Carol Goldstein of Englewood, Colorado, just didn’t get why some dogs in her life couldn’t have cared less about television while others have seemed positively addicted to it. “My daughter’s dog, Frisco, a one-year-old Labradoodle, loves to watch TV,” she wrote. “He barks at other dogs or horses that appear on the screen and sometimes becomes upset if there is a show with violence. He will run around the room and act nervous. I myself have always had dogs, and none of them have ever shown even the slightest interest in the TV. Can you explain why this cute little guy behaves that way when other dogs do not?”
Yes. It comes down to different strokes for different canine folks.
“We haven’t looked at the makeup of breeds that are and aren’t interested in watching television,” says Nicholas Dodman, BVMS, director of our Animal Behavior Clinic. “It’s possible that scent hounds, who spend more time with their nose to the ground and are not so driven by sight, might be less interested. But there’s no doubt about it. Dogs watch TV, and some of them watch with interest, even excitement.”
And the incidence of canine TV-watching has only increased, says Dr. Dodman. “Dogs didn’t used to” watch television so much, he explains, because of “the flicker rate. Now, with high-definition TV, they can see the images as well as you can. They’re also hearing things on TV,” he adds. “It’s a little bit like us with the morning shows — you’re kind of half listening as you cook your eggs. Then someone says ‘dog story’ and you look up for 30 seconds. Then you drop your eyes and carry on. That’s the way it seems to be with a lot of dogs.
“We did some research here at Tufts and found that, on average, dogs were actively watching television for about 13 percent of the six hours that we observed them — or about one hour out of six. Results from research in Europe found that the average amount of time dogs spend looking at scenes on TV is one hour a day. It kind of equates with our findings.”
But dogs’ interest in television is all over the map, or the screen. “We had some who were avid TV watchers,” Dr, Dodman says. “One Maltese watched for 81 percent of the time that the television was on. Others seem to be less interested.”
Dr. Dodman’s own daughter’s dog, a one-year-old Sheltie mix, happens to love the Dog TV channel, which contains a variety of sights as well as sounds, including calming, melodic music (and is watched by dogs not just in the U.S. but also in Europe and Asia). When his daughter is in class at medical school and the dog walker brings back the puppy from a walk, “he runs straight to his open crate and lies there watching the television, which is left on for him during the day,” he relates. The dog also sits between his daughter and her boyfriend, looking at the TV while the two of them study.
“I’ve had clients as recently as this week,” notes Dr. Dodman, “who say that their dog, when he sees images of other dogs, or animals in general, on television, gets very disturbed. Some dogs even react territorially by barking at images of animals. They seem to think the animal is in the room. I’ve heard many times that they run around to the back of the TV looking for it.” There’s a lot of opportunity for reaction since dogs are widely used in television advertising.
“Another dog whose owners brought him to me,” says Dr. Dodman, “was completely turned off by scenes of violence,” like the Labradoodle Frisco mentioned by Ms. Goldstein. It’s not surprising, Dr. Dodman notes. “The dog can see the picture, hear the noises. He understands shouting and perhaps guns going off. Maybe the violence reminds him of unfortunate past experiences. He certainly knows that something unpleasant is going on and so runs to another room and hides there until the scene is over.”
Our favorite television-related recollection of Dr. Dodman’s is of the dog who, upon hearing those two low “bah bum” tones at the beginning of Law and Order, would run in from another room to catch a few frames. Another dog, Dr. Dodman says, “was obsessed with Barney the purple dinosaur. He’d run through the house to get to the television when he heard, “I love you, you love me….”