Eons ago, back when Steve Martin still had brown hair, he appeared on the “Tonight Show,” where he made the observation that some dogs actually seem to watch television. That led him to wonder: why don’t all dogs watch television? The explanation, he decided, was the lack of programming targeted at canines — “there’s maybe a couple of dog food commercials, but that’s it.” To fill the perceived void, he devised a special comedy routine designed for dogs, which he then proceeded to perform in front of four furry, panting spectators who’d been ushered onto the stage. “The weird thing is that if you’re a human being, you won’t get the jokes,” he explained.
I thought back to that skit when we were in the midst of the first wave of media hyperbole about the unveiling of the Apple iPad. I know I should have been thinking about the revolutionary nature of this paradigm-shattering hybrid device that will transform our use of the Internet, potentially supplant the printed book, and quite possibly alter the course of human civilization. But instead, I must confess, I was thinking: If I get one of those, I wonder what my dogs will think of it? Chirp! Bird Sounds Lite, the iPhone app that plays various bird calls, totally drives them into a predatory frenzy, but when I display a YouTube video of Gordon Ramsey cooking a t-bone steak, they could care less.
As it turns out, though, at least one iPad early adopter apparently shared my curiosity about the canine perception of his new gadget, because he tried this experiment, using his sheltie mix Chloe as the subject.
As you can see, Chloe appears to be a bit alarmed about this latest innovation in consumer electronics. As blogger Brenna Ehrlich at Mashable.com observed:
After watching this video, I would wager that cats are early adopters, while dogs are just more traditional. Pfft, she probably still has a landline, too.
But Chloe wasn’t the only canine skeptic. Major Briggs, the almost unbearably cute pooch owned by Minneapolis interactive developer Jamey Erikson, looks similarly troubled in this photo.
It could be, of course, that dogs simply are unimpressed by the iPad’s lack of multitasking and support for Flash apps, and they’re determined to hold out for the Google Chrome tablet that supposedly is in the works. But more likely, the explanation lies in the difference between humans’ and dogs’ eyesight and processing of visual information. As Melissa Breyer writes at Care2.com:
…a dog doesn’t see the screen the same way we do. Although dogs don’t see exclusively in black and white (as many people think), they don’t have the same range of color that humans do. There are fewer cones (color vision cells) in a dog’s eye than in a human’s eye. Yet, dogs have many more rods (light and motion detectors) than we do, so although they see a limited spectrum, they can see better at night. Dogs can also see flickering light better than we can, which means they might even be able to see individual frames in a television sequence where we would see a continuous scene.
Moreover, even if a dog can make out the images on a TV screen, that doesn’t mean that he or she will make another conceptual leap, which is to recognize the shapes as representations of people, objects or even other dogs. As Uriah Kriegal and Kenneth Williford write in their treatise on the psychology of perception, Self Representational Approaches to Consciousness:
Even in the case of TV cameras, there is such a mapping — the pixels in an image on a TV screen constitute a faithful mapping of the objects that the camera is pointing at, and this mapping gives us two options. Either we ignore the mapping and perceive the TV screen as a pure two-dimensional pattern of pixels in and of itself, standing for nothing, or else we let the mapping suck us in, in which case we read the pixels on the screen as standing for bits of light in a three-dimensional scene, and then we find ourselves “transported,” thanks to a kind of code, to some remote place where we “see” some actions occurring. This second way of looking at a TV screen is like seeing it as a representational painting, rather than an abstract one. Of course, the second mode is the dominant one for humans, but it is not the only mode. In fact, the first mode is probably the way most dogs, cats, babies and other low-huneker beings perceive a television screen; seeing it at the representational level is beyond them.
BTW, a “huneker” is not an experimental vertical-lift aircraft that Nazi scientists developed during World War II, but a unit of consciousness created by cognitive scientist Douglas R. Hofstadter, the author of the wonderfully puzzling 1979 bestseller Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid. In Hofstadter’s conception, human adults generally possess somewhere between 90 and 100 hunekers, with various animals, including dogs, having some fraction of that.
Dogs’ inability to understand computer or TV screen images isn’t that surprising, when you consider that they don’t react to dye marks on themselves in the mirror test, developed by cognitive scientist Gordon Gallup Jr. in 1970, which gauges whether an animal recognizes a reflection as its own image. Chimpanzees, dolphins, orangutans, elephants, and some birds seem to be capable of figuring out that the shape in the glass is them, but dogs tend to react only with irritation or fear. Before you start feeling too superior to your dog, however, keep in mind that according to a 2008 Japanese study, there was a time, up until you turned three years old or so, that a pigeon could have totally kicked both your butts on self-recognition tests. At that age, you wouldn’t get the representational level of video images either. Maybe that’s why little kids and dogs feel such affection for one another.