Should You Worry About What Your Dog Sees on TV?

How canines are impacted by television content.

Posted May 26, 2020

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels
Source: Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

An evening at home with the family often involves socializing around the television set, watching programs the whole family can enjoy.  Whether cable or streaming, responsible parents are careful to select content that is age-appropriate. But after the kids go to bed, some parents change the channel. Opting for drama or danger over Disney, many parents watch movies or television shows at night that contain adult themes, language, or violence. Although the children are gone, no one has excused the family dog from the room. Obviously, your dog cannot understand adult themes or language. But what about the violence?  

We protect our children from graphic content, so they don't have to view disturbing images to begin with, hopefully sparing them from nightmares, emotional trauma, or anxiety. But what about our pets?  

Canine Content Processing     

Some dog owners have never given a second thought to what their dogs are exposed to on television; others have caught their beloved canines actually watching or barking at the set. Clearly, many dogs are able to both perceive and process what they see. Research corroborates these observations.

According to an article in National Geographic by Liz Langley in a section appropriately captioned "Weird and Wild," dogs can process images similar to the way we do.[i] Apparently, they can not only register televised images, they are smart enough to recognize animals onscreen just like they would in real life. What do they hear? Langley reports they apparently hear the same things they would off-set, as they can recognize barking by dogs on TV. Some dogs become visibly excited by on-air barking, and will not only bark back, but they will also run behind the TV set (for those who do not yet have their flat screen mounted on the wall) looking for the barking animal on the screen.

What exactly do dogs “see” on television? Perhaps not the same images that we do, Langley explains, because their eyes register images faster than ours, and their dichromatic vision only exposes them to two primary colors, blue and yellow. She notes there is even a special cable channel designed for dogs, DogTV, which features programming with a greater number of frames per second, as well as a color scheme specifically designed to accommodate canine dichromatic vision.  

If you have spent years watching TV with your dog, who seems totally uninterested in the programming, you are not alone. Langley notes that just like some people, dogs can become desensitized to television, even when programming features another dog. In addition, when it comes to television reaction, breeds matter. Herding breed dogs such as terriers might react more to objects moving on the television screen, while hounds, with an olfactory focus, are not as interested in visual imagery. 

Similarity Breeds Connection

Wonder what type of content might cause your dog to perk up his ears and pay special attention? Perhaps a program containing another dog. Langley cites a 2013 study by Dominique Autier-Dérian et al. published in Animal Cognition,[ii] reported in Science Daily in a piece aptly entitled “Dog Spots the Dogs,”[iii] which found exactly that: Dogs can pick out faces of other dogs, regardless of the type of breed, among faces of humans and other domestic and wild animal faces. The researchers found that dogs were able to engage in such selective perception based visual cues alone. 

Similar to the way we live, the authors note, “Individuals from the same species get together for social life. These gatherings require recognition of similarities between individuals who belong to the same species and to a certain group.”  

The researchers report that their results suggest that dogs can create a visual category comprised of the faces of other dogs, grouping pictures of different dogs into the same category, notwithstanding the diversity between dog breeds.  

For Some Dog Owners, Content Matters

Some dog owners who have noticed their beloved four-legged family members reacting to television content are careful to ensure they are not exposed to violence or similar images. Other owners are not concerned. Other than noting a change in a pet’s behavior either simultaneously or right after watching certain content, it’s hard to know if they are being affected by what they see, and how. Research will no doubt continue to provide interesting insight into some of these issues, which we will continue to follow, as they impact our best friends.  

Facebook image: LightField Studios/Shutterstock



[ii] Dominique Autier-Dérian, Bertrand L. Deputte, Karine Chalvet-Monfray, Marjorie Coulon, Luc Mounier. Visual discrimination of species in dogs (Canis familiaris). Animal Cognition, 2013; DOI: 10.1007/s10071-013-0600-8.