The latest issue of The New Yorker arrived in the mail with a cover by cartoonist George Booth that tickled my fancy. Booth specializes in gags involving a variety of yokels and eccentrics, often in interiors illuminated by a single bare lightbulb hanging from the ceiling. There is usually a scruffy-looking dog somewhere in the picture. In this case a dog was featured on the cover in a sequence of four drawings sitting next to a side table with a big clock on it. The drawings are nearly identical, except that the big hand of the clock advances a minute of two from one drawing to the next, starting at four minutes past five. The dog is looking away from the clock in three of the drawings. A rear paw moves in one drawing, his tail in another. The dog glances at the clock in the third drawing, when the clock reads 5:06.

What could the dog be thinking, if indeed the dog could think? The pooch presumably can’t tell time; indeed, he probably has no idea what the numerals on the clock face signify. Does the dog even have a concept of time? As it happens, Booth once drew a New Yorker cover of a dog waiting expectantly by the front door, next to a grandfather clock reading twenty-something minutes past five. Did the dog know it was time for his master or mistress to arrive home from work, or was he just hungry and looking to be fed?

I don’t currently have a dog, and I last owned one only briefly more than 50 years ago. I must therefore defer to experts on what, if anything, real-life dogs understand about time. Like all plants and animals, including humans, canines are at least partly governed by circadian rhythms that interact with various environmental cues to regulate body temperature, cardiovascular function, metabolism, feeding behavior and sleep patterns. Some researchers think dogs may even be able to tell how much time has elapsed by the strength of their owner’s scent when he or she has been gone for a while.

But do dogs have episodic memory — that is to say, specific memories of past events that form the basis for a sense of time passing, as with humans? The short answer is yes, which is why you can teach your dog new tricks. It is by no means clear, however, whether these specific memories can be arranged in a timeline flowing seamlessly from past to present to future. More likely they form a series of “nows”: now it’s time for my master to come home, now it’s time to be fed, now it’s time to go for a walk. And what about that appointment with the vet next week? We’ll cross that "now" when we come to it.

It’s difficult even to express such an understanding of time without using the word itself, which may be a concept unique to human experience. For that matter, nowness may have meaning only in relation to adjoining concepts of past and future. If right now is all there is in your experience, as is the case with persons suffering from severe retrograde amnesia, then "now" has no meaning, because you can’t point to anything before or after right now. So what does a dog experience right now if not nowness? For want of a better term, let’s call it eternity, which is not unending time as humans might conceive of it, but no time at all.

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