Your Dog Will Not Like DogTV, for Many Reasons

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July 31 2013 1:43 PM

Your Dog Will Not Like DogTV

Unless you tape a Snausage to your flat-screen.

Dog Watching Television.
Lassie is not a babysitter.

Photo by Ryan McVay/Thinkstock

Americans spend an average of five hours a day watching TV. Human Americans, that is. As pet owners know, our furry wards just don't share our interest in Rock My RV With Bret Michaels, or even Cesar Millan’s Leader of the Pack. Animals may spend a lot of time in front of the television as our companions, but they rarely watch it.

The folks behind DogTV aim to change that. Billed as “the perfect babysitter for dogs who have to stay home alone,” DogTV isn't a TV channel about dogs; it's a TV channel for them. Many dog owners already leave the tube on for their pets when they go out, but until now there’s never been programming custom-made to keep our dogs company. Airing 24 hours a day, DogTV will show short clips of canines in a variety of situations—chasing each other, riding in the car with their owners, napping, and, perversely, being visited by the mailman. There will even be animated sequences of bats flying at the screen, for some reason. The stated goal is to provide your four-legged friends with relaxation and stimulation—just like human TV!—for that portion of the day when owners aren't around to take their dogs on car rides or bat-watching.

The channel, which will cost $4.99 monthly, launches on DirecTV on Thursday; it will also be available through online streaming and Roku boxes. For those of us who suffer the guilt of leaving a dog alone for hours each day, the prospect of forking out five bucks a month to allay our dogs' separation anxiety might sound attractive. It's certainly cheaper than hiring a daily dog walker. There’s only one problem: It won't work. DogTV may attract its share of bipedal viewers—the kind of relaxation addicts who tune in to Sunrise Earth—but its target audience might as well be dog-sat by Family Feud.

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One reason that dogs don't care about TV is it doesn't look like TV to them—it looks like a slideshow powered by a dim strobe light. Dogs see the world at a faster frame rate than humans do. Humans' flicker fusion rate is about 50–60 Hz, meaning we see the world in 50 to 60 images per second. For dogs, that rate is closer to 70–80 Hz. As Alexandra Horowitz explains in her best-selling book Inside of a Dog, canines "see the individual frames [in TV] and the dark space between them too.” She continues: “This—and the lack of concurrent odors wafting out of the television—might explain why most dogs cannot be planted in front of the television ... It doesn't look real."

Not so fast, say the folks at DogTV. That may have been true on the old tube TVs, but dogs are increasingly able to see TV images normally. How? "New LCD technology," DogTV answers. "The refresh rate on the newer television screens is now 100Hz and up, perfect for continuous canine viewing."

Even if he can see the bats clearly, though, Fido is likely to react to DogTV playing in the afternoon the same way you reacted to your college roommate who insisted on playing "Hey Ya!" at 3 in the morning. As Katherine Houpt, a professor of animal behavior at Cornell University, told me, dogs don’t want to watch TV while you’re gone—they want to sleep. “Most dogs sleep while you're gone and wake up every 20 minutes or so and get a drink of water and scratch themselves and turn around and go back to sleep,” she says. 

DogTV claims to have anticipated this problem as well and to have lined up programming "designed to work precisely with a dog’s daily routine: dogs need to play at certain times and rest in others." OK, let's assume that this problem has indeed been solved—that DogTV will have a nice afternoon block of sleeping dogs (and that canines on the West Coast don't mind napping on East Coast dogs' schedules). There's still another big reason that most dogs, even at their most energetic point of the day, rarely react to television. It's the same reason dogs' reactions to their owners talking to them over the phone are so disappointing. It's that "lack of concurrent odors" thing.

While humans are predominantly visual creatures, making TV a natural human entertainment, “dogs are not primarily visual ... and what interests them is typically smell first, sight second,” Horowitz writes in an email. “Smell TV would be better.” As dog evolution expert Jon Franklin puts it, writing about his own pet in his book The Wolf in the Parlor, “Even a dog appearing on the screen, or barking out of a speaker, failed to impress. His two humans might be dumb enough to project their imaginations into the big square-eye thing, but the dog innately understood that it was pure poppycock. The television emitted no odor: Ipso facto, it was not real."

If DogTV isn’t going to work, is there anything the office-bound dog owner can do to improve his hound’s lot? If you must leave your dog alone, take him on a long walk first, Houpt advises, to ease him into his sleepy time. And the best way to calm any separation anxiety is to do the same thing you'd do to set the mood after bringing a date back to your place: Play soft music and dim the lights so your dog feels safe. “Classical music seems to work best," Houpt says. Instead of searching for something your dog can watch, she says, spend that five bucks on a toy that will give your dog something to do.

Vint Virga, an animal behaviorist and author of The Soul of All Living Creatures, sees things a bit differently. He told me that dogs sleep in the afternoon not strictly because of their circadian rhythms but because they’ve adapted to our schedules, and when we’re not around, “they have nothing better to do.” He says DogTV “might have an auditory effect, in helping calm a dog,” but that our goal as owners should be to get dogs to “think or invent or create on their own,” and “television isn’t gonna stimulate a whole lot of invention.” Virga says the best way to do this is to encourage foraging. Instead of just putting your dog’s food in a bowl, hide it in a few spots around the house. Alternately, you can take a cardboard box, stuff it full of newspaper and treats, poke holes big enough for the food to fall out, and you’ve got a free, homemade puzzle box. Another Virga idea is to mix your dog’s food with water and freeze it into blocks so Fido has something to lick for a while rather than just inhale. If you’re feeling particularly Julia Child-ish, you can dissolve part of a bouillon cube in water, freeze it, and make salty doggie popsicles. Yum!

Of course, even a doggy popsicle—and all the doggy creativity it may inspire—is no replacement for human companionship. As Horowitz concludes in her email, the question isn’t “whether we should expect that even a well-designed TV program/channel is a substitute for social interaction and true engagement with the world. It is not. We owe our dogs better than leaving them home all day with little to do.” So put on some Brahms and hide a few bowls of food, but best of all, hurry home and take your best friend for a good long walk and ask him about his day.

Ryan Vogt is a Slate copy editor.

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