The habits of today’s dogs might shock those of centuries past – regular vet visits? Grooming every week? They dress me up in what?? As the world has changed, how we treat our dogs has changed too. A good example of this is dogs ‘watching’ TV, something incomprehensible to people and dogs just over 100 years ago? Does my dog really watch TV? Can they even see the screen? Do they have favourite shows?
Table of contents
- Dog Eyesight
- Many people believe that dogs see in black and white, but this isn’t quite true
- Like us, dogs have binocular vision, but their field of view is not identical to ours
- Dogs are more sensitive to light and thus are more adept at seeing in low light
- Finally, there is a difference in dogs’ ability to process motion compared to humans
- Can Dogs See TV?
- Do Dogs Actually Watch TV?
- Why Do Dogs Watch TV?
There are a few misconceptions surrounding dog vision that we want to clear up first, as it will relate to dogs looking at television and other screens.
Many people believe that dogs see in black and white, but this isn’t quite true
To see colour, specialised receptors in the retina at the back of the eye are needed. These receptors are called cones. Dogs have less cones than humans do, meaning they cannot perceive colour as well as we can. Dogs have ‘dichromatic vision’ as they perceive only shades of blue and yellow, and struggle to distinguish red and green. In truth, we don’t know exactly how dogs see the colours of the world, we can only approximate.
Like us, dogs have binocular vision, but their field of view is not identical to ours
Both dogs and humans have eyes placed close together to have an overlapping field of view. Predators tend to have vision like this to give better depth perception when hunting. Dogs’ depth perception is poorer than humans as they have slightly more peripheral vision instead. Dogs also have poorer visual acuity, the ability to distinguish objects at distance. Most humans have 20/20 vision, meaning we can see objects clearly at 20 feet that should be distinguishable at 20 feet. Dogs mostly have 20/75 visual acuity, meaning they must be as close as 20 feet to be able to distinguish objects that should be distinguishable to us at 75 feet.
Dogs are more sensitive to light and thus are more adept at seeing in low light
A dog’s minimum light threshold (the lowest amount of light that is visible to the eye) is higher than humans. And they have a reflective part of their retina (the tapetum) that allows light to bounce back to be processed a second time; this makes seeing in the dark easier.
Finally, there is a difference in dogs’ ability to process motion compared to humans
Humans are often cited as being able to distinguish up to 60 frames per second/FPS on a screen (equivalent to 60 Hertz), though this is debated widely. If we watch something less than 60 Hz, our brains perceives the video not as a smooth continuous motion but as a series of slides, like a PowerPoint presentation. (Again, the number is debated and how we perceive this motion will vary between people). Dogs can distinguish frames at around 70-80 Hz. This means that the average screen of 60 Hz may appear as a slideshow to dogs; or at least, very jerky movements.
Remember that vision will vary between breeds and individuals, so a dog’s vision may be better or worse than average.
Can Dogs See TV?
Unless your dog is blind, they should be able to see TV. But the factors listed above may mean they aren’t seeing exactly what you are seeing. Do remember that there is more to dogs’ understanding of the world than just vision. Sound, smell and even taste are important senses too, and the latter two cannot be provided by television screens.
Due to their visual acuity, dogs would have to stand closer to the TV to see it clearly when compared to humans. Most people’s living rooms aren’t 75 feet across, so in reality this likely doesn’t matter much. It may however explain why dogs sometimes sit closer to the TV.
Dog’s dichromatic vision means that the screen will look different to them than it does to us. A field of green with red poppies might look quite washed out and greyscale; but a blue house with a yellow door probably isn’t too dissimilar.
Their sensitivity to light probably doesn’t affect dogs viewing screens, since TVs are naturally bright enough for human eyes, let alone dog eyes. But their ability to distinguish frames at a higher Hz means that standard 60 Hz TV screens might appear as a slideshow. However, more modern screens often have a much higher refresh rate; if your TV is above 80Hz, it may allow dogs to see video as a fluid motion like we can.
There has even been a study that got nine dogs to recognise dogs on a computer screen. The test was designed to demonstrate that dogs understand what a dog is. But it also showed that dogs can see pictures on screens at least well enough to identify the images in some cases.
Do Dogs Actually Watch TV?
This is a tricky question to answer as just because a dog looks in the direction of a TV, are they actually watching the programme and processing it with some understanding? Can they enjoy what they are seeing?
A preliminary 2015 study investigated these questions
Two black Labradors with no obvious visual impairment were shown twelve different 20 second videos multiple times (totalling 24). Eight were videos of dogs taken from a television channel for dogs, two were of other animals, and two were clips from a soap opera with no animals. All the videos were real-life images, not cartoons. The dogs were presented three videos at a time on three screens, with a choice of what to view, and could leave the screens to do something else if desired, such as play or drink.
