Hey, Doggie, Do You Know What Time It Is?
Three Ways of Experiencing Time
There are three ways of experiencing time: linear, cyclical, and perceptual.
Linear time plays out with one moment following immediately after another. First A happens, then B, then C, etc. Example: A: The phone rings. B: You answer it. C: It’s a tele-marketer. D: You say, “No thanks,” and E: You hang up. That’s a clear, linear sequence of events.
An awareness of the linear nature of time is linked to what’s called “episodic memory,” the ability to recall information relating to past events: the what, where, who, when and why of things. It also entails an awareness of past, present and future, or mental time travel, the ability to hold in your mind sequences of events and categorize their “when-ness.”
Dogs don’t have an understanding of this form of time. Ira Hyman, a psychology professor at Western Washington University, writes: "I've always been troubled by the difficulty of documenting that other animals have episodic memory. Episodic remembering hinges on the conscious experience of the self in some other time and place. Episodic memory is thus hard to demonstrate without the verbal ability to describe conscious experience."
I agree. Meanwhile, cyclical time involves predictable events, repeated at certain times of day, certain days of the week, or at certain times of year, etc. A dog’s dinner time is fairly predictable within a daily window. In Western cultures, most people have a predictable work schedule of Monday through Friday, with leisure time and/or church activities on Saturday and Sunday. Yearly cycles include holidays, mattress sales, and birthdays (unless you were born on February 29th).
Just as in humans, a dog’s awareness of cyclical time is the result of circadian rhythms, part of an organism’s biological clock, controlled by a set of neurons in the hypothalamus called the suprachiasmatic nucleus, which are stimulated when light hits the dog’s eyes.
Let me just say this: dogs are geniuses when it comes to cyclical time. They pay close attention to our daily schedules and often remind us when it’s play time, dinner time, etc. But behaviors tied to circadian rhythms do not require an awareness of time’s arrow, time passing, understanding the nature of the past, present and future, or comparing one moment in time with another.
And, sadly, without access to sunlight, an awareness of cyclical time tends to disappear, changing our perception of time’s passing. According to The New York Times “a French explorer named Michel Siffre lived in a cave for two months, cut off from the rhythms of night and day and man made clocks. He emerged convinced that he had been isolated for only 25 days.”
This brings us to “perceptual time.”
Perceptual time doesn’t necessarily relate to Time itself, but to how we perceive its passing. In the human mind, time can sometimes be expanded, other times it can be compressed. On the clock every second, every minute, is no different from the rest; they all tick by in the same predictable way. But in the mind, time sometimes feels like it’s moving slowly—like when you’re stuck in traffic—at others it seems to accelerate—as in “Wow, where did the time go?” So the way time passes feels different to us during different experiences.
Strong emotions can also change our perception of time. A study was done years ago, where a group of actors burst into a lecture hall, and played out a sudden, violent scenario, involving a specific sequence of events, including a gun going off. The actors then ran out of the room. And, after they’d gone, the instructor asked the students to describe the exact sequence of events.
Nearly everyone got the time line wrong. The biggest mistake concerned the student’s perceptions of when the gun went off. Since that was the most shocking and memorable event, most of the students put it sooner in the sequence than later.
From Consciousness Explained by Daniel C. Dennett
Of the three forms of time—linear, cyclical and perceptual—dogs are only capable of understanding and being aware of cyclical time. In fact, they’re quite adept at it. Pavlov once did an experiment where he sprayed meat powder into the mouths of a dozen or so dogs at noon every day for 2 weeks. Then on the 15th day, he didn’t spray the powder yet they all still salivated exactly at noon.
I knew a dog who twisted his leg pretty badly on a Friday afternoon and began to walk with a limp. The vet found no permanent damage and said the dog would be fine in a few days. He was, but a week later he began limping again, but only on Friday. By Saturday he was back to normal. He continued limping on Fridays for about three weeks before he stopped.
Grooves in Time: The Importance of Routines
In humans the capacity to think about future events and recollect past experiences develops at around the age of 5. Again, these are uniquely human abilities. Understanding that time comes in three discrete packets—past, present and future—enables us to establish predictable routines, and routines are important. They give us a sense of control, a feeling that we have the capacity to navigate our lives with some amount or feeling of precision, as illusory as that might be.
For several years I had a clear, time-specific routine, where when the game show Jeopardy! was over, I would get up off the couch, grab the leash, and take my Dalmatian Freddie to an ad hoc dog run at an asphalt basketball court behind a high school in my neighborhood.
Then Freddie got older, the “dog run” was shut down, and my schedule changed. Yet every weekday evening, like clockwork, as soon as Jeopardy! was over, at exactly 7:25, Freddie would get up from his bed, come over to the front of the couch, lie on the floor in a Sphinx position, and just stare at me, waiting for me to grab the leash and take him out for a walk. He would actually do this for up to two hours before finally retreating back to his bed to go back to sleep. And he repeated this behavior, every weeknight, for about two months before finally finally stopping.
