My Dog and TV: How I'm Spending My COVID-19 Free Time

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I don’t know about you, but during my COVID-19 free time, I have been binging TV shows and movies like crazy. Have you noticed that just about every show, movie, and commercial has dogs, horses, geckos, or emus? 

Two of my three dogs aren’t really impressed with TV, but my 5-year-old cockapoo, Mandy, watches intently. Her reaction to animals on-screen involves leaping off the couch while barking loud and long. To make matters worse, it’s not limited to animals. Stark contrast, such as dark clothing against a white background, also fires her up.

I first encountered Mandy’s reaction to television while watching an episode of “Blacklist.” I remember the scene vividly. Raymond Reddington, in a dark brown coat, was trudging through a snow-covered, white forest. Mandy saw it and launched herself off the couch at the TV, barking frantically. Her body was stiff with hackles up, and her tail wagged quickly. 

I thought it was a fluke but, after several weeks and many missed pivotal plot scenes, I knew I had an unwanted behavior that needed a remedy.

How do dogs watch TV?

Before I dive into my treatment plan for Mandy, I’ll ask a question: How do dogs experience TV? In a nutshell, dogs tend to notice and be drawn to television images of their own species more readily than any other species, according to a 2013 research study published in Animal Cognition.

Dogs see more frames per second than humans. The first television sets brought images into our living rooms using cathode ray tubes (CRT). CRTs create an image by blurring pixels that can be green, blue, or red exclusively. When dogs watch CRTs they see flickering. Not too interesting to a dog. 

LCD and LED television images are clearer as pixels can alternate between green, blue, and red. The visual of an animal moving on an LCD TV seems more realistic to a dog, hence more exciting or frightening.

A dog’s depth perception also plays a role in how an image appears on screen. She realizes the objects are not really with her, but on some other plane entirely. The field of view possessed by dogs may immediately attract some breeds to a moving picture, but once they determine that there’s nothing really happening, they may quickly lose interest.

Dogs are initially attracted to the television because of certain sounds that they hear. Once the noise has their attention, and they find out where the sound is coming from, they begin to focus on the images and, depending on the breed of dog and the way their eyes function, interact with the stimulus or not. 

My Treatment Plan for Mandy

Identify Triggers and Define the Behavior

The first step involves identifying the triggers (i.e., object, person, noise, etc.) that cause an intense emotional response. Mandy’s triggers are animals or high-contrast images on television. The intense emotional response in Mandy’s case is reactivity. 

The term “reactivity” is used to describe animals who respond to normal stimuli (triggers) with an abnormal (higher-than-normal) level of intensity (or arousal). The behavior associated with Mandy’s reactivity is barking. What makes this behavior abnormal is she doesn’t just get aroused; she is oblivious to my efforts to stop the barking. 

Management and Training

No single true-blue method will stop dogs from barking at televisions. Every dog is different. Below you will find the methods I tried with Mandy. Please note: I did not purposefully freeze the program with an animal on-screen. I allowed the program to air, and Mandy’s behavior happened organically. No corrections or punishment-related techniques or equipment were used. WHS advocates for and teaches rewards-based methods.

  1. Managing the environment by preventing access to the trigger. Not watching TV is one way to prevent your dog from seeing her triggers. Managing the environment can be more practical. I added a door to the family room which I close when I am watching a show or movie about animals. I put Mandy on the other side of the door in the adjacent living room with a bully stick, goody-filled Kong toy, or food puzzle. This works in a preplanned scenario, but I can’t always predict when animals will be shown, especially in commercials. And any show can include a high-contrast image or two. Plus, I enjoy Mandy’s company. 
  2. Training the “I Spy” game. The “I Spy” game helps Mandy associate her triggers with positive things (yummy treats). How to train: She looks at something on TV without reacting. I say, “Yes,” and give her a treat. That’s it. After several repetitions, I change the criteria from just looking at the TV to looking at the TV then looking at me. I mix it up by playing fetch with a squeaky toy.
  3. Training by using an alternate behavior. In my house, we don’t use “No” when it comes to training our dogs. Our mantra is “No is sit.” What does “No” tell your dog to do? It is not an action word. Why not have your dog do something you like instead? When a trigger appears on TV and your dog knows the cue “Sit,” say it! If Mandy looks at the TV, I say, “Sit.” She sits. I say, “Yes,” and give her a treat or play fetch. What if she is laying on the couch? That’s when I use my cue for attention, “Focus.” She looks at me. I say, “Yes,” and give her a treat. This works well with Mandy but if the TV volume is too high, I return to the “I Spy.”
  4. Management by removing yourself and your dog from the TV. Keep a leash on your dog. If she starts barking at the TV, pause the show, take the leash, and walk her to another room. When your dog is calm, start playing with her, working on basic obedience cues, or training tricks. After a few minutes you both return to the room you left and start the show again. Repeat if necessary. I will say this particular method worked with Mandy, but it was annoying to my husband!
  5. Training by rewarding calm behavior and teaching “quiet.” Keep a leash on your dog. Whenever your dog is not watching the TV, let her know that you’re happy with her choice. This could be a whispered word of praise, a soft scritch on the chest, a treat, or anything that tells her, “Thank you for being calm.” If she starts barking by the TV, pick up the leash, gently lead her toward you, show her a treat in your hand. Let her sniff the treat for three seconds. If she’s quieted down, she can have the treat. Once she starts to understand that she gets rewarded for quieting down, you can put it on cue, “Quiet.” (Mandy’s cue is “Shush.”) Begin removing the leash when she comes to you after you call her away from the TV. 

Mandy’s mood and the situation dictated the method I used. I have cans of treats and several soft, squeaky toys in every room of our home so I’m prepared for any training moment. 

How long did this plan take to get her to stop barking at the TV? Well, it’s an ongoing plan as long as there are animals on TV. I suppose I could stop watching TV but I would seriously miss it!

Watch a video of mine and Mandy’s training sessions.

What’s on my Binge-Watching List?

Now that I have management and training methods put in place for Mandy’s reactivity to dogs on TV, my binging possibilities have opened up! Where do I start?

Due to COVID-19 concerns, our face-to-face training services at Willamette Humane Society have been suspended until further notice. We are offering virtual private lessons. Visit our training page for more information on how to enroll