How Does My Dog Always Know When I’m Coming Home?

06.30.2011 |

Does your dog sit by the door all day waiting for you to come home? Probably not.

When I get home from work my dog is always at the door, waiting for me. Friends of mine report the same phenomenon. Do they spend all day at the door waiting for us? Maybe, but probably not. It’s probably the result of associative learning.

Dogs and humans have been a double-bill for tens of thousands of years. Dogs help the disabled, go to war with us and – of course – are often prominently featured in our domestic life. One reason dogs have made such good partners is that they are incredibly good at picking up on small environmental cues, such as body language or specific sounds that we might not notice. Heck, we now know that dogs can even tell when we’re happy.

While there aren’t many studies on how dogs know when their masters are coming home, there are a number of hypotheses that hinge on associative learning and dogs’ sensitivity to environmental cues.

For example, a dog can learn to recognize the sound of a specific car and anticipate the arrival of the person associated with that car (such as the dog’s owner). It has learned that a specific sound is associated with you coming home (thus, associative learning). In other words, the sound of the car serves as a trigger, which sets the dog’s ritual welcoming behavior in motion – sitting at the window, dancing around in a circle, etc.

But what if you don’t drive a car? Well, other triggers could be related to time. For example, if you take the subway and usually get home at 5:30, the dog may be triggered by the local bus that drives by every day at 5:25.

And, of course, it’s also possible that your dog just spends a lot of time sitting at the window when you’ve been gone for a while.

Dogs’ sensitivity to environmental cues demonstrates itself in other ways as well. For example, some dogs will become restless in advance of thunderstorms – well before you or I will notice that dark clouds are starting to gather. This may be because they can pick up on changes in barometric pressure or ozone – or that they can pick up on the ultra-low frequency rumbles that signal the approach of a storm (they can hear frequencies that humans can’t).

As to whether dogs can predict other natural phenomena, like earthquakes, the jury is definitely still out. There is some evidence that some dogs are sensitive to related environmental cues – but no one really knows. At most, animal behavior researchers concede that it is possible.

Lastly, I’ll relate something from my own experience: you can teach an old dog new tricks. That’s a fact.

Note: Many thanks to Dr. Barbara Sherman, clinical associate professor of veterinary behavior at NC State, for taking the time to talk to me about dogs and dog behavior. Any errors in the above post are mine, and mine alone.

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11 Responses to “How Does My Dog Always Know When I’m Coming Home?”

  1. Dave Green says:

    Dr. Barbara Sherman, past president of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, directs the Behavior Medicine Service in the College of Veterinary Medicine’s new Veterinary Health and Wellness Center, part of the Veterinary Health Complex.

    http://www.cvm.ncsu.edu/about/bio-terry.html

  2. Melissa Duttle says:

    I remember learning of a study where dog owners were given pagers/beepers and sent out into the world. The humans were sent random times of the pager going off indicating them to return home. The dogs were being filmed the entire time. The study found that at the moment their humans got the page and knew they were to go home, the dogs behavior changed to prepare for their homecoming. I think it is odd that this study was not mentioned. Did I get the facts wrong on that study?

  3. Matt Shipman says:

    Hi Melissa – I’ve never heard of that study, and it didn’t come up when I was doing some homework on this. Do you have any idea when/where it was published? I’ll touch base with Dr. Sherman as well to get her input — if I find the study, I’ll include a link!

  4. Matt Shipman says:

    Hi Melissa, I just heard back from Dr. Sherman. Here’s what she had to say:

    “Some years ago, there was a series of papers in the ‘alternative’ press by an author named Sheldrake about a single dog named Jaytee who was documented on video tape of anticipating the owner’s arrival more than 10 minutes in advance. More recently, there was a paper in which a similar protocol was used but with the addition of a pager with a single dog named Kane (Sheldrame R, Smart P, Testing a return-anticipating dog, Kane, Anthrozoos, 2000;13(4):203-212). Although interesting and heuristic, I don’t believe the results constitute a database of evidence at present. However, the human-animal bond is powerful and I suspect there is much to learn about the amazing capabilities of dogs.”

    Hope that’s helpful for you!

  5. Audrey says:

    Enjoyable article, Matt. Most people would agree that dogs learn best through repetition and positive reinforcement. The sound of their owner’s car, followed by attention from the person they “love” (to be anthropomorphic ) over and over again certainly explains your description of a car triggering welcoming rituals.

  6. Dwayne says:

    No one’s a bigger skeptic of this kind of thing than I am. That being said I’ve witnessed it with my own cat Thomas, at least my wife has. When I would come home from work I would see Thomas sitting at the top of our steps. I never thought anything of it until my wife told me every day about 10 mins before I got home he would get up and go sit there at the top of the steps. Once she noticed it she began watching him and he did it every day. The strange thing is that I didn’t get home at the same time everyday. I remember the same show that Melissa mentions and it seems there was more than one dog that did this, but no mention of cats.

  7. According to Monique Udell and her team from the University of Florida in the US the way that dogs come to respond to the level of peoples attentiveness tells us something about the ways dogs think and learn about human behavior. They wanted to know whether the rearing and living envi-ronment of the animal shelter or human home or the species itself dog or wolf had the greater impact on the animals performance..They showed for the first time that wolves like domestic dogs are capable of begging successfully for food by approaching the attentive human. This demonstrates that both species – domesticated and non-domesticated – have the capacity to behave in accordance with a humans attentional state.

  8. I’ve raised several dogs both as a child and an adult, and I’ve found out that the best success comes from planting in the dog’s mind the fact that you are unquestionably its “pack leader” to be followed without doubt or challenge on the dog’s part. You don’t have to be cruel or inflict pain to do that, either. Just as an example, the most effective way to discipline a dog is to pick it up by the scruff of the neck and shake it while speaking in a stern voice (not yelling). A mother bitch picks up her pups and shakes them to control their antics. The trick makes such a powerful impression on the dog that you should save it for only the worst offenses, like growling in anger at you or a family member.

  9. liliana says:

    Well, my little dog is incredible !! every day i back from work a diferent hours, my dog knows 10 minutes before I arrive. My husband and friends are in shock. How you explain that ? No car sound, i do not believe associative learning.

  10. Judy says:

    I pick up my Jack Russell and Chihuahua from Doggie Day Care at varying times, sometimes at early afternoon and once in ahwile close to dinner time. No matter what, my Jack will go to the door and whine well before my car arrives. The man who runs the day care is totally in awe of this.

  11. David says:

    I have two dogs, 9yrs and 9 months. My routine is to get up at 6AM and go running (?) with them. I take the ‘old guy’ for the first lap. But, before leaving, I put the (Labradoodle) puppy’s harness on. After getting his harness on, he goes back upstairs to get undner the covers with my son. The old guy and I go for a fast walk and return home in about 10-12 minutes. My wife and son have both said that the puppy either leaves the bedroom or the kitchen and goes to the fron window about one minute before we return. I have observed this as I did return quicker on morning and saw him just getting to the window. How does he know? Does he really understand the time or does he just know? We aren’t making any noise.

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