Knowing what dogs like to watch could help veterinarians assess their vision

Ever wonder what kind of TV shows your dog might choose to watch if they could work the remote control? New research from the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine (SVM) has some answers, but the study was more interested in solving a longstanding problem in veterinary medicine than turning canine companions into couch potatoes.

According to Freya Mowat, veterinary ophthalmologist and professor in the SVM’s department of surgical sciences, the goal of the study was to determine factors that influence a dogs’ interest in interacting with video content and to see if age or vision were related to this behavior. Ultimately, they hope to develop more sensitive ways for veterinarians to assess vision in dogs−something that has been sorely lacking in veterinary medicine.

“The method we currently use to assess vision in dogs is a very low bar. In humans it would be equivalent to saying yes or no if a person was blind,” says Mowat. “We need more sensitive ways to assess vision in dogs, using a dog eye chart equivalent. We speculate that videos have the potential for sustaining a dog’s attention long enough to assess visual function, but we didn’t know what type of content is most engaging and appealing to dogs.”

Dr. Freya Mowat, veterinary ophthalmologist and professor in the Department of Surgical Sciences

Published recently in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science, the study found that dogs are most engaged when watching videos that feature other animals, and content about their own species is the most popular. But if a National Geographic documentary about canine evolution seems too highbrow for your four-legged friend, Scooby Doo might be a perfectly acceptable option as well.

To better understand the type of content dogs might be most attracted to on screen, Mowat created a web-based questionnaire for dog owners about the TV-watching habits of their canine companions and then made it available to people around the globe.

Participants were asked to answer questions about the types of screens in their home, how their dogs interacted with screens, the kinds of content their dogs interacted with the most, as well as information about their dog’s age, sex, breed, and where they live. They were also asked to describe the behaviors their dogs exhibited when watching screen-based content. Most commonly emotions were described as “active” (running, jumping, tracking etc.) compared with “passive” (lying, sitting etc.). Vocalization (barking, whining, growling) was a commonly described behavior.

Dog owners were also given the option of showing their dog four short videos that featured subjects of possible interest, including a panther, a dog, a bird and traffic moving along a road. They were then asked to rate their dog’s interest in each video and how closely the dog tracked the moving objects on the screen.

Mowat received 1,600 responses from dog owners across the world, including the US, Canada, United Kingdom, European Union and Australasia.  Of those respondents, 1,246 ultimately completed the study. The following are some of the most interesting highlights:

  • Age and vision were related to how much a dog interacted with a screen.
  • Sporting and herding dog breeds appear to watch all content more than other breeds.
  • Video content featuring animals was the most popular, with other dogs being by far the most engaging subjects to watch.
  • Humans do not appear to be very appealing for dogs to watch, ranking 9th out of 17 predetermined categories.
  • Cartoons were engaging for more than 10% of dogs.
  • Movement on screens was a strong motivator for screen attention.

Mowat says she plans to build on the results of this study by focusing future research on the development and optimization of video-based methods that can not only assess changes in visual attention as dogs age, but also answer questions that could help our four-legged friends age as gracefully as possible.

“We know that poor vision negatively impacts quality of life in older people, but the effect of aging and vision changes in dogs is largely unknown because we can’t accurately assess it,” she says. “Like people, dogs are living longer and we want to make sure we support a healthier life for them as well.”

Another future goal for Mowat is to compare how a dogs’ vision ages compared with the human or humans they share a home with.

“Dogs have a much shorter lifespan than their owner, of course, and if there are emerging environmental or lifestyle factors that influence visual aging, it might well show up in our dogs decades before it shows up in us,” she explains. “Our dogs could be our sentinels—the canine in the proverbial coal mine.”

This study was supported in part by an NIH career development grant to Mowat (K08EY028628), a Companion Animal Fund Grant from the UW-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine, a grant from Research to Prevent Blindness, Inc. to the UW-Madison Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences, and a core grant for Vision Research from the NIH to the University of Wisconsin-Madison (P30 EY016665).


-Gian Galassi

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