Would my dog recognize me if I left for a week? A year? A decade?
Does my dog get exponentially sadder the longer I’m away from him?
If you’ve ever teared up watching “Dog Greets Soldier After A Year Deployment!!!” videos on YouTube, you’re in luck. There’s actually some concrete scientific evidence out there that dogs do understand the passage of time.
To an extent.
The Rhen/Keeling Study
In 2011, two Swedish researchers put the dog-time conundrum to the test. Therese Rhen and Linda Keeling performed a scientific study on dogs to determine how they behaved before, during, and after an owner’s absence. What did they find?
That dog’s can tell when we’ve been gone for a while! The study noted marked differences in the way dogs behaved (i.e. increased tail wagging, more face licking) when an owner had been gone for two hours relative to when they’d only been gone for 30 minutes. The catch? After two hours away, the data gets blurry. It was much more difficult to discern whether the dogs were even more excited after a four hour absence than after only two.
Associations and Episodic Memory
Okay, so there’s no evidence (yet) that your dog knows you’ve been gone all day, but what about when you go on vacation or have shared custody of a dog? For that, we have to dig into the way dogs remember things. We do know that dogs (and all other mammals) make what are called “associations.” In this sense, they associate positive things with their owners – i.e. food, play, love – and when the owner goes away, those associations fade. There is increasing evidence, though, that they can be picked back up far quicker than it took to learn them in the first place.
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Episodic memory is a little more special. Once thought to be a purely-human behavior, new evidence suggests rats have episodic memory which means dogs almost certainly do as well. Episodic memory has a lot to do with context; it’s the idea that your dog understands you’re not going to show up spontaneously at the boarding facility because you being there would be out of context. It’s all about expectations: If our dogs don’t expect us to be somewhere, they’re not pining away for us while they wait.
But wait. Can dogs tell how long we’ve been gone?
The answer is still (frustratingly) murky. While it’s definitely not true that “dogs have no concept of time,” it’s also not true that they view time through the same prism as humans. All that to say, your dog isn’t going to be mad at you or unbearably depressed when you leave. Just make sure he’s well fed, cared for, and gets plenty of stimulation. While he may seem way more excited to see you after a three-week trip than after a day at the office, all that really matters is that you’re back!
Isn’t it great to be loved by a dog?