STRANGE BUT TRUE- Puppy loathe: When canines realize a rip-off


Q. Do dogs have a sense of fairness, of getting a good deal or a raw one?–L. Helmsley

A. Surprisingly, they do when they feel they're not being treated fairly. Until now, overt reaction to unfairness had seemed to be restricted to primates. But some researchers had grown to suspect that other species that live cooperatively could also be sensitive to "foul play," says Nora Schultz in New Scientist magazine. To test this out, University of Vienna researchers asked 43 trained dogs to extend their paws to a human in various situations. The animals complied just about every time, with or without being given a reward.

However, this changed quickly when the dogs were stationed alongside another dog that was being given a food reward when the test dog got none. The predictably "disgruntled" dogs offered their paws far less often, while showing stress signs such as licking and scratching themselves. "They were clearly unhappy with the unfair situation," said researcher Friedericke Range. "It might explain why some dogs react with 'new-baby envy' when the owners have a child." 

Like wolves and coyotes, dogs are pack animals and, among social carnivores, learn not to tolerate unfairness where other members of the pack are not pulling their weight. Range argues that the dogs' sense of fairness probably evolved long before domestication. "We are now testing for envy in wolves," she says, "and I would be surprised if we didn't find it." 

Q. "I've got some in my fridge, and it tastes fine to me." How did such a prosaic pronouncement get to be a magazine headliner?–B. Crocker

A. The drink in question was none other than water derived from urine using a new wastewater recycling system developed under NASA engineer Bob Bagdigian, as part of a mission to renovate the living quarters of the International Space Station, says Yudhijit Bhattacharjee in Science magazine. The device was among the cargo transported to the station by seven astronauts aboard the shuttle Endeavor. Waste not, want not. 

Q. Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross studied dying patients and taught us all about the five stages of grief. Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud taught us about the five stages of psychosexuality, Harvard's Lawrence Kohlberg about the six stages of moral development. So at what stage are we humans now in our understanding of very important things?–J. Brothers

A. You might call it the "Stage Fright" stage because we've finally begun to understand the shortcomings of such theories of human behavior, says Michael Shermer in Scientific American. For example, Kubler-Ross postulated the stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance in dealing with the death of a loved one; but according to co-authors Russell Friedman and John James in The Grief Recovery Handbook, "no study has ever established that stages of grief actually exist." Grief is the natural response to loss, but no specified stages fit any two people. After Freud's five stages, Erik Erikson countered with eight. And on it goes. 

Such tidy orderings are appealing because we are pattern-seeking, storytelling beings trying to make sense of an often chaotic world. But the stories may be more true for the storyteller than for the cultural audience. Perhaps such stages reflected a time when most people marched through life predictably– marrying early, having kids, working, retiring. However, new social and economic conditions have blown these life predictabilities away. 

Q. They say nobody works anymore, and they've got the data to prove it: Since there are 365 days in a year, and the average worker works only one-third of a day (8 hours out of 24), that figures to 122 days a year that can be worked at most (365 x one-third). But then you must subtract Saturdays and Sundays (52 x 2 = 104 days), holidays (roughly 8 days), plus paid vacations (10 days), or 104 + 8 + 10 = 122 days off. So 122 days total that can be worked minus 122 days off equals zero (0!) net days worked, right?–K. Marx

A. The fallacy here is that initially only 1/3 of each work day was counted as work, so only 1/3 of weekends, holidays and vacation should be subtracted as time off. Done this way, you get 122 - 40 = about 80 twenty-four-hour days' worth of work per year, or 240 eight-hour work days. 


Send strange questions to brothers Bill and Rich at