Dogs often surprise us with their astounding abilities, and something really surprising is a dog's talented perception about knowing when his owners are coming home. Surveys have demonstrated that 46 percent of dog owners in England and 45 percent of dog owners in California noticed this ability in their dogs, and in both surveys, dogs were capable of detecting their owner's arrival less than 5 minutes prior to when the person arrived home. Some dogs though showed remarkable anticipatory signs as long as more than 10 minutes prior to the person's arrival! How can dogs know when their owners are coming home? Following are some "pawsibilities."
The Car's Make and Model
OK, dogs may not be able to tell you exactly what make and model your car is, but they sure can recognize the distinctive noise of your car. Dogs are very sensitive to environmental cues and through experience they can learn to put two and two together.
If every day your dog hears your car pulling into the driveway and then he hears you opening the door, through associative learning your dog will soon learn to pair the two events together. But that's not all.
Dogs also have uncanny ability to chain together a longer series of events. We see this all the time in dogs suffering from separation anxiety. These dogs get nervous the moment you start your "getting-ready-to-go-to-work" routine as soon as you get up and prepare breakfast.
So in the case of you coming home, your dog may reach a point where he'll pair the noise of your car's engine at a distance, the noise of your car's breaks, the noise of your car pulling into the driveway, the noise of your car door closing, the noise of your foot steps and the noise of your keys jingling with the most anticipated event of all... you opening the door to come inside.
This can explain how dogs may be able to know their owners are coming home perhaps a couple of minutes prior, but how can some dogs know even 10 minutes or more in advance?
The Almighty Sniffer
We all know that dogs have a powerful sniffer, so it's not surprising if dogs could smell their owners as they're on their way home.
It's highly unlikely though that dogs could pick up their owner's scent as they're driving considering that scent doesn't travel forward like sound, and on top of that, cars are for the most sealed nowadays, and at home, windows and doors are closed to prevent drafts, explains Malcolm Fish of the Essex Police Dog Section in the book "Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home" byRupert Sheldrake.
Dogs are therefore more likely to pick up their owner's scent if they're walking and the wind is blowing the right way, but likely at less than a mile for a dog like the bloodhound.
An interesting explanation as to how dogs may predict their owner's arrival might come from how long the owner's scent lingers since he leaves the house. Some researchers suggest that after dog owners leave the house, their smell lingers for some time.
There's a possibility that the scent decays slowly over the day, and that around a certain time, the dogs associate a specific amount of scent with the owners unlocking the door. The video below shows an episode from "Inside the Animal Mind": Episode 1 Preview - BBC Two discussing this theory.
Reactions of Others
As we already know, dogs are very tuned in to the slightest changes in their environments and they easily pick up even the most subtle cues. It's therefore no surprise if dogs could also pick up "pre-arrival" signs from those around him. If, for example, you know your husband comes home every day at 5PM, you might be carrying out tasks that are telling your dog that the anticipated arrival time is coming closer.
It could be anything you do on a daily basis such as starting to prepare dinner, putting the mail on a table or unlocking the front door. Don't forget that dogs are always watching! If you notice your dog starts getting excited when you start doing these things, it could be your dog is picking up these signs predicting your husband's arrival.
Perception of Time
Dogs may not be able to tell you exactly what time it is if you were to ask them, but they are very tuned in to their biological clocks. If you always come home around the same time, your dog may rely on his circadian rhythm to roughly predict when you are about to come home.
Circadian rhythms include all the physical, mental and behavioral changes that occur in a 24 hour cycle. They offer animals and plants an advantage in evolutionary terms as they help them anticipate and prepare for regular environmental changes.
"Dogs wear an actual clock-though internally. It is in the so-called pacemaker of their brain, which regulates the activities of other cells of the body through the day." ~Alexandra Horowitz
Psychic or Telepathic Powers?
Finally, sometimes we stumble on things that are unexplainable even when it comes to science. Take for example the behavior of Jaytee, a mongrel terrier who has shown the uncanny ability to anticipate the owner's arrival up to half an hour prior, or even more.
In the case of Jaytee, nobody else knew when the owner was on her way as she returned at non-routine times, and on top of that, she sometimes arrived in unfamiliar vehicles, so the above explanations wouldn't cut it.
In the research conducted by Rupert Sheldrake and Pamela Smart, they concluded that Jaytee's behavior remains unknown to science and must be stemming from telepathic or psychic abilities or even perhaps a "sixth sense!"
" There is a strong connection between humans and animals that lies beyond present-day scientific understanding." ~ Rupert Sheldrake
- Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know, by Alexandra Horowitz, Scribner (September 3, 2009)
- A Dog That Seems To Know When His Owner is Returning: Preliminary Investigations
Journal of Scientific Exploration 14, 233-255 (2000) Rupert Sheldrake and Pamela Smart.
- Brown, D. and Sheldrake, R. (1997) Perceptive pets: a survey in California. JASPR (in the press).
- Sheldrake, R. and Smart, P. (1997) Psychic pets: a survey in North-West England. JSPR 68, 353-364.
- "Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home" by Rupert Sheldrake, Broadway Books; Upd Rev edition (April 26, 2011)