Dog Watching TV

Q. My dog loves to watch television, but he barks at violence, animals and cartoons. It's too distracting to even have him in the room when the TV is on. What can we do to stop the barking?

The television must be a confusing concept for dogs: They see lifelike images and hear common sounds, but the scent and physical presence of the real thing never appears. Some dogs pay little attention to the TV and respond only to certain sounds, such as a doorbell ringing, while other dogs are keenly aware of the entire show. Some have even been known to run behind the set in search of a dog or cat that has run offscreen.

While most dogs have very little interest in television, having a dog that does watch TV can be a humorous and entertaining experience. However, when your dog reacts to images on the screen in the same way he would in real life, TV watching can quickly get tense. Behavior like barking and growling can intensify over time, making it difficult to watch television with your dog unless remedial training is done.

It sounds like your dog is quite sensitive to different sights and sounds on the TV; this type of pet may require more training than a dog who reacts mainly to specific cues, like the sight of a cat or the sound of a doorbell. Sometimes dogs that are sensitive to small changes, such as those on TV, are also generally sensitive to changes in their environment, such as being sensitive to sounds or reacting to sights when out on walks. If your dog is reactive outside of television watching, training should be addressed by a professional, starting with your veterinarian, because he could have deeper-rooted behavior issues that need in-depth help.

If your dog seems to react only to specific sights and sounds on TV, there are some practical ways to help your dog relax.

Replace Barking With Food and Play

1. Teach your dog to associate meal times with the TV. If you find that your dog is mostly sensitive to the visual, pause the television on an image your dog may react to. Reward him with his breakfast or dinner for relaxed behavior, such as going into a sit or a down. Lower his food bowl as he goes into the position asked for. If your dog is stressed by visuals even when the TV is paused, manage the stimulus by using a Calming Cap, which decreases your dog’s vision line but still allows him enough sight to see what he's eating. As you practice, you can gradually remove the cap and implement the other steps. If your dog is more sensitive to sound, start running the program without volume. If he remains relaxed, add quiet volume at the next meal and gradually increase the volume as long as he stays relaxed.

2. Train your dog to relax when he sees something he previously reacted to. Have your treat bag on and reward your dog for calm behavior anytime a sight or sound that he would normally react to appears on the TV. Try to mark your dog looking at the trigger sight or toward the trigger sound with a “good,” and reward before he has a chance to bark. Deliver the treat with his head turned toward you and away from the TV. After enough repetitions, your dog should start looking back at you as soon as he sees the thing that was making him bark in order to get his reward. When he does this, you can direct him to do relaxation behaviors, such as a down, in place of reacting to the image on the screen.

3. Turn TV time into game time. When your dog reacts to something he sees on the screen, take the opportunity to distract him with a fun game, like tug or fetch. Dogs who are less likely to play can be encouraged with a stuffed animal on the end of a rope, such as the Chase-It or an interactive food puzzle toy like the Tug-A-Jug.

4. Keep your dog busy. Before you sit down to watch TV, your dog should be adequately exercised, since a tired dog is going to be less on edge. You can also offer your dog productive food puzzle toys to gnaw on while you watch TV, such as a frozen Kong, a challenging Nina Ottosson food puzzle or a long-lasting chew. Keeping your dog occupied with something productive can turn his focus from watching TV to acquiring food.

With these steps, nights spent on the couch with your canine pal should become more enjoyable for you both.