In 2012, a television commercial aired in the UK for Bakers dog food that was conceived and produced specifically to attract the attention of dogs. The spot used high-frequency sounds that are inaudible to human ears. In theory, the dog would be so captivated by the advertisement that owners would take note and perhaps purchase Bakers for their next meal.
This didn’t quite work. Many dogs failed to react at all, proving that when it comes to television ads, humans may be more impressionable than canines.
While pets may not be so easily manipulated, they still find the television screen interesting, sometimes reacting to other dogs, animals, sounds, or images. But what is a dog really seeing when they tune in?
When it comes to color, television is no different from reality for a dog. They have dichromatic vision, which means they see the world through the range of two primary colors, yellow and blue. (Humans have trichromatic vision, able to see the full color spectrum.) Cone cells in canine eyes are also believed to blur their sight to a degree. More importantly, dogs process the frame rate, or “flicker fusion frequency,” of screens differently than people. Humans can detect movement at between 16 and 20 frames per second. Dogs need 70 frames per second or more. If they’re looking at an older television, it might resemble a flip book or even a strobe light effect to them. (Modern sets have a faster frame rate, which is why dogs might be more interested in your high-definition television.)
That helps explain the visuals. What about the content? Typically, dogs will react to the same things that would draw their attention in a room—barking, squeaking toys, or commands. In a study published in Animal Cognition in 2013, nine dogs were observed to see if they could pick out the face of another dog—regardless of breed—on a computer screen instead of another animal or a person. The dogs were rewarded with treats with a successful choice. Though the sample size was small, it indicated dogs can recognize other dogs on a screen. (Which you likely already knew if you’ve ever observed your dog suddenly on alert when a canine appears on camera.)
If your dog used to get excited by another dog on television but has since lost interest, it’s possible they simply became desensitized to their appearance, realizing the image in front of them isn’t going to move out of the boundaries of the monitor.
Content unrelated to dogs might not be of much interest. In a 2017 study published in the International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, dogs presented with three different viewing screens didn’t exhibit any particular preference for one over the other. If they were shown three screens at one time, they seemed uninterested in watching anything at all.
The study also noted that dogs had a limited television attention span. Rather than mimic the binge-watching habits of humans, dogs prefer to glance at a screen for a few seconds at a time. But that behavior could also be breed-specific. Dogs bred for hunting might be interested in moving objects, while dogs that rely more on smell might be indifferent.
And what about cats? In a study published in Applied Animal Behaviour Science in 2008, 125 shelter cats were given a television to view for up to three hours a day. The cats were split into five groups and given a variety of programming to watch, from humans to footage of prey to a blank screen. On average, cats spent just 6.1 percent of the observation time watching the screen. When they did, it was mostly to focus on the prey.
Because cats may react to images of birds and rodents on television, owners should avoid letting them watch unattended. You can also secure the set to a wall to make sure they don’t knock it down.
For the most part, dogs and cats are far more interested in what’s going on in the real world compared to what's on TV. We could probably take a lesson from their limited screen time.