December 26, 2022

Melissa forwarded me a text from an NPR article by Michaeleen Doucleff concerning the strange ability of Donut the dog.  Donut was a stray who arrived at the family’s house when the two boys were young.  She was a hound mix, with big, brown floppy ears and giant white and black spots on her flanks. When the two boys went to school, Donut would spend most of her day lying on the living room rug sleeping.  However, without fail Donut would hop up just before the bus dropped the boys off and go to the back porch and sit by the window, waiting for the boys to arrive.  She was never early, and she was never late.  The writer decided to solve the mystery of how Donut knew what time the boys would arrive.

Alexandra Horowitz studies dog cognition at Columbia University and Barnard College.  Horowitz says dogs (and people) use many environmental cues to estimate the time during the day.  They listen to their body’s physiological signs, and they have varying hormones that create a built-in clock in their bodies and minds.  Even the amount of light in the room or angle of the sun can tell the passage of time.  Another trick dogs have is called olfaction.  Dogs are living in an olfactory world, and Horowitz suggested they can track time with smell.  Smelling time for Donut likely began with the boy’s unique bouquet of scents.  Humans stink, and dogs can recognize their owners by their smell (that is why they constantly sniff you).  Humans also leave a smell signature everywhere we go.  As the boys rushed out the door to catch the bus in the morning, they left their smell in the living room.  Over time the scents changed as the odors would deteriorate.  It was likely Donut noticed the shift in smells and used it to predict when the school bus would arrive.  Donut literally smelled time pass.

While this may seem an unlikely explanation, this precision is what enables dogs to follow scents through space when tracking missing people.  According to cognitive scientist Lucia Lazarowski, “Tracking and trailing dogs are probably using the intensity of odors, based on how old the odor is, to determine the direction of a track or a trail.” That means more recent odors are going to be more intense than odors that have dissipated over time.  When dogs are keeping track of physical space, they’re also tracking time, and for dogs, time is inseparably woven into space.  Doucleff suggested This is reminiscent of the way physicists describe and think about time and space, as two inseparable ideas combined in one four-dimensional continuum.  If this is the case, dogs are smarter than we give them credit for, and Donut was displaying a mastery of astrophysics.

THOUGHTS:  One reason I found the article about Donut and his ability to tell time interesting was because I see similar behaviors in Zena.  When the clocks “fell back” this fall Zena would come in at the same time and place her head on my knee letting me know it was time for supper.  It took her several weeks to understand I was not going to feed her until 5:30 pm (clock time), regardless of what time she knew it to be.  Einstein’s Theory of Relativity determined that time is relative and depends on your frame of reference.  Time is even relative for the human body, which is basically a biological clock.  Time can speed up when you are trying to finish a project by a certain date but can slow to a crawl when we are waiting for a certain hour to arrive.  Since time is relative, we should relax and let time pass, relishing each moment.  Act for all.  Change is coming and it starts with you.

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