Blank notebooks, freshly sharpened pencils, new backpacks…another school year brings fresh starts. It also brings back a more regimented schedule for many families; the carefree days of summer are replaced by alarm clocks, packing lunches, after school activities, and a set bedtime. 

For some of us, back to school is stressful and constraining. But if you’re a bit Type A like I am, you may welcome a return to a schedule. Kids may grumble about going to school, but they also thrive on routine, especially before they are old enough to tell time. In my experience, dogs are no different. They can’t read a clock, but they always seem to know when it’s dinnertime! 

I’ve always wondered whether dogs have a sense of time. Can they tell the difference when left alone for 45 minutes or three hours? How do they know when it’s dinner time, or walk time? 

In one study of dogs left home for different lengths of time, researchers found that dogs left alone for two hours exhibited more intense greeting behaviors (tail wagging, physical activity, etc) when their owners returned than the dogs left for just thirty minutes. So perhaps Fido can tell time, or does absence truly does make the heart grow fonder? 

My own non-scientific observations bear similar results; my female dog can barely lift her head off the couch to acknowledge my return after a stroll to the mailbox, but she is beside herself with (what I think is) joy when I come home after an afternoon out. Or maybe that’s because it’s close to dinner time!

Dogs, like all animals, do have circadian rhythms. These are physical, behavioral and mental changes that take place over a 24-hour cycle, and are tied to light and darkness. Babies (and puppies) who have their days and nights mixed up haven’t yet established their circadian rhythms, and jet-lagged travelers feel the effects of messing with their normal 24-hour cycle. 

As one article suggests, dogs may be tracking this rhythm with events in their days, and picking up on cues that mean something good like a walk or a treat is coming. And of course, there is always learned association. If you always put on your sneakers for a walk, does your dog go nuts once he sees those shoes? He doesn’t know what time it is, but he knows it’s walk time. 

But what about meal time? My dogs start getting antsy up to an hour before dinner; they KNOW it’s coming. Alexandra Horowitz, canine expert and author of Being a Dog, asserts that dogs can smell time. As odors in the home change throughout the day, dogs can smell the “movement” of time. Stronger odors “happened” more recently than weaker scents, and that may help a dog anticipate regular events that occur during the course of a typical day. 

A dog’s sense of smell is between 10,000 and 100,000 times stronger than humans. Maybe he can smell that it’s time for dinner, or maybe he’s simply used to the routine of mealtime after a walk. Either way, there is no denying the magic of an enthusiastic welcome home from your pooch at the end of a long day, no matter what time it is. 

Whether you have kiddos headed back to school this week or not, Happy September!