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My dog, a sweet, goofy retriever, can always tell when my husband is coming home. He heads for the garage door every night about five minutes before I hear his car. I know lots of people have pets that can predict the future like this. But what is it that gives them these powers? Dogs are good smellers. Can my dog actually smell my husband or his car coming home? It doesn’t seem likely, but who knows? There are a lot of crazy things out there, so maybe it’s true.

— Eddie’s Confused Owner, San Diego

Yeah, that’s what I count on, that the world is full of nutty stuff I can reveal for your entertainment. And no animal researcher would disagree with your theory that Eddie, downwind of your husband’s stinky Corolla, could be stimulated to wait by the door long before you could smell the car. Maybe Eddie can hear the Corolla’s bad valve from very far away; dogs also have outtasight hearing. But whatever the stimulus, it’s not a dog’s “sense of time” that tells him to sit by the door. He’s not doing it because he did it last night about this time and was rewarded by your husband’s appearance. From what little research has been done on dogs, cats, bees, rats, and birds, animals don’t grasp time the way we do; they have no memory of when events happened in the past to help them predict what will happen in the future. Past and future belong just to us humans. We’re the only ones who have to be on time for sales meetings, so we’re the only ones who need to watch the clock.

Dog time-telling research suggests they live very much in the moment, and that moment might be connected to past events, like dog training (“When they say ‘sit,’ if I sit down I’ll get my ears scratched”). It’s speculated that dogs have no memory of having learned “sit” at some past time. The command “sit” is just something in their current repertoire that stimulates a specific action. Animals in general and dogs in particular are very sensitive to the minute sights, sounds, and smells in their environments, much more so than we are. And researchers believe dogs’ biological rhythms might have something to do with what we perceive as their ability to “tell time.” Certain physical states might be connected with events in the outside world and make dogs seem psychic.

The whole subject of animals’ sense of time is still murky, but from what research has been done, it looks as if the answers are going to be more simple and basic than complicated or magical. Dogs in particular seem to live in the present, and wouldn’t it be nice if we all could.


Can stress really cause your hair to fall out? My hair seems to be coming out in great amounts in my comb, and I am really stressed at work. Is that what’s causing it, or should I see my doctor about this?

— Janet Kelly, San Diego

Well, Janet, don’t worry about what’s going on now. Think back a few months — two, three, four. Taking a new medication? Under lots of stress then? Surgery? Pregnancy? Some other shock to your metabolism or hormone balance? Yes, stress can make your hair fall out (faster than normal — about 100 hairs a day) if the stress changes your body chemistry.

At any given time, about 15 percent of your body hairs are in a resting phase, which lasts about three months. The rest of your hairs are chugging along just fine. At the end of the resting phase, a new hair sprouts in the resting follicle and pushes the old hair out. This is how things work under normal conditions. But any shock to the system — from a car accident to an extreme change in diet — can force more than 15 percent of our body hairs into a resting phase and then fall out when the new hair grows in. We then gasp and say, “Oh, my hair’s falling out in handfuls!” But this shedding occurs months after the stress that caused it, since there’s a whole series of scalp events that have to take place between shock and fallout. So, if you’re losing lots of hair now, think back to identify the cause. If you’re seriously stressed now, then you might have another heavy shed to look forward to.

We usually look only to our head hairs when we complain of a stress shed. But you might wake up one morning and find out you have no eyebrows. Hair is hair, after all. Our heads have no special privileges.

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badcyclist Jan. 25, 2009 @ 3:11 p.m.

Dogs understand time. They may not perceive it precisely the way that humans do, but they understand far more than most scientists give them credit for.

Because I have a fairly regular work schedule, our dogs always know when to expect me, and they will wait at the front window at the same time every day. My wife says that they are visibly disappointed on days when I am later than expected, and I know that the same is true for her when she is unexpectedly late.

Our dogs also understand the concept of weekends. They know that weekends mean walks in the mornings, and they will wake us up at about the same time on Saturday and Sunday mornings to walk, while leaving us alone during the week.

Every couple of months, scientists claim to be surprised at new data indicating that dogs are smarter than previously believed. My conclusion is that these scientists don't have a clue about dogs.


Matthew_Alice March 28, 2009 @ 1:13 p.m.

Badcyclist: Scientists do have a clue about dogs. They just haven't yet applied scientific principles to all their hunches. Science is always "proving" stuff the rest of us "knew" was true; the scientific take on "knowing" is different from our take. And your dogs might be responding to cues other than a "sense of time" -- things that you do habitually at different times that connect with some reward for the dogs. They're very sensitive animals. Stuff we do without thinking can be significant to a dog's motivation. But anyway, science or no science, dogs are just plain cool. No matter what the truth is, sharing space with pooches is full of rewards. -- Matthew Alice


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