dogclock

I don’t own a dog now. I always had one when I was a kid. But my wife was raised in a pet-free zone and developed a fear of most dogs, so we never had one, though my sons always asked about getting one.  She actually had a good relationship with the dog I had when we were dating. Romper was a cutie and very smart (okay, so everyone says that) and at first she used to squeeze between us on the couch because she was jealous of my girlfriend.

As much as I love them, I know that dogs and other pets really tie you down, so I was not heartbroken about being dog-less. I figure somewhere in my retirement years I will want a dog again.

What got me thinking about dogs was listening to a podcast from the How Stuff Works guys about whether or not dogs perceive time. (You can download them all free in iTunes.)

It’s actually not that clear about whether or not dogs have a sense of time. From what I heard and then read, it seems divided between the scientists (No) and dog owners (Yes). Of course, we might have to adjust our thinking about time from our human perceptions a bit.

Time is a human construction to allow us to order our lives and all our time-keeping devices have changed how modern man perceives time. Animals don’t seem to care that much about it.

Albert Einstein once explained the principle of relativity by saying, “When a man sits with a pretty girl for an hour, it seems like a minute. But let him sit on a hot stove for a minute — and it’s longer than any hour. That’s relativity.”  He’s right that we all perceive time a bit differently and as individuals view the human construct of Time differently in different situations.

Because we remember events in a particular order, that structures our perception of time. Even the non-psychic amongst us can predict the future – the sun will rise in the morning, a TV program will be on at 8 PM, in 48 hours I will be back at work. That means that we have a sense of continuity, personal history and self-awareness.

Do dogs and other animals have any of out time and memory abilities?  Does Spot remember what he ate yesterday? Does Princess know when it will be time to eat again or are they “stuck in time.”

One of the researchers on animal cognition referenced in the podcast is William Roberts. He says that animals are “stuck in time” – meaning that without being able to form memories, animals only live in the present. In other words, they can’t go back to memories and can’t predict forward.

Those are theories that almost any dog owner will refute.

Owners would point to things like any training they have given their dog. as proof of a memory bank.  Roberts would say No and point to the way young children are trained to do things.

By age four, kids have learned to crawl, walk etc. but can’t recall where or how they learned them.

So, then you have to get into types of memory.  The four-year old doesn’t have episodic memory (the ability to remember particular events in the past).

Just because my Romper knew what “stay” meant, it doesn’t mean she had a memory of when she learned that command.

They also point to some research with pigeons. (Right away, I have a problem with the leap from pigeon to dog, but…) Pigeons have an “internal clock” that allows them to learn when and where food would be available and dogs might use circadian oscillators to do the same. Those are those daily fluctuations of hormones, body temperature and neural activity that we also have. The pooch might use those to “predict” when it’s time to be fed or when the kids are coming home from school.

So, they don’t really “remember” the “time” of those events, but it’s a biological state at a particular time of day that they are reacting to as a stimulus.

The researchers have tried to test animals’ “working memories” (those are the short-term memories) and their “reference memories” (long-term) to see how well the animals recall sequences of events. They found that pigeons and primates (where are the doggies?) did fairly well at these tasks, but their memory faded fast. They concluded that 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.

While we might pack things for a trip, including dog food and bowls,  your dog will not be concerned.

Let me pause here to say that I find this Zen-like “living in the moment” world of dogs rather appealing.

How about Mr. Squirrel caching away food for winter? Isn’t that his 401K plan?  The researchers say they do it simply do it out of instinct. When your dog buries that bone or toy, is she saving it for the future or just having fun digging holes?

Feel free to post your dog tales as comments below because I’m sure all you dog (and cat and parrot and…) owners have evidence that contradicts the research.

I won’t even get into the theory that goldfish have only an 8 second memory storage.

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