeed sensitive to time, this gives us an important insight into their daily life. "We know that dogs experience separation anxiety when left alone for periods of time," Lewis said. "If they live in a temporal world and experience time very much as humans do, then one would imagine that time would drag for a dog left alone for long periods of time. The more we understand the cognitive abilities of animals, the better able we are to support their wellbeing, right down to their housing environment and living conditions.

"More of this kind of research can help to improve the lives of companion animals like dogs and cats and possibly help us to have better relationships with them."

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