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Will The Dog Watch TV When the Owner’s Away?

Americans spend an average of five hours a day watching TV. Human Americans, that is. As pet owners know, our furry wards just don’t share our interest in Rock My RV With Bret Michaels, or even Cesar Millan’s Leader of the Pack. Animals may spend a lot of time in front of the television as our companions, but they rarely watch it.

The folks behind DogTV aim to change that. Billed as “the perfect babysitter for dogs who have to stay home alone,” DogTV isn’t a TV channel about dogs; it’s a TV channel for them. Many dog owners already leave the tube on for their pets when they go out, but until now there’s never been programming custom-made to keep our dogs company. Airing 24 hours a day, DogTV will show short clips of canines in a variety of situations — chasing each other, riding in the car with their owners, napping, and, perversely, being visited by the mailman. There will even be animated sequences of bats flying at the screen, for some reason. The stated goal is to provide your four-legged friends with relaxation and stimulation — just like human TV! — for that portion of the day when owners aren’t around to take their dogs on car rides or bat-watching.

The channel, which will cost $4.99 monthly, launches on DirecTV this week; it will also be available through online streaming and Roku boxes. For those of us who suffer the guilt of leaving a dog alone for hours each day, the prospect of forking out five bucks a month to allay our dogs’ separation anxiety might sound attractive. It’s certainly cheaper than hiring a daily dog walker. There’s only one problem: It won’t work. DogTV may attract its share of bipedal viewers —the kind of relaxation addicts who tune in to Sunrise Earth — but its target audience might as well be dog-sat by Family Feud.

One reason that dogs don’t care about TV is it doesn’t look like TV to them — it looks like a slideshow powered by a dim strobe light. Dogs see the world at a faster frame rate than humans do. Humans’ flicker fusion rate is about 50-60 Hz, meaning we see the world in 50 to 60 images per second. For dogs, that rate is closer to 70-80 Hz. As Alexandra Horowitz explains in her best-selling book Inside of a Dog, canines “see the individual frames in TV⅜and the dark space between them too.” She continues: “This — and the lack of concurrent odors wafting out of the television — might explain why most dogs cannot be planted in front of the television . . . It doesn’t look real.”

Not so fast, say the folks at DogTV. That may have been true on the old tube TVs, but dogs are increasingly able to see TV images normally. How? “New LCD technology,” DogTV answers. “The refresh rate on the newer television screens is now 100Hz and up, perfect for continuous canine viewing.”

Even if he can see the bats clearly, though, Fido is likely to react to DogTV playing in the afternoon the same way you reacted to your college roommate who insisted on playing “Hey Ya!” at 3 in the morning. As Katherine Houpt, a professor of animal behavior at Cornell University, told me, dogs don’t want to watch TV while you’re gone — they want to sleep. “Most dogs sleep while you’re gone and wake up every 20 minutes or so and get a drink of water and scratch themselves and turn around and go back to sleep,” she says.