Can a dog watch too much TV?

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One night, when staying over at my friends’ house, I overheard laughing from the living room. “David,” one of them said, “can you catch it?” David Bowie is my one-year-old pit husky pup. I walked into the room and saw David staring up in amazement at a bird on the National Geographic channel. The bird chirped and David cocked her head. The bird flew to a different branch and David followed it to the other side of the screen. She was enthralled. I don’t have a TV, so I had never seen this kind of behavior from her before. We spent the rest of the night switching back and forth between Animal Planet to Nat Geo, trying to figure out what type of TV my dog would like.

It turns out, though, that there’s a lot of content being developed specifically for pets. Dog TV is one example — it’s an actual channel you can get added to your cable plan for an additional fee that was developed in collaboration with dog behaviorists to appeal to dogs’ uniquely evolved senses. I’m not into TV, so when I finally found out about Dog TV (it launched all the way back in 2012) I was curious, but also, I was a little worried. My pets are like my children. I don’t have any children, but if I did, I wouldn’t buy them a television. I would probably let them watch TV at friend’s houses, but I wouldn’t encourage it. Should dogs even be watching TV?

Some veterinarians think that programming developed for pets is a great idea. “The reasoning behind TV for pets is simple,” says Adam Christman, a New Jersey-based veterinarian. “It’s to keep them free from boredom and anxiety.” Similar to some humans, pets prefer sleeping with white noise — the low-level, ambient sound of the TV, radio, or a fan — to help avoid the dreadful sound of silence, sirens from outside your home, or loud noises that can be upsetting while pet parents are away, he tells me.

Honestly, the whole idea of Dog TV gave me visions of a WALL-E like dog dystopia in which dogs lose their natural senses and become canine couch potatoes. But my imagination, it turns out, is a bit catastrophe-oriented. Christman says that Dog TV can not only tune in to a dog’s innate physiology, but also counteract some of the imbalances that domestication (a.k.a. living with people in houses) has created. “Lots of research with veterinary behaviorists went into the implementation of pet television," Christman says. “For example, special content was created for a dog’s sense of vision and hearing that supports their natural behavior patterns. Your dog will be less likely to develop stress, separation anxiety, or other negative behavioral problems.”

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But won’t my dog become lazy and depressed, like some humans I know who watch a lot of TV? I’m assured that won’t be the case by Angie Krause, a Boulder-based veterinarian, since “dogs are better at regulating themselves and have better self control than some humans.” Krause also pointed out that dogs don’t have control over devices the way we do — which makes a huge difference in how much they get to watch TV anyway. “They can walk away,” Krause says. “It’s hard for me to imagine dog TV addiction being a problem.”

Krause suggested that, unlike humans, dogs aren’t going to sit around all day clicking the remote. TV can be good for dogs because they don’t control technology the way we do, so they don’t become addicted to entertainment. Krause thinks that Dog TV can be especially good for animals who spend a lot of time alone, which runs against their pack instincts. Still, TV cannot be a substitute for physical activity. “It’s not like you can let your dog watch TV instead of playing, but otherwise I think it’s really cool. It’s a great way to let dogs get the benefit of technology and entertainment,” she says.

There’s different kinds of programming for dogs, Christman explains. “You’ll find a lot of shows in the ‘stimulation’ category feature dogs chasing frisbees,” he said, “Dogs, in general, are sensitive to motion, so seeing their own kind up on TV stimulates them. Occasionally you will see butterflies or bubbles on the screen. That’s because dogs have incredible vision. They see all the details and find this visually stimulating.”

There’s also programming designed to help dogs relax. What do dogs find relaxing? Kind of the same things as people in spas do, it turns out. “Programming in the relaxation category features beautiful visuals and landscapes accompanied by classical music designed to soothe a pet,” Christman says. “Relaxing and calming music with videos of waterfalls, ocean waves and more help calm those dogs that have high levels of anxiety.” Relatable.

In addition to the programming developed for adult animals, there’s also kid content for growing pups. Just like human children, baby animals are entertained by different TV than adults. “Puppies prefer to watch television full of other puppies,” Christman says. “This can help enrich their environment and help them socialize as they turn into adult dogs.”

In the wild, puppies are born into litters that they usually stay with until adulthood. Their families are their packs. In domesticity, humans become their packs, but the TV can help keep them socialized in a way that they naturally understand when we’re not around, I’m told. In this way, even though it seems like TV is the pinnacle of domestication, it can help tune into dogs’ natural habit patterns. In other words, because Dog TV has been developed in conjunction with dogs’ senses in mind, it taps into their needs in a way that our regular human entertainment does not. But just like some people prefer sitcoms to rom coms, dogs of different breeds prefer different kinds of entertainment. Both your dog’s individual personality and your dog’s breed may affect how into TV they are, so don’t be offended if you’re trying to comfort them with some on-screen stimulation and they get up and walk away.

The increase in pet-centric entertainment and technology could be connected to our increasing attachment to our pets. “There are no longer ‘dog owners’ and ‘dogs,’” Christman hypothesizes. “There are ‘pet parents’ and ‘furbabies.’ People very much [consider dogs] as their family members and want to provide them with the best comfort they can.”

This definitely describes my relationship to my fur family. Personally, I’m a pretty free-range pet parent. My dogs run leashless in the Mississippi every day and I don’t try to put them in cute outfits or ask them to do tricks. So while Dog TV initially seemed to run counter to my tendency to rewild my kids, the combination of David’s natural interest in it and the consensus of the experts I spoke to is making me rethink my stance. We’re never skipping our pre-dawn play dates, but maybe a little Dog TV before bedtime is just the thing to get my pup distracted from chewing up my Havaianas.