It doesn't take a dog to know: TV smells


DO DOGS UNDERSTAND television? This is a question that has puzzled humanity since the days of the ancient Greeks. It is also the topic of an article sent in by alert reader Gwen Larriega from the February issue of Dog Fancy magazine (suggested motto: "For People Who Take Dogs Way Too Seriously").

According to the article, headlined "Can They REALLY Watch TV?" some dog owners claim their dogs watch television, especially when it is showing "other dogs, wolves or horses, large cats, birds and deer," and that often the dogs respond by "running behind the set to see if the animals are there." This behavior is further proof, as if we needed any, that dogs are in the same intelligence category as saltines. Because, of course, there are no animals behind the television set. The animals live inside the picture tube, and you youngsters out there should feed them by pushing cold cuts through the VCR slot.

But the point is that dogs do watch TV, and they are not always impressed. The Dog Fancy article states that some owners "described their dogs as disliking commercials or talk shows, responding to these broadcasts by growling, head-butting or biting the screen."

I can relate to dogs on this issue. I react in a similar manner, especially to the following type of commercial:

"Hi, I'm a trusted celebrity such as Dennis Miller, Michael Jordan or the late Jimmy Stewart. I make millions of dollars, so you can be sure I spend a lot of time analyzing long-distance telephone rates. Did you know that by dialing 10-10-23-3499404956587054645, you can save as much as 37 percent if you call on Thursday evenings during Lent and are a joint taxpayer filing singly? Well it's true! At least that's what my script says. I have a staff, so I have not personally dialed a telephone in 12 years. Remember: To save money, simply dial 10, followed by 10, followed by 23, followed by 3499404956587054645. Or maybe it's 3499404956587054646. It's something like that. Where's my check?"

When I see one of these commercials -- which is always followed almost immediately by another trusted celebrity pushing another long-distance number -- I often find myself head-butting the TV screen. As you can imagine, this upsets the wolves.

But getting back to the issue: It seems to me that for dogs to become truly interested in TV, the programming would have to include the element of smell. Smelling is very big for dogs. If you're walking your dog, and you pass a spot where any other dog, any time in the history of the world, has left a smell, your dog will want to sniff that spot for approximately the rest of its life. You will need a forklift to pry your dog off that spot. Why? Because your dog's nose is an amazingly complex organ. Your dog appears to be sniffing the same smell over and over again, but its nose is performing a sophisticated olfactory analysis and transmitting the data to your dog's brain, producing a pattern of neural firings that can be translated roughly as: "Hey! A smell!"

Recently I spent a week dog-sitting my in-laws' dog, Daisy, a beagle, which means she is, biologically, a nose with feet. She spent the entire week trying to locate a cat that hangs out in our yard. Every time I took her outside, she'd race around, nose to the ground, whimpering, detecting cat clues. Meanwhile, the actual cat would be sitting on a low wall, very cool, watching Daisy. Sometimes Daisy would be within 3 feet of the cat, sniffing the ground so hard that she was sucking ants into her nostrils. I'd point at the cat and say, "Look, Daisy! There it is!" But Daisy ignored me. Her attitude was, "I have no time to look at a cat, you idiot! I'm hot on the trail of a cat!" Meanwhile, the cat is shaking its head, thinking, "No wonder they drink out of toilets."

So if TV is going to really reach dogs, particularly the beagle demographic, it needs odors. I don't see why we couldn't develop a TV that, in addition to picture and sound, emitted smells through a hole at the bottom of the set. That way, if you're watching, say, a police drama, and there's a shootout, and one of the good guys is lying on the sidewalk, wounded, whispering his last words to his partner, your dog could go to the hole and find out how the sidewalk smelled. There could even be dog-oriented commercials, whereby advertisers would reward dog viewers with popular smells if they followed simple commands ("Nose the receiver off the hook! Now press 10-10 ...").

I think all dog lovers should write to the TV industry and demand programming with a higher smell content (insert your Jerry Springer joke here). I also want to stress that I was just kidding about putting cold cuts into the VCR. You should use ice cream. Otherwise Bambi will die.

Pub Date: 02/07/99

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