The first dog interacted with 16 of 24 videos, while the second interacted with 17. The first dog watched for a total of 212 seconds, and the second 96 seconds. And the first watched one video (a dog in a field) for 18.1s, almost the whole duration of the video. However, the majority of views from both dogs were quick glances of a few seconds. The authors believe many of these were the dogs’ attention being caught as the videos changed. These numbers also mean a significant amount of time was spent by the dogs not watching the screens. In fact, in all but one viewing session, the dogs preferred to look at nothing at all. The study also found that the first dog preferred to look at the middle screen, but the second had no preference.
This data shows that despite some videos holding dogs’ attention for longer, in general the videos warranted no more than a quick glance from most dogs. It also implies that some dogs have longer attention spans than others. The second dog was younger than the first, which the authors believe may explain the shorter attention span.
The study also tried to determine ‘favourite’ videos of the two dogs
They did this by determining which videos were ‘watched’ at least twice as much as the least viewed video per session. Using this logic, they determined that the dogs’ favourite videos mainly contained other dogs, though some had humans interacting. Both were interested in a video of humans hugging and saying goodbye, which the authors found unusual, but the ‘favourite’ on average for both dogs was a video of dogs sleeping and relaxing. This data would indicate that dogs generally prefer to see dogs, but may find humans interesting too. However, it is worth reiterating that multiple sessions had no favourite video, and a lot of attention was spent away from the screens. The authors assumed that because there were multiple videos playing at once, this overwhelmed the dogs who then watched nothing to avoid this stress.
The study obviously was not a large one, owing to the complexities of the methods. They also noted that it is hard to gauge if a dog is understanding and enjoying the videos – their assessment of this was crude and can only be inferred from watching how the dogs react. In summary it seems that dog-related videos hold the most interest for dogs, but attention spans regarding television are generally short anyway. Having only one screen may increase attention time, as may being an older or calmer dog.
Why Do Dogs Watch TV?
So let’s finally answer the question why dogs might watch TV.
As the study above demonstrated, it is inherently impossible to determine if a dog ‘enjoys’ what they are watching, and we can only approximate. It seems that certain topics (dogs mainly) can hold dogs’ attention for longer, which may imply interest. Humans may also hold some interest for dogs (though the authors of the study said this may be because the other videos alongside the popular human video were duller!) but dogs often prefer to look at nothing at all, especially when overwhelmed. You may find that your dog pays more and longer attention to certain television shows than others – you can decide if this is ‘enjoyment’ or not based on the rest of their body language.
Remember that TVs aren’t all visual, and it might be the sound that your dog is interested in. Dogs have keen senses of hearing, and are particularly good at hearing higher pitched sounds. Now, speakers are designed for human ears, and don’t have a lot of high pitched sounds we cannot hear, but your dog may show interest particularly if they recognise sounds such as other dogs barking. As with sight, whether your dog can distinguish these sounds from real noises is unclear, and may be dependent on your speaker quality!
Could your dog just like listening to the sounds? Many owners will keep the radio or TV on when their dog is home alone for company. Whether this soothes, annoys or does nothing for your dog will depend on them. We do know from one study that classical music resulted in dogs in kennels sleeping more and vocalising less, while heavy metal increases shaking that is associated with nervousness. So if you’re wanting to keep your dog calm at home, choose Bach over Iron Maiden!
We know that dogs like to spend time with their owners, and this can mean some dogs will even imitate us and our emotions to some degree. This might therefore mean your dog isn’t really watching TV, but they just want to sit and spend time with you in a cosy setting. If you look closely, your dog might be looking beyond the TV, out the window or are even asleep, just enjoying being with you!
Curiosity is probably the most likely answer for why your dog looks at the TV, especially if it is a fleeting glance like the dogs in the study above. As this study demonstrated, most of the time the dogs took a quick look at the video as it changed, before looking at something more interesting. Your dog may be the same – the TV catches their eye (or ears), they look round to understand what it is, they may stare for a few seconds as they process this information, then they move on. To us, this seems the most likely cause of dogs ‘watching’ TV. Unfortunately, most dogs probably aren’t that interested in what’s on the box and prefer to do other things.
Sources and further reading:
- Vision in Animals – What do Dogs and Cats See? – VIN
- Through The Eyes Of Your Dog | Pets Doc Veterinary Services
- Dog spots the dog: Dogs recognize the dog species among several other species on a computer screen – ScienceDaily
- A dog centred approach to the analysis of dogs’ interactions with media on TV screens – ScienceDirect
- Behavioral effects of auditory stimulation on kenneled dogs – ScienceDirect