By Katherine Tolford
If your dog has ever barked at other animals on TV or intently watched a football game, you may be wondering if it’s possible for him to share in your Game of Thrones or Dancing with the Stars addiction.
Do Dogs Actually Watch TV?
Julie Hecht, an animal behavior PhD student at The City University of New York, says dogs have so many reasons for barking we can’t know for certain if they’re reacting because there’s another dog on the TV.
“Dogs have a sort of mob mentality. When your dog hears a lot of noises happening at the same time, he may just join in. Barking isn’t typically a call-and-response thing. The bark at a stranger is acoustically different from an ‘I’m alone’ bark,” she says.
Clive Wynne, a psychology professor and Director of Arizona State University’s Canine Science Collaboratory, says it’s possible that certain visual images can draw dogs into TV.
“Static images don’t carry much weight. But certain movements do,” he says. “A dog’s brain has circuits that fire when they see a galloping motion of another animal across the screen. Their brains are patented to respond to it. Although I strongly suspect a dog doesn’t know whether or not he’s looking at another dog.”
Dogs are known for their superior sense of smell, but their vision is inferior to ours. When they’re watching that animal gallop across the screen, they’re seeing it in shades of yellow and blue (dogs can’t distinguish red and green).
“Mostly, I think what a dog sees on TV is a meaningless series of color jumbles until a sound with a special stimulus patches out,” says Wynne. “I think it’s the sounds that appeal to dogs. They have much sharper hearing than we do.” Wynne has observed his own dog react to the sounds of dogs barking, cats meowing and babies crying on television.
Aaron McDonald, an applied canine cognitive behaviorist and the author of Three Dimensional Dog, theorizes a dog’s socialization process may help explain his TV viewing habits.
“When dogs meet, there’s about 90 seconds of exploratory behavior where they sniff rear ends and walk in circles around each other. They’re testing each other for compromise, territory and parenting skills,” he says. “Dogs watching TV are attempting to do this. They may bark at the TV to see if there’s a response. When they jump at the TV they’re looking for more info. They’re looking to smell, touch and engage in manipulation and skill assessment.”
Dogs are selective in what they find interesting and entertaining. Just like us, each dog has his own individual preferences and strengths. Certain breeds like Greyhounds and Whippets are specialists in finding their prey by sight and speed. So they may have a higher inclination to react when they see moving images on the TV. But there’s been no research in the field of animal behavior that proves it.
“Some dogs gaze—they watch and focus on others. Some may learn about you by how you smell. Some are abstract thinkers who pay attention to situations and a sense of time,” McDonald says.
Television Designed for Dogs
While it isn’t likely that your dog is going to fight you for the remote, he may be intrigued enough to sit still for an episode of doggy content produced just for him. DogTV, which has been available on a subscription basis since 2012, produces a range of shows that claim it’s possible to entertain your dog and alter his moods.
Hecht says it’s important to understand what specifically appeals to your dog before you park him in front of the TV.
“Enrichment is in the eye of the beholder. What’s stimulating to one dog may not be stimulating to another,” she says. “It’s best to know what your dog responds to before you select images for him to watch on TV.”
Hecht suggests using a video camera, if possible, to observe your dog while you’re gone. You may learn that he doesn’t stir when the mailman shows up, but that the garbage truck sets him off.
DogTV features scientifically designed content by leading pet experts that aims to soothe your dog’s anxieties and gradually train him to be more tolerant of upsetting sounds and situations.
“The only way training might work is by a process of habituation where you let the dog get used to a sound by frequently repeating what stimulates him,” Wynne says. “If, for instance, your dog is fearful of the vacuum cleaner you might play very low-level sounds of it while you’re gone. But you have to be careful—if the sound is enough to trigger his anxiety he could be trapped with it all day.”
MacDonald is skeptical of using television as a teachable resource.
“I wouldn’t put a lot of stock in it. The problem is that it’s all sight and sound and no touch. It’s a one-way street,” he says. “There’s no back and forth. There are no consequences if a dog makes poor decisions, and no reward when he makes good decisions."
As for helping your dog to be more “Zen” Wynne says it’s possible.
“A few small studies have shown that soothing music can have a calming affect on a dog. In nature, most species agree about what sounds are calming and what sounds are alarming. There is some level of cross species generalization,” he says.
Dogs Unlikely to Binge Watch TV Like Humans
Whatever benefits dogs may get from watching TV it’s not likely they will develop couch potato tendencies like their human counterparts. McDonald believes TV can keep some dogs’ brains occupied for a while but that they’re ultimately social creatures who likely see TV as a backdrop.
“Dogs are good at living in the moment," he says. "They may watch something on TV and then when the image is gone, they think ‘Okay, I’m leaving’ and they move on. I don’t feel they have an urge to change channels."
Image: Africa Studio via Shutterstock