There are many different kinds of love, and our language is woefully inadequate when it comes to describing them all. For instance, I love my dog. I also love watching TV. Before bed every night, I enjoy a soothing ritual in which I placidly empty my brain of the day’s happenings and fill it to the brim with the absurd plot of a questionable European crime drama or an episode of The Sopranos that I have seen four times. But sometimes my mind wanders while I’m watching two brooding Swedish detectives investigating a murder, or while Tony Soprano is stress-eating a fistful of gabagool in his bathrobe, and I’m struck with a nagging thought: What does my dog think I’m doing, at this very moment, when I’m watching TV?
I have an extensive list of questions about my dog — a handsome nine-year-old lab mix named Fritz — because I am thinking about him constantly. But this one haunts me in particular. Is he confused? Is he judging me? (Am I judging myself?) He’s at home all day while I’m at work, and then I return and — after we greet each other excitedly, and I dispense an adequate amount of belly rubs, of course — choose to lay slumped on the couch with my mouth hanging open, staring at a large glowing rectangle.
Before I consulted the experts on the matter, I consulted my colleagues. Kelly Conaboy, human to Peter, said, “My guess would be that it’s similar to whatever a dog thinks when he or she looks out of a window, which is: something is happening in there.” Madeleine Aggeler told me that her dog, Cleo, is “pretty indifferent” to television. “She’s not a very active dog — her favorite activities are napping and laying — so I think she appreciates that it’s a time when we both hold completely still,” she explained.
Armed with that insight, and convinced that nobody else is worrying about this as much as I am, I reached out to Cesar Millan, the dog behaviorist best known as the Dog Whisperer from the hit reality show Dog Whisperer With Cesar Millan. He told me that the best way for us to understand what our dogs are thinking about our behavior when we watch TV is to close our eyes. “If you close your eyes, you’re going to be able to see your emotions,” Millan said. “That’s what the dog is experiencing about your activity.” A dog can tell if you’re scared while watching a horror movie or anxious while watching a sports game, and that will determine his interpretation of your energy and vibe at that moment. (Case in point: Fritz will go sit in the bathtub when my fiancé is watching a particularly close, stressful college football game; I will just leave the house.)
I also asked Millan if there’s a maximum amount of time we should be spending watching TV with our dogs on a daily basis. “I do like an hour a day,” Millan responded. “I can’t put more in my head because I have a ranch. So my Netflix is the trees, the land.”
Alexandra Horowitz, a scientist who specializes in dog cognition and wrote Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know, told me that while dogs can indeed see what’s happening on TV screens, it’s not engaging for them because it’s not a multisensory experience — there’s nothing to smell or touch. When it comes to what they think of us watching it, Horowitz said, “it’s just one of the myriad ways in which humans are terrifically boring.” Dogs, she added, are essentially “identifying the percentage of life where there’s possible interactions with them and then the percentage where there’s not — and this is part of the very large percentage of our life where there’s very little interaction with them.”
But they do look at us when we’re watching television and interpret that dynamic differently than when we’re, say, interacting with other humans. Horowitz pointed to a study in which scientists tested how long a dog will wait to eat a forbidden treat. “Dogs will steal it faster if you’re so distracted that you’re talking to another person, but not as fast if they’re reading a book or watching television — your attention can be drawn away,” she explained.
Trainer Victoria Stilwell, host of the reality show It’s Me or the Dog and a consultant for DogTV, confirmed that dogs don’t care much about what’s happening onscreen. Some may pause and try to chase a ball or a small furry animal that’s bounding across the TV, but they rarely are engaged for long amounts of time.
My takeaway here is that, not only is my dog completely disinterested in the trials and tribulations of a New Jersey crime family — which, though disappointing, was expected — he also finds me immensely boring. When asking my original question, I hadn’t expected to dislike the answer so much.
Thankfully, Stilwell also had something important and positive to note. “I don’t think dogs understand the concept of television, of course not,” she told me. “I don’t think it’s a thing that really bothers their world, I think they’re more happy with the fact that they’re home and that they can just feel safe and hang out with you.” Even if I’m preoccupied by whether our Scandinavian detectives will solve the murder or fall in love first.