Americans have adopted dogs in record numbers in the pandemic, and we really don’t like leaving our new family members home on their own. We think they’ll be lonely, or worse, chew the furniture.
Pup programming has been available on its own channel, DOGTV, in the United States since 2012, and last month expanded to reach dogs in England, Australia and New Zealand. The premium cable network is now available in 14 countries, but unsurprisingly, more than 80 percent of the channel’s current subscribers are Americans, who make up the largest pet market in the world.
It raises the question — do our furry friends like television, or are we simply making ourselves content by leaving the dog with this very human form of entertainment?
“There’s a lot of separation anxiety out there right now,” said the channel’s founder, Ron Levi, who lives in Hoboken, N.J.
Last year alone, Americans spent more than $100 billion on pet products.
Programming on DOGTV alternates between stimulating and relaxing, and it is based on research by dog behaviorists, said Levi, who came up with the idea for the channel in 2006, when he was living in Israel with a cat named Charlie.
“I was downloading shows about squirrels, birds and fish from YouTube, but nothing worked to entertain Charlie,” he said. “It was then that I wondered, ‘Well, what about dogs? Couldn’t they use some programming?’”
Dogs are especially social animals, he noted.
“Dogs are not cool about their pet parents leaving them at home,” he said. “They’re barking and they’re anxious from the noises outside. So I decided to focus on them.”
DOGTV is aimed at people like Sage Randall, who got a new puppy in 2020, as the pandemic hit, to keep her company while she worked at home in Fort Worth, Tex.
She said she felt guilty leaving Carrot Cake on his own while she was holed up in front of her computer for her marketing job. She said she hadn’t realized how much attention her energetic Australian cattle dog mix required.
“It didn’t help that I’d also just bought my first house,” she said. “I had chosen the craziest time in my life to add a puppy to everything.”
Randall, 34, laughed when a friend told her to get DOGTV.
“How bizarre is that? A puppy actually sitting still to watch television?” she said, but for $10 a month, she decided to try it.
“I left it on while I worked and was shocked that Carrot Cake enjoyed watching the different landscapes and seeing other dogs playing,” she said.
“I can’t say that he paid attention for long stretches, but it definitely gave him another place to target his energy when he needed it,” added Randall. “He’s no longer wanting to herd me around the house 24/7.”
Almost two years later, her dog regularly watches DOGTV both when she’s busy and when she’s out of the house, she said.
Animal behaviorists are conflicted about whether it’s a good idea to leave the TV on for hours to entertain dogs (and perhaps a few cats) when leaving the house. Some advocate for the use of toys and puzzles instead.
A little television won’t hurt dogs, but nothing can take the place of exercise, fresh air and human companionship, said Kenneth Martin, a veterinarian from Spicewood, Tex., who specializes in animal behavior.
“Because dogs are triggered by movement and auditory stimulation, something like DOGTV can be enrichment for dogs,” he said. “But I’d caution people to try it around their dogs first before leaving them home alone with the TV on.”
Dogs that react strongly around other dogs in public might become anxious and frustrated when they see dogs cavorting on a television screen, said Martin, 48.
“There’s also a percentage of dogs that might not respond to it at all,” he added. “But for most dogs, sensory and visual stimulation could be a good idea when nothing else is going on. It’s probably better than having an entirely quiet house.”
Other behaviorists say it’s unnecessary.
“I never leave the TV or music on for my two dogs when I leave the house,” said Lynne Gilbert-Norton, a canine behaviorist from Salt Lake City. “I exercise them before I leave, and then they know it’s time to chill out and relax until I return and we can go out again.”
Leaving the television on as background noise probably isn’t harmful, said Gilbert-Norton, but she doesn’t believe there is a huge benefit, either.
“I would say it depends on the dog,” she said. “Some dogs will look at the TV, while others could care less. My guess is that DOGTV is probably more to placate the owner than actually provide a benefit to the dog.”
Dogs can learn to be happy for eight hours at home alone providing that they are treated to some play time and a walk at the end of the day, added Gilbert-Norton.
“If you come home and you’re tired and don’t want to interact with your dog, that’s not good,” she said. “For people like that, I would say, get a cat.”
Levi agrees that interaction with dogs is important. But during the workday, that may not be possible, he said, noting that many of DOGTV’s new subscribers are people now returning to the office after working at home for close to two years.
DOGTV holds frequent casting calls to find ordinary dogs to star in the company’s programming, said Levi, 47. Although many of the shows simply feature dogs surfing, playing ball and running around with other dogs in the park, there are also “on demand” options for dog parents.
“The Dog Chef” features a cook who shares how to make homemade meals and treats for dogs, while “Things We Woof About” highlights the best dog products, from squeaky toys to leashes.
Part of the programming’s appeal may be due to the ability of canines to recognize other dogs on television and computer screens, pet experts say.
A study from 2013 showed that dogs could pick out the faces of dogs, regardless of breed, when they were shown computer photos of canines, other animal species and humans. The same study also found that dogs can recognize dog sounds such as barking and whimpering on television.
Levi spent several years consulting with veterinarians and pet experts before he hired a team to develop hundreds of hours of original programming showing dogs playing on the beach, romping in the park, enjoying the sounds of nature and relaxing at home.
“We took a deep dive into every aspect of a dog’s behavior,” he said. “What music relaxes them? What colors do they like? What energizes them and what makes them feel calm?”
Heavy metal and jazz aren’t appreciated, said Levi, but most dogs seem to enjoy a simple piano tune or cello solo.
“Visually, we give them stimulating content like trips to the park and Frisbee throwing earlier in the day, and something more relaxing at night when it’s time to wind down,” he said.
No cats appear on DOGTV, but fireworks, vacuum cleaners and police sirens are occasionally shown on low volume so dogs will learn not to fear them, Levi explained.
“Mainly, there are soft tones — children’s voices, ocean sounds and people saying, ‘Good boy!’” he noted.
For Bruce Truman, having the channel available for his pandemic puppy, Ouiser, has helped him relax about leaving the German shepherd-pit bull mix alone when he’s out or busy with his at-home consulting job in New Jersey, he said.
“I honestly wasn’t sure it would work, but now she’ll watch for two hours in the morning and sometimes, she’ll bark at the TV,” said Truman, 54.
When Ouiser sees squirrels running up and down a tree or hears a babbling brook, her ears perk up, he said.
“Ouiser helped my husband and I to get through the pandemic,” said Truman, who rescued the dog from a shelter after she was found on the streets with a broken leg.
“Sometimes, I’ll peek in and her head will be sideways and she’ll be watching intently,” he said. “Other times, she’ll be curled up, asleep.”
Either way, he said, he feels pretty good about it.
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