If it was autumn, it was time for football. My cocker spaniel, Bailey, and I spent many Sunday afternoons two decades ago in front of the TV switching between games. As I stuffed my face with the snack du jour, Bailey craned his neck watching nearly every down, every tackle, before, inevitably, he and I drifted off to sleep.
Dogs that watch TV? You might dismiss such things as a stupid lazy pet-owner trick. After all, dogs don't watch television. They certainly don't watch football. Bailey was different. He loved TV, although he hated Westerns. He barked every time he saw a horse gallop through town or ride off into the sunset.
I suspect most dog owners have, from time to time, noticed their pets watching TV. In fact, if you search "dogs watching television" on YouTube, 27.8 million "results" pop up. But are all these dogs really watching? Can TV command the attention of a dog as it commands the attention of a human being?
"Yes!" Dr. Evan MacLean, an assistant professor at Arizona State University's school of anthropology and director of the Arizona Canine Cognition Center, says in an email. "This is an interesting and not well understood phenomenon. Some dogs certainly seem more interested in television than others."
How Dogs See TV
Dogs watch TV but not in the same way us bipedals do. For one thing, there's a general misconception that dogs are color-blind. In reality, dogs are dichromatic and view the world not in black and white, but in shades of yellow, brown, violet and gray. Concurrently, humans are trichromatic, which gives us a much more colorful existence.
"[Dogs] see some color, but differently than we do. Reds and greens are less distinguishable for them, and probably appear as a shade of yellow," MacLean says.
Moreover, dogs have faster "flicker fusion frequency" than humans. Flicker fusion is the number of picture frames per second that are needed to reproduce seamless motion in videos and film. Think of it this way: When you watch television, you're essentially watching a series of images that give the illusion of movement. In the old days (before digital and HDTV), TVs refreshed their picture at a rate of 50 to 60 hertz. This allowed humans to see a series of discrete images as one continuous, uninterrupted visual stream.
Dogs, however, see much faster than humans. If a dog was watching an old TV, for example, it would see the images flicker, similar, MacLean says, to what we see in older home movies where a TV is on in the background. In other words, they see each image and the space between them. Annoying to say the least.
Thanks to improved TV technology, images no longer flicker for dogs. That allows them to have a normal perception of what's happening on the screen, which could explain an increased desired to look at the images on television. Also, canines process visual information differently than Homo sapiens. A 2013 study published in the journal Animal Behaviour concluded that dogs perceive movement a bit more slowly than humans. That means if a rabbit runs through the yard, dogs can detect quick changes in their field of vision better than we can.
Dogs can also recognize other dogs they see on TV. In another 2013 study published in Animal Cognition journal, a group of dogs was able to pick out the faces of other dogs, regardless of the breed, among the faces of humans and other animals. The dogs then took those images and grouped them into their own categories.
Television relies not just on a series of moving images, but also on sound. Dogs respond to sounds. Loretta Lou, my chocolate lab, for example, could care less about watching television. Yet, if a there's a siren blaring on screen, she'll immediately pick her head up and stare at the TV. (For the record, she howls at sirens when an ambulance or fire truck bounds down the road. So cute!) In fact, studies show that dogs initially respond to sound before they start watching the moving images.
"Sounds are another big piece," MacLean says. "If dogs hear something interesting this can lead them to attend visually, looking for something to attend to."
All of this leads us, to what else, DOGTV, a 24-hour channel devoted to, you got it, dogs. The idea is to flip on the channel when you leave the house, not only to entertain your dog, but also to decrease their pangs of separation anxiety. It also helps them on a variety of other levels, which we'll get to shortly.
Interestingly, the idea for DOGTV began when a cat named Charlie moved from London to Israel and didn't like the change in scenery. Charlie was depressed and anxious once he and his best bud, Ron Levi, made the move. Charlie had a cattitude leaving Levi at his wit's end every time he left for work. "He gave me the saddest eyes," Levi says. "I was like, 'this is not OK.' I had to do something."
Levi, who helped create the hit TV show "The Amazing Race," tried to soothe Charlie with jazz and Nirvana. Nothing worked. Then he downloaded videos of fish and birds. "I put it on for him. He reacted amazingly. I was shocked." The seeds for DOGTV were now firmly planted in Levi's mind. "I thought this could be something," Levi says.
Levi shopped the idea around and found financial backers. He then did his homework. While you might think that DOGTV, which now airs in 14 countries, is nothing more than a gimmick, be forewarned. It's not. For three years, Levi pored through dozens of research papers to understand how dogs perceive the world. How do they see? How do they hear? What stimulates their memory? How long is their attention span? What types of sounds scare dogs? What relaxes them?
Levi took what he learned, and with help from experts in dog behavior, created content that relaxed dogs; stimulated them; and helped dogs overcome things that made them nervous. DOGTV is all about stimulation, relaxation and exposure. Relaxation programs include visuals of breathtaking landscapes infused with classical music. Exposure programming gently exposes dogs to everyday sounds and visuals, so they can overcome their anxieties.Levi installed cameras in test homes to monitor the reactions of the dogs during the day and how they responded to what was on DOGTV and compared them to how they reacted to other networks like Animal Planet and CNN.
In 2012, DOGTV made its debut as a test run on Cox Cable and Time Warner Cable in San Diego. The channel was a hit. A year later, DOGTV went national. Your dogs can watch the channel on DirectTV, Infinity and other broadcast venues such as Roku, Apple TV and Amazon FireTV. The channel consists of hundreds of programs designed to capture the minuscule attention span of dogs. Because sound is an extremely important sense for dogs, DOGTV includes sound frequencies and music dogs like. DOGTV even adapts colors on the screen to capture the animal's attention.
"We're creating content all the time," Levi says. "We're not expecting dogs to watch TV all day, we're trying to make dogs happy. We're not HBO yet, but we're hoping to be HBO for dogs, or Netflix."
Too bad Bailey isn't around to watch.