Creatures of Habit

Golden retriever Cali rests her head on my knee to tell me it is time to stop workingDogs love routines. Anyone who says dogs have no sense of time have clearly never lived with a dog.

Dogs know when good things are supposed to happen for them. Some dogs serve as highly accurate alarm clocks, which is why it’s possible to train service dogs to remind their humans to take their meds on time.

Cali is a wonderful alarm clock. She even has a snooze setting, and she understands that, on weekends, we get up an hour or so later. If she’s desperate to go out, she’ll deviate from the routine, but otherwise, right on schedule, she lets me know that it’s time to get up.

She also knows when I am supposed to stop working (and prepare her dinner). About 10 minutes before 5 each workday, she comes over and, very gently, pokes me with her nose. Again 10 minutes later if I haven’t gotten up from my chair. At this point, she sits right at my feet and gives me that look. Anyone who has met Cali knows what I mean.

She knows the morning routine, too, and when I am almost at “put Cali’s leash on for her walk,” she bounds off to grab a toy and do her morning dance of joy, racing from living room to dining room to living room several times — a distance of about 6 feet — with the chosen toy. She then lets me put her leash on, and we’re off.

She has a set route for her morning walk, though she allows occasional changes. When we get back, we feed the birds before I start work upstairs, and she keeps watch over the front yard and sidewalk, warning me if other dogs approach. After an hour or two of that, she lets me know it’s time for a break, and we go outside and toss the ball a few times.

Our evening routine is no less set. Dogs get some yogurt or kefir — Koala’s dietician recommends it for the probiotics — go outside, brush their teeth, get a cookie, and go to bed.

How is it, then, that Cali “forgets” the teeth-brushing step, heading straight to bed, every single evening? I have to call her in or follow her to her bed to get at those teeth. The brushing jogs her memory, though, and she promptly appears to collect her cookie. This happens whether Koala is here or not.

Koala is very good about brushing her teeth, even reminding me if it looks like I may have forgotten (I’m not sure what that looks like, but Koala knows). So, while it makes sense that the sound and scent of Koala eating her cookie might jog Cali’s memory, I’m not sure what does that in Koala’s absence. I personally do not eat a cookie after brushing my teeth, so no reminder there.

Koala, a black Lab, noses an orange treat ball in her downstairs play roomAnother routine that Koala is more strict about than Cali is the timing (and existence) of puppy lunch and snufflematting. Cali is delighted when these occur, and she occasionally does ask for the snufflemat, but she’s willing to let the matter drop if I am busy. Not Koala; her routines are very important to her, particularly if they revolve around food.



The Best Alarm Clocks Ever

I’d always heard that dogs have no sense of time; that the concepts of present, past, and future were unique to human beings; and that our canine friends lived only in the present. I accepted that as “common knowledge” until I really began to pay attention to dogs.

When I was in service dog trainer school ten years ago at Bergin U (then called the Assistance Dog Institute), I learned that we could train dogs to remind their human partners to take medication at a particular time each day. That really got me thinking. Most dogs know when dinnertime arrives. In fact, punctual critters that they are, they tend to remind us humans of approaching mealtimes, well in advance, lest we delay. (Goldens and Labs tend to remind us hours and hours in advance …)

Dogs get to know what time the family wakes up, even adjusting to weekends. Our dogs are the best alarm clocks ever. I get good morning kisses from Wylie (whether I want them or not) at 5:30 each morning, well before my radio alarm comes on. Any visitor to our house can request a “wake-up dog,” similar to a wake-up call but warmer, fuzzier, and sometimes wetter. Wylie loves this job.

Jana even knows the concept of “weekends.” While Jana, like Wylie, stirs a little before the alarm clock on weekday mornings, she, like her humans, enjoys a couple of extra hours of sleep on Saturday and Sunday. She’s made that distinction for years. Never failed. Nothing fazes her, not power failures or holiday weekends (darn!).

Neither dog takes more than a day or so to adjust to Daylight Saving Time changes, and Wylie, who commuted cross-country on a regular basis, was quickly able to adjust his “internal” clock to local time and update his expectations for when meals and exercise might happen.

It’s not always perfect; Jana might suggest that it is dinnertime a little early, in reasonable golden retriever fashion, and Wylie is sure to remind us if we run late when he believes that it is time for afternoon exercise.

Wylie’s human, Deni, teaches college classes. Sometimes, she teaches a 3-hour evening class that includes a break after about an hour and a quarter. If Deni starts a new section or says something like, “Before we take our break, I just want to …” Wylie quickly lets her know that that is not acceptable by groaning, sighing, and moaning. That gets the students laughing, which quickly convinces Deni that, no, she won’t “just do” anything else before the break.

Our dogs are not unique in learning our routines and schedules. Dogs are attuned to when their people usually return home in the afternoon, pacing or looking out the window in anticipation. Research by Rupert Sheldrake and others hints that some dogs seem to be tuning in to something more than the clock as they anticipate a family member’s return even when unexpected, but that is more correctly termed “pack awareness” than time sense.

But, overall, dogs’ capabilities are far greater than what most traditional dog behaviorists and trainers claim. This is important because learning and remembering routines, time-bound or not, is a function of procedural memory — a type of long-term memory that is an essential component of learning motor skills and cognitive activities. It’s the reason you never forget how to ride a bike, for example.

People use procedural memory to teach dogs some tricks and service dog skills, such as turning on a light or getting something out of the refrigerator; dogs also use procedural memory to train us to do what they want and when. Humans and canines would not be so close if it weren’t for that shared training and learning ability.