Saturday, May 9, 2009

Do Dogs Understand Time?

By Lexiann Grant

Humans often dwell on the past and worry about the future. We envy dogs their ability to live in the moment, unfettered by their past, unconcerned about tomorrow. Although our perception of what dogs think about “living in the moment” may seem anthropomorphic, there’s a sound basis for the idea.

A dog probably doesn’t reflect, “what a bad day I’ve had” after visiting the vet. They focus on what they’re doing “now.” A dog in a threatening situation wouldn’t survive long if he were thinking instead about what toy to chew next. Marc Bekoff, PhD, an animal behavior professor at the University of Colorado, thinks dogs live in the moment. “When they’re actively engaged it’s hard to distract them. They’re attentive, mindful. And mindful means being in the present.”

But dogs use past experience to plan for the future. A dog who becomes agitated when he sees the vet hospital is basing his behavior on his previous painful or frightening experience there.

“When a dog experiences anxiety, it’s because of that moment. When they’re repeatedly exposed to the same situation, like aversion to the vet’s, there’s no reason to believe they’re not thinking about what’s coming,” Bekoff said. “They’re able to combine what’s happening now with what they think will happen.”

By considering a dog’s ability to react to the present, then plan immediate, future behavior based on the past, that implies dogs have a concept of time. Their concept isn’t the same as humans, but the dogs who live with us, have a sense of time and are tuned into our schedules.

This affects the way they make decisions. Dogs look for options. Different behaviors lead to different outcomes: which will be most satisfactory? Past experience, human schedules, conditioning and individual preferences all relate. Bekoff believes dogs are adaptable and intelligent, with much of their behavior based not on instinct, but on thought.

If dogs reason this way, are they also self-aware? The educational trend is moving away from strict behaviorism to careful cognitivism. New research aims to discover what animals might understand about themselves because not all animal behavior can easily be explained by instinct.

The idea of “self” in humans has broad meaning, but it’s unknown if dogs think this way or not. “There’s no evidence that dogs need to know who they are in order to function as humans do,” Bekoff said, “but animals appear to have a sense of ‘my body, my tail, not yours — mine-ness’.”

Owners, particularly those with multiple dogs, tend to believe their dog knows “their” crate, toy, food or name: who they are. And people like to know their dogs have emotion. But Ellen Lindell, VMD, and board certified veterinary behaviorist advises not focusing too much on the emotional part, “Maybe it’s simpler than that.”

Bottom line: enjoy the moment — now — with your dog.

Read more articles by Lexiann Grant

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