Many dog owners have observed that their pets are able to see and hear images on TV. They’ll run in from another room if they hear a dog barking on a television show and then look at the screen and bark back, for instance. Some dogs even have a penchant for particular shows. We’ve heard of one who would come in from another room to catch a little Law and Order when he heard the “bah bum” tones at the beginning of an episode and another who would run through the house to get to the television when the “I love you, you love me” theme song from Barney came on.
Scientists have helped confirm what people have reported anecdotally — dogs are able to pick up on television images. That’s more true now than ever. Before the advent of high-definition TV, the images on a television screen would come across to a dog “sort of like an old 1920s movie,” says Stephanie Borns-Weil, DVM, Head of the Tufts Animal Behavior Clinic. That is, everything looked the way a Charlie Chaplin film does to us because dogs and people see things differently at any particular Hertz (Hz) level. It’s about frames per second, which affects the flicker rate. Dogs do much better with high-definition TV, which has a Hz level more suited to their visual abilities; the television images flicker much less.
So what are the studies that have shown dogs are definitely perceiving television images? In one conducted at Etvs Lornd University in Budapest, work led by researcher Peter Pongracz found that dogs will respond to people making gestures on a television screen. This finding was supported by the results of a study led by British researcher John Bradshaw, a noted scientist in the field of human-animal interactions. He found that three- to five-week-old puppies shown images on screen of various things in the environment had less fear of novel objects later on than dogs who had not been introduced to different objects that way.
At Tufts, investigators found that, on average, dogs actively watched television for about 13 percent of the time they were observed — or about one hour out of six. Yet other research has proven that dogs can recognize other dogs on a computer screen.
But how do dogs perceive what they are seeing? Do they get that it’s television?
A dog’s interpretation of television
“What we don’t know,” says Dr. Borns-Weil, is what images on television mean to a dog. If they see a dog on the screen, for instance, “do they respond to it as a tiny little dog running around in a box?” she asks. “Some dogs,” she says, “will run and look at the television, then run to a window. That suggests the dog is interpreting the smaller-than-life dog on the TV screen as far away.” In other words, she comments, a dog can be interpreting the television screen as a window that lets them see something at a distance.
It might make particular sense for a dog to interpret television watching that way because there are no olfactory cues, which a dog would definitely use to learn more about another dog or anything else that they perceived as close to them. A dog already knows he’s not going to get much olfactory information through the barrier of a closed window, so to him, the TV might just be another window.
But the idea of a television screen being perceived as a window is just a suggestion, the doctor points out. No one knows for sure. Indeed, others have reported that it appears their dog thinks that a dog on television is actually in the room with them — they’ll run around to the back of the TV to look for it. Perhaps that’s why they’ll respond to people making gestures on the screen.
Then, too, some dogs seem much more engaged by what they see on television than others, just as certain dogs would much rather look out the window and react to whoever’s passing by than other dogs would. “If a dog is highly territorial, he might object to the close proximity of a dog on the screen,” Dr. Borns-Weil points out.
Some other dogs become upset by television shows with violence, running around the room and clearly acting nervous. It makes particular sense when you consider that television is not just about sight but also sound. A dog understands shouting and nasty inflections in people’s voices and guns going off. He will also be extremely adept at picking up on his owner’s reaction. If the person watching television exhibits even the subtlest of startle or fright signs, the dog will feel that and respond in kind; dogs are keenly attuned to our emotions, even moment to moment.
But the bottom line is that while we know dogs can see what’s on television, researchers have not yet been able to determine whether and how they reconcile the difference between what’s real and what’s virtual. Says Dr. Borns-Weil, “If I were to tell a dog to sit and then give him his food bowl for complying, and then there were a computer with me on a screen and I give the same gesture for the dog to sit and he still gets rewarded with the food bowl, in what way is he making sense of the difference, and to what degree? We’re not there yet. I wish we knew more.”
Who’s that in the mirror?
Okay, so it has been established that dogs can see and understand images on a television screen, although the degree to which they can separate real from virtual is up for grabs. What about another kind of two-dimensional image — the kind seen in a mirror? Is a dog able to recognize himself?
“It certainly registers that the dog is seeing the image looking back at him,” Dr. Borns-Weil says. “At dusk, the glass doors to my patio become reflective, and when my Tibetan terrier Patches was alive, she would run over and start barking at the Tibetan terrier that was looking at her through the window.
“I don’t think there’s a shred of evidence that a dog thinks the animal she sees is herself,” Dr. Borns-Weil comments. It’s not like that iconic scene with Groucho and Harpo Marx in the movie Duck Soup, where the two look like each other and perfectly mirror each other’s movements (the way Harpo later does with Lucille Ball in an episode of I Love Lucy). For a dog, there’s no wondering about whether he’s looking at himself or someone else; he definitely thinks it’s someone else. He’s not even thinking, “Oh, what a coincidence — that dog is doing what I’m doing.” Dogs engage in imitative behavior all the time, so another dog engaging in the same movements makes perfect sense to your pet.
“Humans and non-human primates like orangutans and chimps seem to be the only animals who have self-recognition in mirrors,” notes Dr. Borns-Weil. “A study looking at elephants, for instance, showed no self-recognition.”
That said, Dr. Borns-Weil points out that dogs can probably use mirrors as rear-view mirrors to find hidden food and other things behind them. In other words, they can use reflective glass as a two-dimensional tool to increase their field of vision, but they don’t have the visual consciousness of self that we do.