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Turns Out Dogs Can Tell, Er, Smell Time

There’s no time like the present, according to your pet.

by Karen B. London, PhD
Updated April 25, 2022
Dark brown dog sitting on a gray couch in a living room
Valentina Barreto / Stocksy

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Dogs tend to live in the moment, accepting each treat, snuggle, or toss of the tennis ball as the sole reason for their existence with a charming single-mindedness. Yet their understanding of time can be complex. Many dogs are able to anticipate predictable events accurately, which is why they leap on the couch to look out the window when the kids are just about to come home from school or adults are nearly home from work. Even more dogs appear to know, from their own stomach’s rumblings, that the dinner hour fast approaches (or, in many cases, that dinner is supposed to be in precisely 58 minutes!). And according to the New York Times best-selling author and dog cognition researcher, Alexandra Horowitz, “Dogs smell time.”

What Does it Mean to Smell Time?

Unlike humans, who experience the world visually, dogs detect changes to their environment, including who has been there and for how long, through their impeccable sense of smell. This allows them to make predictions about the future based on patterns they’ve sniffed out (no pun intended). Kind of like a game of memory, but for your schnoz. Or as Horowitz puts it in her book, Being a Dog: Following the Dog Into a World of Smell, pups’ powerful noses allow them to perceive the passage of time.

That’s not to say our dogs are mystical or otherworldly; it’s just that dogs can understand much about the past because of their extreme sensitivity to smell. Odors change over time, sometimes predictably. When you leave the house to go to work each day, the smell of you in the house decreases with each hour of your absence, and your dog can detect the difference. Perhaps your dog has learned through repetition that when the smell of you has weakened to a specific degree, you come home. In other words, the strength of your odor predicts the time of your return. So, if you thought no one noticed that new fragrance you’ve been trying out, think again.

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How Do Dogs Smell Time?

This degree of scent discrimination is not hard for most dogs. Many dogs can, for example, tell which way to follow a scent trail by heading from where it is weakest (less recent) to where it is strongest (most recent) even when the difference is minuscule. When dogs smell weak odors, they are perceiving events of the past. Because dogs can detect both new and old odors, they are perceiving events and substances across intervals of time.

Each day, even in the same place, smells help dogs understand the passage of time. As air heats up over the course of the day, air currents change and move around in space, taking the molecules responsible for odors with them. Dogs, with their sensitive noses and large olfactory lobes, are able to sense the movement and presence of chemicals people barely detect if at all. Though we humans may detect daily patterns in light or even sound, our ability to smell clues about the passage of time is barely perceptible. Yet, dogs detect odors that reveal past happenings in complex ways we are only beginning to understand.

If we needed further evidence that our dogs are intelligent, complex beings, Horowitz’s cognition studies can provide just that. Dogs have “hundreds of millions more” scent receptor cells than we do, which is “probably partially responsible for their increased acuity,” she concludes.

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karen london

Karen B. London, PhD

Karen B. London, Ph.D., is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral issues, including aggression, and has also trained other animals including cats, birds, snakes, and insects. She writes the animal column for the Arizona Daily Sun and is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of six books about training and behavior, including her most recent, Treat Everyone Like a Dog: How a Dog Trainer’s World View Can Improve Your Life.