Dogs and Time
Date: Summer 2010
I travel often and worry how leaving for long periods of
time (and boarding my dog) will affect her. I wouldn't think that
dogs could understand the concept of time...because it is something
that we have created in order to quantize or measure moments.
However, I would think that the dog would understand daily habits...
are the minds of dogs capable of measuring time? Is their memory
capable of understanding one day versus seven days? Does 2 hours
feel like 2 days to them? How do you think dogs understand time?
Since we cannot get inside a dog's head and know beyond a shadow of a
doubt what their concept of "time" is, I will simply offer my observations.
I breed Jack Russell Terriers. Given all the JRT's I've had, and the
length of time that I've had them, I have experienced about 50 human or
perhaps ~350 canine years. I'm not sure that gives my opinion more or
less weight, just letting you know my experience.
I, too, was concerned about getting a dog and leaving it alone during my
work time. After some time passed, however, I realized, since I worked
night shift at the time, I could take the pet to work with me, during
milder weather, and visit it during the cool night at coffee and lunch
breaks. This bonding time of spending as much time as possible together,
especially in the first year, was critical. In my view, absences later
in life were less disturbing to an adult dog than a pup.
Having done that, and bonded strongly with the pet, the day came when I
would first leave him alone. The result was not good, he appeared to
have thought I'd never return. Some advice: when leaving the pet alone,
work up to it. Step out for a few minutes, then return, and, over a
period of days, lengthen the "away time". The idea is to help the dog
understand you will not be leaving forever, but teach that concept gradually.
My feeling of "time" as regards to dogs is that they don''t measure minutes,
but they rather measure "together" episodes and "alone" episodes. The other
thing they notice is when they need to go to the bathroom and eat. Though
they might not know you've been gone for 8 hours, they will know after a few
hours that they are hungry and they need to relieve themselves. For different
breeds which thrive on stimulation (ex. Jack Russell Terriers), I found having
a companion dog at home was a great comfort to the first pet. Additionally, I
usually play a radio so they dog's mind can be occupied by music and voice.
One comical thing I've noticed about my current "pack" of Jack Russell Terriers.
I own a few clocks which ring out 15 minute time periods and then ring the
number of hours on the hour. The dogs have become skilled enough to recognize
the pattern that when they hear the hour-pattern of chime play, followed by the
counting of hours, that I will soon arise. Indeed, my alarm clock is set to ring
on the hour. (Occasionally they go into barking mode one full hour early, so
thus far I don't think they have learned to count out the hour....but I actually
expect this will someday be realized by them.)
Regarding your specific questions.....my impression is that dogs experience a
feeling of expectation and waiting beginning at the time you leave. If you are
gone for 2 hours, the "sadness during the parting" barely has time to develop.
If you are gone for two days, they wake up during that whole period, and each
time, they have to re-realize that you are not there. Personally, I believe
this absence, not necessarily its duration but that it occurs, can result in
a bit of melancholy for the pet. As simple animals, they, if fact, cannot know
if you are going to return or not. The longer you are gone, the worse it looks
to them. (Again, if another pet is present, the distraction might help minimize
the melancholy, but the absence of their master still is very real.) Finally
regarding your 1 day vs. 7 day question...I believe you could test this
yourself. I'd anticipate that if you watch your dog's reaction at your
reunion after a 1 day vs. a 7 day absence, you will notice the dog will be
overjoyed after 7 days and would show a much greater reaction at that reunion.
The 1 day reunion would likely be strong, but I think the 7 day one would
make it clear that each wake-time noticing your absence registered in the dog's
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Update: June 2012