Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

How do dogs perceive time?

        Animals | Dog Care

Can animals learn and plan without a concept of time?
Experiments show that animals may not have any concept of the past or future.
Experiments show that animals may not have any concept of the past or future.
David Waldorf/Taxi/Getty Images

Human beings have two important abilities to help us understand time: We are able to remember a sequence of events and we are able to anticipate future needs or events. Studies show that animals may have these abilities -- but to a lesser extent.

Scientists have tested animals' working memories (short-term memory) and reference memories (long-term) to see how well the animals recall sequences of events. In working memory tests, pigeons and primates must remember a sequence well enough to peck or pick it in the right order again to get a reward [sources: Parker, Devine]. The animals did fairly well at these tasks, but their memory faded fast. Roberts thinks they were probably learning going from weakest memory to strongest memory, rather than actually "learning" or "remembering" a sequence.

Other researchers found that pigeons and monkeys performed well at reference memory tests in which they needed to remember a sequence after a delay between learning and testing [sources: Straub, D'Amato]. But, it took extensive training for the animals to learn these sequences, suggesting to Roberts that the ability did not come naturally to them. From these tests, it seems that animals would perceive time differently from humans, who have a relatively reliable and sophisticated memory of sequence of events.

In addition, animals don't seem to anticipate future needs and rewards very well, suggesting to researchers that they don't have a concept of the future. For instance, when given the choice, pigeons and rats chose a smaller immediate reward over a larger future reward [source: Rachlin, Tobin]. In one test, researchers presented primates with a choice between one banana and two bananas. Understandably, they chose two bananas consistently. However, as the supply of the two choices got larger, they started showing less of a preference -- they weren't hungry enough at that moment to eat 10 bananas, so they chose five bananas half the time [source: Silberberg]. Roberts concludes from these experiments that these animals sought to satisfy immediate hunger needs, and didn't plan for future hunger. This is very unlike humans, who usually use reason and forethought to anticipate future needs, from deciding to pack a lunch for work to investing in a 401(k) retirement plan.

So what about squirrels and other animals that hoard food for the impending winter months? That behavior seems to imply the animals anticipate future needs. Actually, maybe not. Studies have found that animals don't stop hoarding even when their supplies inexplicably disappear. This could mean the animals don't understand why they hoard, what it means for their future or even what future is. They simply do it out of instinct [source: Roberts] Humans, on the other hand, understand their preparations and quickly change strategies when plans go awry.

If animals are "stuck in time," as Roberts suggests, this could mean understanding time is uniquely and fundamentally human. It's your choice whether to relish that fact or try to learn something from the canine, carefree outlook of "living in the moment."

To read more about dogs and their amazing abilities, explore the links on the next page.


More to Explore