Cali was a Labradoodle with a lifetime obsession with the silver screen. Although she may not have gone so far as to audition for any starring roles, when it came to enthusiastic TV watching, Cali was a superstar. From the Puppy Bowl in November to “Marley and Me” in May, this barking binge watcher never failed to find a dog on the screen and begin her TV watching ritual. Typically, this involved leaping from couch to chair, whining and yipping, then charging toward the TV only to skid to a stop and then peek around the flat screen, thinking surely there must be someone behind there this time! Alas, no three-dimensional dog ever popped out to play and inevitably a boring commercial interrupted Cali’s search, at which point she would meander back to the couch to resume her patient and eternal wait for the next canine screen sighting.
Many people find it amusing when dogs show interest in television. After all, many dogs spend their lives with the TV on around the house and never show the slightest bit of interest. It’s not uncommon for these dogs at least to bark when a TV doorbell rings, and some even run to the door to check for real-life visitors, an understandable mistake. But for many dogs, this is about the extent of their interest in TV or their reaction to it as something that might be real. But some dogs take it so much further, and this is where things can get interesting — for better or for worse.
Often those dogs who are more visually oriented as a breed or by disposition can start as pups by alerting to something on TV that moves fast (a ball, a squirrel) or that makes an interesting noise (a dog barking, a cat meowing). For some dogs, the visual tracking of onscreen movement can be rewarding in its own right and a habit is born almost instantly. For others, an initial interest is also reinforced by attention from owners, who find it cute or hilarious and begin to cue their dog’s attention to TV stimuli thereafter, saying something like “What is it, boy? You see that squirrel? Get it, boy, get that squirrel!” This makes the TV interest also a social event to be shared between dog and owner and can foster and shape a dog’s predatory, defensive, or play tendencies toward things on TV as they might otherwise in the forest or at the dog park.
When things progress past the point where they are cute (often when they don’t seem under the owner’s control anymore), many owners find themselves with a bigger problem on their hands. I have worked with families whose dogs have knocked down the television trying to chase something onscreen, who have injured other family pets when they can’t get to the onscreen critter so turn to the nearest real-life critter instead, or have become aggressive when owners try to interrupt or pull them away from the TV. In other cases, the incessant whining or barking at the television is enough to keep everyone else from enjoying their favorite shows, and these families often need help from a qualified animal behaviorist or dog trainer to assess and address their situation.
As with all areas of behavior management, prevention is the best strategy. If your dog shows mild interest in the TV here and there, don’t feed into it with encouragement or laughter. Maybe it won’t develop into anything more than an entertaining parlor trick, but if it gets out of hand, you could have an annoying, expensive, or even dangerous situation on your hands. Instead, play with three-dimensional toys with your dog. Pretend that stuffed squirrel toy is the real thing and have at it encouraging your dog to find, chase and retrieve it. Take a walk in the woods and let your dog experience the wind in her ears and the scents of wildlife in her nose. If you’re a TV fanatic yourself, use the time to double-task by throwing a ball or tugging a rope toy as you watch TV with your dog.
In Cali’s case, when her running charge toward an adorable Westie on a dog food commercial sent a giant houseplant tumbling onto their new white carpet, her owners finally drew a line in the sand (or, should I say, in the potting soil). From then on, TV time for the human family members turned into toy time instead for Cali. Thereafter, her family saved all Cali’s favorite chewable bones and squeaky toys for the evening and set her up in the kitchen with her dog bed and her pile of goodies while they enjoyed family movie night in peace.