When I was a kid, my mom would leave the television on for our dogs when we’d leave the house. She said the TV would “keep them company,” and she insisted that they either enjoyed the Discovery Channel or USA Network. Those were, of course, her favorite channels, so it was easy for her to project that onto her Dobermans. I think she was onto something, though. My Min Pin (Herschel), for instance, watches the screen when I’m watching certain things and leaves the room when I’m watching others. This leads me to ask the question—what does my dog actually like watching?
One of Herschel’s favorite things to do is sit on the backrest of the couch and look out the front window. This gives him the opportunity to take in everything that’s happening in his kingdom, and also allows him plenty of chances to bark at squirrels. To him, this is how the world works. Things move in a natural way. That’s why he always looks at the screen when we’re watching a nature documentary or something similar. The organic, fluid movement of both the camera and the objects being filmed seem natural and interesting to him. He’s not interested at all in science fiction or action movies, and if the picture changes too rapidly he’ll usually stop paying attention and bring me the tennis ball. I don’t believe, however, that the actual picture is his deciding factor when it comes to what he likes to watch.
For Herschel, I think a television program or movie’s sound is much more important than the picture. He seems to readily enjoy the soothing orchestral music and natural sounds found in nature documentaries and classic feature films. The music and sound effects seem to move more naturally in more sedate, cerebral viewing materials and that seems to resonate with Herschel. Even in non-nature documentaries that primarily have people talking to each other, he seems happy enough. I’d wager that’s true because listening to real people talk is a good part of his day. Once you start bringing in gunfire, spaceships, superheroes and car chases, Herschel is done with you and done with the TV. He also seems to hate it when my housemate watches those Real Housewives shows with their constant bickering—just the same way he doesn’t like it when real people raise their voices. I think these sounds are just too jarring for him to be around, and it doesn’t matter how visually stimulating the pictures are.
The sound is important, but I think Herschel’s connection to his humans matters even more to him when it comes to TV time. We don’t watch a lot of television in our house, but he’s always right there with me on the couch the second the TV turns on. When I’m watching something like The Office or Curb Your Enthusiasm, he can tell that I find the show extremely awkward and that my body reacts accordingly. This seems to put him on edge. Ten minutes of one of Larry David’s exploits will send him trotting off to his dog bed more quickly than even the most boisterous Hollywood action movie. Similarly, when the people in the room tense up during a horror movie, he’ll start to bark and get nervous before leaving the room. Even though he’s an independent, fierce little guy, I’m still Herschel’s anchor point. He knows when I’m uncomfortable and he knows that he can’t bark the TV out of existence, so he just leaves if the strong feelings get to be too much for him. I can’t blame him, either—I know my first course of action when I don’t like what someone else is watching is to go do something else, so why should he be any different?
I’ll never know exactly what goes through Herschel’s head when we’re watching TV, but I’ve started to pick up on some patterns. He doesn’t like loud, abrupt noises. He doesn’t like flashing, kinetic images. He doesn’t like it when I tense up because something is awkward. His reasons are his own, but I get the feeling that Herschel understands the television more than I give him credit for. What I do know for sure, though, is that he’d rather look at the window than look at the television any day of the week—after all, dogs love reality far more than we do.
Stephen Burroughs is a writer, blogger and Humane Society volunteer. He enjoys blogging about everything pertaining to dogs and responsible pet ownership. Stephen writes for All-Dog-Houses, a site that specializes in dog houses of all shapes and sizes.