Let’s GO, Neil!

By Neil Lurssen

It is 2:22pm as I sit at my desk to write this blog. I know have about 38 uninterrupted minutes to gather my thoughts, flip through notes and then start typing. At 3pm – or thereabouts – orderliness will end and tranquility will be replaced by frantic barking, ferocious growling and me yelling bugger off as my jeans are being tugged at by Chloe, the Dachshund/Aussie mix. When I get her off my pants she attacks my sneakers. Sally, also a pure-bred shelter mutt, joins in with her throaty howl. It sounds as though Sally is being ill-treated, but actually she is doing the ill-treating of me.

This is walk-time – it’s 3pm and nothing will stop them from a daily hike RIGHT NOW!  They have won again. I have no option but to attach their leashes and head out the door whatever the weather – rain, shine or icy Pacific gusts. The blog must wait. Not their walk.

How do they know it is 3 pm?  I believe that dogs can tell time. Not the big-hand and the little-hand way of telling but with an inner body clock that is amazingly accurate. We get this a lot in our household, and I am pretty sure you see it in yours too with your dogs.

An example: Chloe spends evenings spread-eagled on my side of our double bed.  At 11pm when I usually turn in, she wakes up and jumps down unprompted to her own bed at the foot of ours where she and Sally will then spend the rest of the night. I don‘t have to be in the bedroom to make her move: she does it all on her own at 11pm-ish.  She just knows when it’s time to go.

The girls sleep soundly until 5:30am when Sally produces her signature throaty howl again – an astoundingly loud noise from such a small dog.  Amazon delivery people who come to our door during the day think there is a Mastiff inside. Then Chloe joins in with sharp yaps that, cute and chirpy much of the day, are very irritating before dawn. They want their breakfast. We groan and order them to shut up and go back to sleep, but they don’t and they win.  The Lurssen household is astir when most normal people are still sleeping.

There are other things they do at precise times – like demanding their mid-morning chilled baby carrots at 10:45am (they both crave the crunch).   

So, curious, I looked into whether dogs can actually tell time and, if so, how. There is some literature on this topic, but much research still needs to be done. What the studies do say is that – yes – dogs can tell time – in a way – but it’s not the same as you and I can by looking at the clock on the wall. They feel the time. They do that by reacting to their own version of the body’s circadian rhythm about which a lot is known with regard to the health of humans. The famous circadian rhythm is not only a human feature; it’s something that all living creatures have – an automatic life-cycle rhythm that is shaped by physical, mental, emotional and behavioral experiences in a given period of time.

Obviously, humans and animals have widely different experiences in their regular lives; so their circadian rhythms are very different too. A typical human circadian rhythm cycle is about 24.2 hours and those lucky enough to enjoy regular and healthy lifestyle habits tend to have healthy biological clocks that tell them if they are comfortable and thriving. Or not. It explains why jet lag is upsetting for many given the stress of long-distance travel and interrupted sleep impacting the way they feel, or why a nasty emotional jolt can cause physical illness – or why the loneliness of isolation during the COVID pandemic made some people feel ill even though they never caught the bug.

Doctors and dietitians tell patients to get their rhythms in order, pointing out, for example, that most people should have at least seven to nine hours sleep each night and teenagers even more – nine to 12 hours.  Healthy eating should occur within at least eight to 10-hour periods, they suggest.  Health professionals can predict which times of the day you are most alert and functioning best – in some cases three to four hours after rising.

The circadian rhythm of dogs depends on different experiences than those of humans. For instance, dogs’ sense of smell is vastly more sensitive than ours and it plays a much bigger role in their daily lives than our pathetic olfactory abilities do for us. If their humans go off to work every day, dogs will detect that the strength of their familiar scent will decrease steadily over time. Memory banks will tell them that when it reaches a certain low level, the people they love are likely to come home soon. They always come home when the scent is faint – oh boy, oh boy! That is how they tell the time.

According to neurobiology researchers, there is evidence that neurons in animals’ brains become active when they are in an expectant mode. So the acute sense of smell and the activating neurons combine to let the dogs know that the time they have been waiting for so eagerly has arrived. While it is true that the actual tests were conducted with mice, it is thought that the findings can be applied to Fido’s brain neurons also. But it is clear that much research has yet to be carried out.

It’s time to do SOMEthing!

Then there’s the old reliable belly rumble that remains a good indicator of time.  Hunger pangs are reliable signals that dinner time is at hand.It’s 5 pm. I want my grub! Other signals include things like family behavior: when dinner plates are cleared from the dining room table and the action moves to the living room to watch the latest streaming has to offer, that plants a memory too. Your hairy fluffball may precede you to the sofa to grab a premium viewing spot. It’s TV time.  There are many signals that we humans don’t think about. But our dogs do.

Please!!!

I am no trainer, but I know that some trainers are wary of implanting time consciousness in dogs because they don’t want to create situations where dogs react automatically to commands without thought. According to an American Kennel Club report, professional trainer Adrienne Kepp believes imparting a sense of time duration is important in training. The AKC quotes her as saying: “You always have to mix things up with dogs or they become little robots.” She suggests unpredictability: if a dog must perform a three-minute down, she will train with an eight-minute or five-minute down. So a properly-trained dog is not just a critter acting by rote, but a thinking being, working things out.

We need to know a lot more about the ways in which dogs think, plan, scheme, ponder, daydream and tell the time. Neurobiologists will no doubt figure it all out one day. In the meantime, I will continue to abandon my post at 3pm in favor of walkies, wake up at 5:30am when most of Northern California is still asleep, and, of course, grub will always be up at 5pm.