My bedroom is pitch black, and the only sound is a white noise machine hissing loudly. I glance over at the neon green numbers on the alarm clock and it is precisely one minute until my alarm will go off.
But I am already awake.
Somehow my terriers, Gypsy and Gordon, already know that it is time to get up. They have inched their way up the bed and then together they pounce, licking my face with gusto, knowing I will immediately go make their breakfast.
How can they know this, how can they tell wakeup time within minutes, day after day?
It sounds foolish, but I fully suspect they can somehow tell time, and I am not alone in this suspicion because many dog owners report similar experiences. Now we are beginning to discover that in fact dogs may be able to tell time.
The mystery of this amazing, little understood dog skill is further revealed with a special TV documentary, Dogs and Super Senses, that will be broadcast April 16 on PBS/NOVA.
In the documentary NOVA’s cameras follow Jazz, a Hungarian Vizsla, who somehow knows when it is almost time for his owner, Johnny Threlkeld, to return home from work each day. The cameras track Jazz throughout the day, behaving normally. Then, 20 minutes before Johnny returns home, Jazz climbs onto a sofa every day and begins watching out the window for his owner.
How does Jazz know it is time for Johnny to return home?
Researchers say that over time our scents fade at a regular rate, and theorize that Jazz can tell precisely when Johnny’s scent has faded to just the right level, which triggers his anticipation of Johnny’s return.
Cameras track Jazz as each day the Hungarian Vizsla runs to a sofa at precisely 20 minutes before his owner Johnny returns, somehow sensing it is time for their daily reunion.
“I think it is possible that dogs somehow are telling time through the day by odor concentrations,’’ says Prof. Alexandra Horowitz, a leading dog-cognition researcher at Barnard College.
To test the theory the researchers conspire to foil Jazz’s sensitive nose. On one day they retrieve fresh clothing from Johnny, go to his home and spread around his scent. The idea is that if the fading scent is what tips off Jazz, spreading fresh scent will reset Jazz’s clock.
Sure enough, it works. Jazz ignores the normal time when Johnny returns home, and is clearly surprised when his owner walks in the door.
In her book, Inside of a Dog, Horowitz notes that dogs are “olfactory’’ creatures, seeing the world via smells first. Although we humans can’t easily detect it, older smells are less strong than fresher oderants, “so dogs might be able to see time in what they are smelling,’’ Horowitz says.
“The past is represented by smells that have weakened, or deteriorated, or been covered,’’ she adds. “Odors are less strong over time, so strength indicates newness; weakness, age.’’
The documentary acknowledges that one example doesn’t prove the theory, yet it is intriguing.
“It really shows that for dogs, smell gives them a sense of time, which personally I can’t imagine in my head, with the types of smells that I perceive,” says Horowitz.
The episode goes on to explore other amazing dog and animal capabilities, and in an interview Horowitz says the most amazing discoveries about dog capabilities probably still lie ahead, since research into dog cognition is exploding exponentially.
Prof. Alexandra Horowitz
“What is fascinating about the use of dogs to detect disease, for instance, through smell, is that they always had this ability; it’s just that it’s taken us humans a while to see how we could harness it,’’ Horowitz says.
Once we realized dogs can detect disease, they are now being trained to alert on a wide range of illnesses in humans, including a variety of cancers, even though we still aren’t exactly sure how they do it.
“There are very few, but a steadily growing number of studies on disease-detection in dogs,’’ Horowitz notes. “The methods are quite diverse. As the field grows, the methods will converge, and the results will be more powerful. At this point, though, I think it’s fair to say that the field is still in its inception. Some disease- or disease-related detection tasks which dogs have been asked to do — such as epileptic-seizure anticipation — have not been verified in the literature. Whether dogs are smelling or otherwise detecting seizures is not clear yet. There is a lot of really interesting work to be done.’’
If you think you know animals, prepare to be amazed by NOVA’s three-part Inside Animal Minds series:
- Bird Genius, April 9, 2014
- Dogs and Super Senses, April 16, 2014
- Who’s the Smartest?, April 23, 2014