When she really puts her mind to it, my chocolate lab Sadie can whip up what I truly believe must be the most injured and woeful countenance any living being has ever forced another to look upon. It’s not that she thinks I don’t love her, or that she’s in any physical pain. It’s just that she honestly can’t believe that I would ever even consider leaving her alone in the house, even though this dramatic ritual has played out multiple times every single day for the four years she’s been a member of our family.
This disastrous turn is, of course, mitigated somewhat by the utter and profound joy that she and her housemate – Chihuahua mix Jasmine – exude upon my inevitable return. As someone who has devoted my life to studying the behavior of dogs, I am nonetheless always amazed (and, let’s face it - pleased) when I witness the manic scene of happiness and euphoria that occurs every time I return home, even if I’ve only been out to pick up a few groceries.
These moments of dread followed by glory are repeated millions of times a day around the world by pet owners who must go about their daily lives away from home, and while the cumulative result of this ritual is often nothing more than a temporary sadness, our repeated absences can also sometimes lead to acute separation anxiety, destructive boredom or other difficult-to-manage canine behaviors.
A recent study revealed that over two-thirds of all American pet owners have left their TVs or radios on for their pets. The problem is that the television channels our pets end up watching or listening to often do more harm than good, because constant talk becomes an overpowering irritant, or the programming contains loud music or sounds interspersed with louder commercials, meaning the dog never receives an auditory break.
So I was intrigued when I was asked to join the dynamic creative team behind DogTV – the first television channel specifically and scientifically designed to be watched by dogs. There have been several previous, relatively ill-fated attempts at creating video content for dogs, while companies like Through A Dog’s Ear have successfully incorporated the concept of bio and psychoacoustics into audio-only products (I recently partnered with Through A Dog’s Ear to create the groundbreaking new Canine Noise Phobia Series).
What makes DogTV different, however, is its steadfast commitment to providing both an aural and visual environment which is tailored specifically to the needs of today’s domesticated dog. The colors and frequencies of the visual and audio content on the channel are specially designed to resonate positively with our canine companions. Contrary to popular belief, dogs don’t just see in black and white - yellows and blues can be easily distinguished unlike the colors green and red, which appear gray (part of the reason a dog can’t always find that red rubber toy when it’s laying on green grass). DogTV accounts for this and has recalibrated its video feed to suit dogs’ primary visual capabilities.
Another aspect of DogTV that helps break new ground is the fact that unlike other dog-targeted content, it does not simply attempt to calm the dog which might otherwise suffer from anxiety. Those of us in the field of animal behavior who are involved with DogTV (joining me on DogTV’s advisory board is Dr. Nicholas Dodman, Veterinary Behaviorist and Program Head of the Animal Behavior Department of Clinical Sciences, Tuft’s School of Veterinary Medicine, Boston) have helped to make sure that the channel’s 24/7 content follows certain timing rhythms.
For example, instead of simply playing calming music and showing pictures of lulling oceans, DogTV’s content also slowly introduces and alternates between more stimulating scenes from the dog’s point of view. This ensures that throughout the several hours a lonely dog is home with DogTV on in the background, there are periods of subtly increased motion and tempo, resulting in a dog that is periodically and almost imperceptibly stimulated, helping to minimize the boredom which can often result in destructive behavior. This content is also interspersed with periods of ‘exposure’ where dogs might hear, for example, the distant sound of a vacuum cleaner played at very low levels, providing gradual exposure which effectively desensitizes dogs to everyday domestic environmental sounds, preventing noise sensitivities and phobias from ever occurring.
Several early, anecdotal reviews from its recent launch in San Diego have mentioned that after turning DogTV on for a few minutes, the reviewer’s dogs didn’t seem interested in the channel and wandered off, apparently unimpressed. Unfortunately, this is another example of why the imposition of our human sensibilities on our dogs does not always translate successfully. DogTV is not designed to be ‘must see TV’ for our dogs, and it’s perfectly ok for dogs not to want to become couch ‘pet’atoes once it’s switched on. To the contrary, the real value in DogTV can be found in those long hours when we are not around and our dogs are otherwise either completely understimulated or suffering from separation distress. As I’ve stated on several news outlets following the channel’s initial launch, DogTV should be viewed only as one (very valuable) tool in our arsenal to help enrich our dogs’ overall domestic experience and should not replace a dog’s daily need for exercise.
If used correctly, I believe DogTV will be a valuable tool to help ease our dogs’ loneliness and provide comfort on separation. We advise that all pet parents, before they leave their dogs alone with DogTV, take time to watch the content with their dog for short periods over a couple of days or have the channel on in the background when they are home with their dogs. This will ensure that every dog’s reaction to the content can be gauged. It is not DogTV’s aim to produce a nation of dogs that bark at the television when their owners are away. Moreover introducing the channel to a dog when an owner is present will help provide a positive association between the content and the comfort that the person’s presence provides, making it easier for a dog to cope when their owner leaves.
DogTV is currently only available on TimeWarner and Cox Cable in the San Diego area, but a full, nationwide launch is expected soon, followed by other countries including the UK and beyond. For more information go to www.dogtv.com.