Dogs have a cat to thank for DogTV, a network packed with programming for pooches that will be available on DirecTV as of August 1.
The cat’s name was Charlie, and he belonged to Ron Levi, the founder and chief content officer of DogTV. Charlie passed away not long ago, but Levi adored his kitty and always felt incredibly guilty about leaving him when he went to work. "He gave me the sad eyes saying, ‘It’s not cool leaving me alone all day,’ " Levi recalls.
So Levi filled up a DVD with video of birds and fish and set it up to play on his television. Charlie loved it. The cat ran to the TV the first time he saw the imagery, and he was transfixed.
After witnessing how much Charlie enjoyed that onscreen entertainment, Levi, whose career includes time spent teaching college-level media classes and working as a writer for The Amazing Race, realized dogs might also respond to and benefit from watching television and got to work creating what would become DogTV.
"Dogs are not very cool being home all day by themselves when their parents go to work. They’ve got nothing to do, and boredom causes the destruction of the house and irritation and barking. It’s a real problem, and I thought we could try to help by leaving the TV on—but not just leaving the dog to sit and watch like a couch potato. That’s seriously not the idea," Levi says. "We want to try to use the television to entertain them and also relax them and make them feel better."
But, first of all, do dogs really watch TV?
There are certainly plenty of pet owners who say that their dogs do. When I was growing up, my mother insisted that our dog Prince watched The Price Is Right, though I don’t remember whether the German Shepherd was a game show addict. More recently, nearly half of the respondents to a poll conducted by the American Kennel Club and Iams a few years ago reported that their canines showed interest in what was happening on television. And if you search YouTube for "dogs watching TV," more than a million results appear.
"There seems to be a lot of individual variation in whether dogs watch TV, so it’s hard to provide a simple yes-no answer here," says Evan MacLean, Ph.D, senior research scientist and codirector of the Duke Canine Cognition Center at Duke University. (MacLean is in no way associated with DogTV.) "There are several factors that may influence this with regard to what dogs can actually see on a TV screen."
"Dog vision has a greater temporal resolution than human vision," MacLean explains, noting, "Traditional TVs had a refresh rate of 50 to 60 Hz, which for humans allows us to see the image as one uninterrupted and continuous image. But because of differences in dog vision, dogs may actually pick up on the subtle and rapid refreshing of the image on the screens with this refresh rate. Have you ever seen a home movie with a TV screen in the background of the video? It’s jumpy and incoherent, and this may be how dogs see a lot of TVs."
Well, that’s how they may see older CRT TVs. "With newer models that have higher refresh rates, dogs are probably able to see the images better," MacLean says, quipping, "So if you want a new TV, just convince yourself it’s for the dog, not you." In her book, Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell and Know, Alexandra Horowitz makes the same point about the "speed" of dogs’ vision vis-à-vis television frame rates ("They see the individual frames and the dark space between them, too"), and she also notes another deficit of TV as a dog entertainment device: It doesn’t smell. "The lack of concurrent odors wafting out of the television might explain why most dogs cannot be planted in front of the television to engage them. It doesn’t look real," she writes.
Asked whether man’s best friend should even be watching TV, MacLean muses, "I can see it potentially having value for some dogs that spend a lot of time at home by themselves. But this comes with a word of caution that if programs are distracting or overly arousing, they may also have some negative effects in terms of the dogs’ ability to relax."
Levi says assuringly that the programming airing on DogTV has been crafted with a dog’s best interests in mind.
While the network is getting a lot of buzz now because of the DirecTV deal, DogTV first launched on Cox Cable and Time Warner Cable in San Diego last February after being in development for three and a half years. More than 800 programs were created for the San Diego test run, and they all ran just three to five minutes long. "That’s the attention span of a dog," Levi maintains. "It’s very short."
Programming was—and will continue to be—broken up into the categories of stimulation, relaxation and exposure.
Shows in the stimulation category find a lot of dogs chasing Frisbees. "Dogs are proven to like to see other dogs onscreen," according to Levi, "And they’re very, very sensitive to motion. That’s why a lot of our content is a lot of running dogs and animals and animations involving butterflies and all that because dogs can actually see that amazingly."
Programming in the relaxation category features beautiful visuals and landscapes accompanied by classical music designed to soothe a pet.
Exposure programming is all about slowly and carefully exposing dogs to everyday sounds and visuals that might spook them—like the evil vacuum cleaner!—and helping pooches get used to them.
That said, none of the exposure programming—actually, any of the programming—includes barking dogs. "In the beginning, we had a lot of barking sounds on the channel, but we learned that a lot of dogs got irritated, and they weren’t too happy about the barking sounds, so we took them off," Levi explains.
DogTV discovered the problem with barking dogs after installing security cameras in 38 apartments in which dogs were left home by themselves during the day and monitoring their reactions to DogTV programming as well as shows on networks like Animal Planet and CNN.
The network will continue to test its audience’s reaction to its shows as it rolls out even more content on DirecTV. "We shot more than 800 short programs for the test run, and that worked well because they were only on eight hours a day, but DogTV is 24/7. So we are filming a lot more content," Levi says.
While DogTV’s main goal is to make shows for dogs, the network will run some programming aimed at dog parents, too. Beginning this week, viewers will see dog trainer Victoria Stilwell (best known for the Animal Planet series It’s Me or the Dog); Professor Nicholas Dodman, the program director of the Animal Behavior Department of Clinical Sciences at Tufts University; and pet trainer-animal advocate Warren Eckstein appearing in 354 Seconds On, a series of short shows on various dog-related subjects. The network is also developing other programs with the trio of experts.
DogTV isn’t just airing in the U.S., by the way. The network launched in Israel a few months ago, and it will soon be available in countries in the Far East, according to Levi, who reports the network is also in talks with European markets.