Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Can Dogs Learn by Watching Television?

Is it possible to use videos to teach dogs obedience commands?

Photo by Lettuce - Creative Commons license
Source: Photo by Lettuce - Creative Commons license

I recently received a phone call from a dog trainer in Chicago. It seems that he had received an inquiry from a producer who wanted to pitch the idea of a series of television programs which would be shown on Dog TV. You might have heard that Dog TV is the first television network that has been created specifically for dogs. It provides around-the-clock TV programming that is designed to provide entertainment for dogs. Some of the programming has been created with the help of dog behavior specialists, and broadcasts are supposedly color adjusted to appeal to dogs. In general the features involve short video segments, ranging between three and six minutes in length, and these are designed to relax dogs, to stimulate them, and to expose the dogs to scenes of everyday life such as doorbells or riding in a vehicle. It has been suggested that viewing Dog TV helps dogs who might otherwise show separation anxiety, or may be prone to high levels of arousal, which might turn them into problem barkers when there is no human in the house. This is an interesting concept, although I know of no scientific data which confirms its success in these areas.

This dog trainer went on to tell me that this was a new concept. The idea was that the dogs would be exposed to short instructional videos. Supposedly, if the programming was done correctly, even though the dog's owner was away from the house, simply by leaving the television on and exposing his pet to these videos, the dog could learn basic obedience commands such as to "sit," "lie down," "stand up," and if appropriate items were left in the room with the dog and the television, he could even be taught to "fetch." What this trainer wanted to know from me, was whether there was any evidence that dogs would respond to video commands, let alone learn new commands through watching videos.

We do know that dogs can interpret photos, drawings, and models of real-world objects and relate them to the actual things that they represent (click here for an example.) However there have also been a few studies which have looked at whether dogs will react to video images. Perhaps the one which is most relevant to the idea of training dogs by using video images was published in the journal Ethology*. It is the report of an investigation done by a team of researchers from the Department of Ethology at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary. The team was headed by Péter Pongrácz.

This research actually consisted of two experiments. The first looked at the response that dogs give to a hand signal, namely pointing. It is well-established that dogs will go in the direction, or toward an object, that their owner, or someone who is familiar to them, points to. So in this first investigation there were two brown bowls, one on either side of a small room, and, while the dog's eyes were covered, a bit of food was placed in one. Then, the familiar person would stand between the two bowls, and point to one with his arm. If the dog went to the correct bowl he got to eat the treat that was in it, while if the dog went to the wrong one he was not rewarded. This is of course the natural way in which things occur — where real-world people indicate actions with real-world objects. So now, to see the effectiveness of videos, the real person is removed and replaced by a video image. The video image used in this study was projected on a big screen so that it's larger than would be possible for most home living room television sets. The video image gave the same instructions to the dogs, and the audio portion came from a speaker behind the screen. The researchers found that 60% of the dogs performed this task reliably for both the real person and the projected video image.

The second experiment was, perhaps, more relevant to the question that I was asked, since it dealt with common obedience commands. It begins with a sample of dogs who know a basic set of obedience commands such as "sit", "lay down", "stand up", "bark", and so forth. First the dogs were tested by having their owner standing in the front of the room and giving the commands. Next, as in the first experiment, the owner was replaced by a projected video image, with the voice sounds coming over a speaker. Finally, there was a condition in which there was no video image but only the owner's voice coming through a speaker. In this second experiment it was found that the dogs responded quite well when the owner was present to deliver the commands. There was a noticeably reduced level of performance when the dog was confronted with the projected video image of the owner, although the performance was still significantly above chance. However when the video image was removed, leaving only the voice coming from the speaker, the dogs performances dropped to a level of insignificance.

There are some conclusions that can be drawn from this study which are relevant. First, if the dogs are being rewarded for correct behaviors, they can take some instruction from video images. Of course the technology for monitoring what the dog is doing at home while watching TV, and delivering rewards for responding correctly is not built into television sets available today. In the second study the dogs are actually dealing with obedience commands, but it is a set of commands that the dogs already know, rather than commands that they are now learning. Furthermore, in this instance the dog's performance deteriorates when he is viewing the videos. The investigators suggest that this poor performance is because dogs really don't derive any particular pleasure from simply responding time after time to a learned command if there is no reward present or no threat of punishment for not responding. Since the video offers neither reward nor punishment, the dogs simply do not follow along and continue to respond. Given this result, how to set up a program to actually teach a dog a new command based only upon video instruction, while not delivering any kind of reward, certainly seems unclear to me.

Although the dogs responded less reliably to commands given by video, they still performed to some degree. However in the remaining condition this study showed that presenting dogs only with the voiced obedience commands over a speaker was totally ineffective.

On the basis of this research I suggested to the trainer that although one might use televised videos to get dogs to practice already learned commands, since none of their responses would be rewarded it is likely that in the end such programming would actually weaken their learned behaviors. Furthermore, given the ineffectiveness of the voice only condition, the idea of Dog Radio as a canine instructional technique is definitely not something that he should consider investing his time and effort in.

Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: The Wisdom of Dogs; Do Dogs Dream? Born to Bark; The Modern Dog; Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History; How Dogs Think; How To Speak Dog; Why We Love the Dogs We Do; What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs; Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies; Sleep Thieves; The Left-hander Syndrome

Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission

Data from: Péter Pongrácz, Ádám Miklósi, Antal Dóka & Vilmos Csányi (2003). Successful Application of Video-Projected Human Images for Signaling to Dogs. Ethology, 109, 809-821

More from Stanley Coren PhD., DSc, FRSC
More from Psychology Today
More from Stanley Coren PhD., DSc, FRSC
More from Psychology Today