Why does your dog think you’re leaving home forever? Here is the scientific explanation

Buzgó Csilla

2020. August 9

How do dogs live time? Do they really not know that 7-8 hours away is not the world ending? Well, the formula is not that simple, but it is a fact that we still have a lot to learn about the time perception of dogs.


Do misty dog eyes follow you all the way to the front door every day when you leave home? Your dog may not know be sure that you will come home because they cannot recall the memory pictures of the previous day in the same detail as a human. This is because they do not measure time using methods similar to ours, but with the help of instinctive mechanisms encoded in their bodies.

How the sophisticated timekeeping ability of dogs works

Some species of animals that regularly hide food have been observed to know exactly how long it takes for the food to spoil. They always returned sooner to perishable crops than to those they knew would last for a long time.

We can assume that dogs incorporate their experiences into their sense of time based on the same principle, which is primarily guided by their circadian rhythm and, surprisingly, their sense of smell.

The BBC television channel conducted an interesting experiment with a British family’s Hungarian Vizsla named Jazz as the main character. The couple noticed that Jazz would excitedly start checking one of the living room windows while standing on the sofa half an hour before husband Johnny got home every day. How did the dog know that its owner was about to enter the door?

Alexandra Horowitz, an ethologist and author, and founder of Barnard College’s Dog Cognition Lab, which deals with dog behavior, revealed that dogs can measure time with the help of their fantastic sense of smell.  Johnny’s scent steadily faded throughout the day, and when its intensity dropped below a certain level, Jazz knew that his owner would be home soon.

His wife, Christine, wanted to test the theory, and after she got home at 4 o’clock, she carried Johnny’s workout clothes around the apartment. The husband was expected at 5 o’clock, but this time Jazz didn’t start to get excited around 5:30, in fact, he was lying calmly in his bed and was surprised when Johnny ran in at the usual time. He can only hope that he will see you again.

He can only hope to see you again

As surprising as it may seem, according to the current state of science, your dog has no memories of the previous day that can be played back like a movie. So he cannot be sure that you will go home that day in the same way as you did before. While humans have a clear, explicit memory, i.e. they can recall certain events or facts from the past, dogs are stronger in terms of implicit, i.e. indirect memory.

Implicit memory calls up what has been learned from long-term memory, and no conscious effort is required to recall it. So when your dog completes the “Sit!” command, he does not know when and how he learned it, he simply responds instinctively to the command word.

Your dog really does suffer from being alone for long periods

Swedish researchers Therese Rehn and Linda J. Keeling tested the reaction of dogs left alone when their owners came home. The first time the dogs waited for their beloved two-legged friend for half an hour, the second time for two hours, and the third time for four hours without their owner’s presence. As expected, the animals were much more excited and happy to see each other after two and four hours alone than after half an hour. From this we can conclude that even if your pet does not suffer from separation anxiety, it almost always feels a certain amount of sadness or restlessness when you leave it alone in the apartment.

How can you help your lonely pet?

Thanks to the achievements of technology, the emotional pain caused by separation can now be overcome. There are dog cameras through which you can not only observe your faithful companion, but you can also communicate and even play while you spend time somewhere else.

If you don’t have something like that at hand, use the trick of the worn t-shirt and give your four-legged friend an old top that you’ve worn for several hours. Your soothing scent will accompany your dog throughout the day, and you may not have to fear that he will destroy the furniture at home in his sadness and nervousness.

(Photos: Getty Images Hungary)

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