We’ve all been there. Splayed out on the couch, our pups splayed out on top of us, watching The Crown when an errant Corgi barks or Saturday Night Live‘s latest “Genetics Lab” sketch featuring a dog’s head on a human body comes on. Suddenly, your snoozing canine companion is on all fours, at full attention, tail wagging and muzzle barking at the moving picture box in front of you both. How could someone think they aren’t watching television?
On a recent episode of YouTube’s hit Sci Show, host Hank Green tackled the question, “What Do Dogs See When They Watch TV?” And yes, as it turns out, scientists believe most dogs probably do watch along with us, but they don’t see quite the same things as humans. That said, what your dog sees may also somewhat depend on his breed.
For instance, hounds and other traditional hunting breeds are more scent-oriented and, thus, likely less focused on a smell-free screen. On the other hand, herding and other shepherd breeds may be much more reactive to the movements they are seeing.
That said, what dogs can clearly visualize on the screen differs from humans in two major ways. For one, they experience a different rate of “flicker fusion frequency.” That means, while humans need about 16 to 20 images a second to perceive continuous film, dogs need much more — closer to 70 images per second, or 80 in the case of beagles. Older television models refresh around 50 to 60 images a second, and because a dog’s visual system is sensitive to flickering (which helps them perceive motion), a dog’s brain may “read” on-screen imagery as having a dancing flipbook or strobe light effect.
(Note: Modern home screens often have more than 70 images per second, so if you’ve been holding out on buying a new set — and you want your dog to more easily watch along with you — hop on those January TV sales ASAP!)
Second, dogs see colors differently from us. They only have two color receptors, whereas humans have three. This results in canines likely seeing the world in shades of yellow and blue. These cone cells also have an effect on detail perception, meaning dogs’ vision may be blurrier than our own.
In addition, dogs are noise-sensitive animals. They’re probably going to be enticed by sounds that intrigue them in the real world, such as other dogs barking, toys squeaking, other animal noises and even certain phrases. (My pup recently perked up and woofed at the TV when she heard someone say “Good girl, good girl!” during a movie trailer featuring a dog.)
According to Sci Show, dogs definitely seem to prefer watching other dogs — but don’t try to trick them with cartoons or other forms of animated animals. They’re usually smart enough to know the difference.
While there isn’t enough scientific evidence yet to know exactly how watching TV (or viewing smaller screens … how many of you show your pets other animal videos on mobile or tablet? We’ve done that too …) affects your dog, your best bet is probably not to encourage too much boob tube. As with human children, outdoor activities, exercise, playtime and other forms of interaction in the real world are preferable to raising a canine couch potato.