I see this kind of behavior—whether in dogs or humans—as a groove in time. Repeated actions and behaviors, especially those that follow a predictable time line, and occur on a regular basis, have a kind of magnetic pull on the behaviors of dogs and humans alike, similar to the way the ball in a crooked roulette table always drops into the same slot. Routines have that kind of physical effect on our minds and bodies. (It’s why some habits are so hard to break.)
Routines are also important to dogs. In fact, they’re very important. Yet it’s often said that dogs live totally in the moment, with no thought of the past or the future. So if dogs don’t have the same capacity to understand time in the way we do, how are they able to establish routines?
For the most part a dog’s routines come part-and-parcel with the daily rhythms of the human household, though dogs can sometimes form their own routines. For instance, in Russia there are about 500 dogs who ride the Moscow subway system “to work” every day. However, for most dogs their routines operate in tandem with the daily operation of the human household.
In humans, some routines are consciously arrived at while others happen on a mostly unconscious level, through a process of accrual. For dogs, however, routines are not consciously derived. Yet they still serve the same purpose: time management without the need to be always thinking things through. As dog trainer and natural philosopher Kevin Behan is wont to say, “Dogs don’t think things through, they feel things out.”
Time and Associative Learning
One of the chief features of conditioning—or learning through association—is that there’s a clear window of time between a stimulus and a subsequent response. This is commonly referred to as temporal contiguity, which refers to timing a reward so that it comes quickly or immediately after the response. The belief here is that if a behavior is reinforced immediately after it occurs, it’s more likely to be repeated, i.e., “learned,” and the imprint will be stronger.
In the world of dog training—which for me means the world that exists outside the science lab—this is a well-known and time-honored practice, one that existed long before Pavlov and Skinner came along. However, Pavlov’s research was based on an understanding of the physiological changes taking place in a dog’s body during conditioning. Skinner, on the other hand, didn’t think it was necessary to know what was going on inside the test subject’s body or mind. For him, the conditioning process itself—including the timing of reinforcements—held all the answers. (+R training maven Jean Donaldson, has the same mindset: she wrote recently that she doesn’t need to know what causes specific behavior problems in dogs in order to be able to solve them.)
However, there’s a problem with the associative model of learning. It relies on a sense of linear time: first this happens, then I do this, then I get a reward. It also relies on one of the simplest forms of logic: the “if-then” proposition, which also requires a linear sense of time.
Of course, when we look at a puppy learning to sit, we’re convinced that this is exactly what’s happening. We see an obvious linear time process: A > B > C, and the puppy sits. But if dogs don’t have an ability to perceive time in a linear, A > B > C fashion, then what’s really going on during the conditioning or training process when a puppy learns to sit?
It’s called pattern recognition. Where we see a strict, linear thought process, the puppy is busy doing what all animals do, he’s detecting patterns.
It’s well known that conditioning takes time. It doesn’t happen in real time, so to speak. If animals, living in the wild, were dependent on conditioning to learn about how get food, escape predators, and survive, they wouldn’t last very long. But pattern recognition only requires 3 or 4 repetitions, sometimes less. The only drawback is that the animal only learns the basic outline of any specific pattern since that’s all that’s needed for survival.
How does this relate to Time and Dogs?
One of the clearest examples can be found in the video of a border collie in Manchester, England, trying to get a statue of Alan Turing to play fetch with him. According to most experts, border collies are the smartest breed of dog. Why would such a smart dog act so dumb?
He’s not acting dumb, he’s operating through pattern recognition which, unfortunately, usually only provides us and dogs the quickest, easiest, most basic outlines of environmental patterns. Thus a dog will not only mistake a statue for potential playmate, he’ll sometimes mistake a stranger for his owner, or mistake his owner for a stranger. We see such events as mental lapses when, in fact, they’re a by-product of pattern recognition.
What does this say about learning through operant conditioning?
First, if dogs don’t have a linear sense of time, then they’re not capable of learning through a linear thought process, i.e., making associations between discrete events and where they fit into a timeline.
This is why when I teach new dog owners how to get their puppy to sit, I always have them give the command after the puppy has already dropped his tush to the floor. That is, I show the dog a treat, move it around until he sits, give him the treat, then say “Sit!”
When you do that three or four times in a row, then simply show the puppy a treat—without doing any of the other parts of the sequence—and say “Sit!” the pup will pause for a fraction of a second, then he’ll automatically sit. This happens because he learned the behavior through pattern recognition, not through associative learning.
I got the idea of teaching the sit this way from the study mentioned up top, where the students in the lecture hall skewed the timeline of what happened based on which of the events had the most emotional charge.
Similarly, the puppy doesn’t understand the linear process of learning to sit. All he really understands is the physical feelings he has in his body when he sits and the pleasurable experience—the emotional charge—of getting a treat at the same time. These things align as parts of a pattern, not as a linear, time-dependent associative thought process. The time line doesn’t matter to the puppy. All that matters is the emotional charge, the novelty of the situation, and the pleasurable changes taking place in his body.
Anyway, that’s how I see it.
“Life Is an Adventure—Where Will Your Dog Take You?”