Dogs watching videos could be key to better understanding their vision: study

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After a ruff day, many people may unwind by watching their favourite shows with their dogs alongside.

Yet while their humans enjoy their shows, that screen time could be key to better understanding a canine’s vision, a new study suggests.

New research from the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine indicates video consumption could sustain a dog’s attention long enough to assess visual function — an area 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,” said Freya Mowat, a professor in the school’s department of surgical sciences and the study’s author, in a news release.

“We need more sensitive ways to assess vision in dogs, using a dog eye chart equivalent.”

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What do dogs like to watch?

Mowat speculates videos have the potential to retain a dog’s attention long enough for an eye exam, but it’s unclear what type of content is most engaging and appealing to dogs.

Mowat attempted to answer that question in her study, which was published recently in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science. She 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.

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Participants were asked to answer questions about the types of screens in their home, how their dogs interacted with them, 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.

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They were also asked to describe the behaviours their dogs exhibited when watching the content. Most common emotions were described as “active,” like running or jumping, compared with “passive” emotions like lying and sitting. Vocalization, such as barking, was mentioned more than once.

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Dog owners were also given the option of showing their dog four short videos that featured subjects of potential 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 they tracked the moving objects on the screen.

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Mowat received 1,600 responses from dog owners across the world, including Canada. Of those respondents, 1,246 completed the study. The research found videos featuring animals were the most popular, with other dogs being the most engaging subjects to watch.

Movement on screen was a strong motivator for attention, and age and vision were related to how much a dog interacted with a screen.

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Sporting and herding dog breeds appear to watch all content more than other breeds, and humans were not very appealing for dogs to watch, ranking ninth out of 17 predetermined categories.

Research may lead to new tools for vets

Mowat said she plans to focus future research on creating video-based methods to assess changes in visual attention as dogs get older so that it could help them age gracefully.

“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 said.

“Like people, dogs are living longer and we want to make sure we support a healthier life for them as well.”

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She added she also hopes to compare how dogs’ vision ages compared with the human or humans they share a home with.

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“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 said.

“Our dogs could be our sentinels — the canine in the proverbial coal mine.”

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