Skip to Content

What do dogs think when humans watch TV?

Watching humans stare at a glowing box for hours on end likely seems quite perplexing from a dog’s perspective. Though we may take television viewing for granted, trying to comprehend this ritual from a canine viewpoint presents an intriguing thought experiment. What might be going through our dogs’ minds as they observe one of our most common pastimes?

Do dogs understand what a TV is?

First and foremost, it’s debatable whether dogs even recognize that a television is a source of visual and auditory stimulation. Dogs rely primarily on their powerful sense of smell to understand the world around them. Their vision is decent, though not nearly as sharp as humans, and their hearing range is broader. However, they do not experience audiovisual information the same way people do.

When dogs observe humans interacting with a TV, they likely associate the device with very limited meaning. The sounds and flickering lights probably signify little more to dogs than that their owners are paying attention to the box rather than them! Without grasping what a TV fundamentally is, it’s unlikely dogs comprehend the content being shown.

Evidence dogs don’t understand TV

Numerous studies support the notion that dogs do not genuinely recognize TV screens as anything meaningful. For example:

  • Dogs do not naturally watch TV – they only do so when a human is already viewing
  • Their gaze follows the physical movements of the TV, not the content on the screen
  • Dogs do not exhibit different reactions based on what’s playing
  • Experiments using projected footage of dogs on a wall did not fool real dogs – they understood it was not real

This evidence indicates dogs regard TV screens as simply lights and sounds, not representations of reality they can connect with. Without grasping the context, television likely holds limited fascination for canines beyond when their owners are engaged with it.

Breeds that watch TV more

However, some breeds do tend to watch TV more than others when their owners do. Herding breeds like corgis, shepherds, and collies seem particularly interested. Their natural instinct to follow movement kicks in when they see movement on the screen. Sporting and working breeds like Labrador retrievers also tend to be more attentive, as they are highly driven to focus on targets. visual breeds like Afghan hounds similarly may notice and track motion on TV.

In contrast, less task-oriented breeds like bulldogs, pugs, chihuahuas, and shih tzus are less compelled to watch. But just because a dog stares at the TV does not mean they comprehend what’s happening.

What triggers dogs to pay attention?

While dogs may not understand television, they definitely notice when humans are interacting with the TV. Dogs are highly attentive to their owners’ actions and behaviors. So when people sit down to watch a show, dogs often join them out of instinct to emotionally bond and spend time together.

In fact, research shows dogs will remain facing the television over 6 times longer when a person is there watching versus if they are alone in the room with it on. Their interest comes from the human connection, not the media content.

Sound responses

Dogs also may orient towards the television due to certain intriguing sounds. High-frequency sounds and noises that mimic animal calls will catch their attention. Loud volumes also alert them simply because of sensitivity. But they likely associate the audio as coming directly from the TV device, not as sounds connected to the visuals on screen.

Motion tracking

Additionally, dogs are very keyed into movement due to their prey drive and tracking instincts. Fast-paced activity and motion on screen will catch their eye, but only in terms of stimuli directly from the physical television. They do not seem to link the moving images with conceptual meaning about what is being depicted.

Do dogs have favorite shows or genres?

Given dogs’ limited grasp of television as anything more than lights, sounds, and motion, there is minimal evidence that they have preferences for particular shows or genres. Without understanding characters, plots, settings, and other elements of media content, they do not react differently based on what is playing.

However, there are certain cues that may hold their interest longer when their owner is also paying attention, including:

  • Rapid action – chasing, quick cuts, and thrilling movement
  • Animal sounds – barking, growling, animal calls
  • High pitches – beeps, whistles, jangling

The intensity, speed, and stimuli coming directly from the TV set is what engages dogs, not the actual narrative context.

Seeing humans or animals

Some contend dogs may be more attentive when they see humans or animals on the screen. But research indicates they don’t actually recognize televised people or pets as genuine. Real life humans and animals will still get their priority focus.

Dog-specific programming?

There are now shows specifically marketed towards dogs, often with soothing music or stimulating sounds. But evidence implies dogs are mostly just reacting to the audio cues and physical screen movements as described, not the intended purpose of calming or entertaining canines.

Why do dogs sometimes bark at the TV?

It’s quite common for dogs to occasionally bark at the TV when something catches their attention. But this reaction does not necessarily mean they comprehend what’s happening on screen in a meaningful way. More likely, they are responding reflexively to certain triggers:

  • Sudden loud noises
  • Environmental sounds that mimic doorbells or knocks
  • Other dogs on screen perceived as potential threats
  • Quickly moving objects and high-contrast stimuli

Their barking stems from instinctual responses, not an understanding of TV content. They may also bark simply because their owner is giving focus to the TV instead of them.

Could dogs learn to understand TV?

While existing research indicates dogs do not innately understand or connect with media content, some scientists speculate they could perhaps learn to recognize TV similarly to humans if exposed during early brain development. However, definitive proof does not yet exist.

Young puppies have greater neuroplasticity, and their brains are still rapidly forming new neural pathways and connections in response to stimuli. Puppies also rely more on sight than smell in their early months compared to adult dogs. So some theorize that regular television exposure from a very young age could potentially allow puppies to perceptually link images on screen with real objects.

Challenges for dogs learning TV meaning

However, successfully training dogs to interpret TV content faces huge challenges:

  • Rapid sensory development phase ends at 4-5 months old
  • Visual acuity starts declining after puppyhood
  • Dogs’ innate reliance on smell over sight as they mature
  • Limited ability to neurologically parse 2D representations
  • Inability to grasp symbolism and conceptual meaning

Overall the mental framework dogs use to navigate their environments may simply be incompatible with deciphering televised imagery in the way humans inherently can.

How else do dogs react to TV time?

While dogs may not comprehend what’s playing on screen, they still exhibit a range of responses to human TV viewing by picking up on environmental cues:

  • Curling up together – they enjoy bonding time with their owner
  • Begging for treats – television time means snacks!
  • Barking for attention – they grow bored and want focus back
  • Seeming anxious – some don’t like loud audio or flashing visuals
  • Trying to “find” objects on screen – fooled by sounds into thinking it’s real

Dogs also display stress when owners laugh or cry at the TV – they pick up on the overt emotional reactions even without understanding the reasons behind them.


Overall, dogs most likely perceive television very differently than their human owners do. They seem incapable of grasping on-screen imagery and audio as representational content conveying meaning. But television time still impacts dogs’ behavior and emotional states based on environmental factors, bonding opportunities, attention levels, and instinctual responses to stimuli coming directly from the TV set itself. Though the sounds and sights may hold some canine fascination, the shows’ actual narratives remain a mystery to man’s best friend.