Cross-species experimentation can be dangerous, as Syfy channel movies like “Piranhaconda" and “Sharktopus" have made clear. And yet if a journalist isn't willing to court danger in pursuit of truth, what good is he?
That is why I have spent the summer making species other than dogs watch DogTV, a television and Internet channel made specifically for viewing by dogs. Not to brag, but my research raises provocative questions about perception, genetics and the very definition of sentience and life itself.
DogTV, marketed as something for dogs to watch while their owners are at work, was first offered on cable systems in San Diego in February and received a burst of national publicity in April when it became available as an Internet stream.
All this attention demands some critical assessment. I will leave it to dogs to judge the quality of DogTV programming, which includes footage of frolicking dogs, relaxing dogs and cogitating dogs, along with the occasional human or other nondog life-form.
What I decided needed examination was the core concept, the whole notion that dogs have distinctly different television preferences from other species and that those preferences are knowable. DogTV, the service's website says, is “scientifically developed to provide the right company for dogs" and is the product of “years of research." Sure, but did they show their dog programs to a squirrel?
I realized in early spring that it was going to be a critter-heavy warm-weather season in my New Jersey yard because rabbits, chipmunks and squirrels were already lined up at my gardens with cutlery and napkins. So I resolved to test DogTV on whatever wildlife I could in the ensuing months and to augment those studies with tests that friends and family members conducted on their domestic animals at my request. (I have no pets myself, ensuring objectivity.)
My control-group dogs had mixed reactions to DogTV that bordered on randomness:
• Mitzy, a border collie mix in Westerly, R.I., was certainly stimulated by the “Stimulation" video: She was stimulated to get up and leave the room.
• Dakota, a Dalmatian in Westford, Vt., “quickly realized the dogs in the video were not going to try to take her spot and went right back to sleep," her owner reported. Her companion, Otto, a German shorthaired pointer, “watched for about a minute and a half, then tried to lick the iPad."
• Maxie, a bichon frise in Hawley, Pa., who is said to prefer Yo-Yo Ma delivered by radio to any sort of television, looked everywhere but the screen for most of all three videos, the exception being a brief glance when a dog owner in “Exposure" aimed the command “Sit" at her dog after a doorbell rang.
• Walter, an Airedale in New York, ignored the screen for the first two videos and walked out on the third. His housemate, Fadilah, a Lakeland terrier, was also uninterested except during that controversial doorbell scene. “Her head did the telltale sign of paying attention (slightly cocked to the right) as the dog sat for his/her owner's 'sit,'" Fadilah's owner reported, adding, “Then the image shifted to the people walking across the street, and she was done."
So much for the dog verdict on DogTV. The first out-of-species test subject was an 18-inch garter snake I apprehended in May. About one snake a year makes the mistake of coming into my yard, in which I enforce a strict no-snakes policy, and I have become quite adept at nabbing them.
I decided to show this one “Relaxation," since it seemed annoyed, possibly because I had imprisoned it in a Tupperware container for transport to someone else's yard. Surprisingly, the video noticeably calmed down the snake. “Stimulation" and “Exposure," however, seemed to have no effect at all, even though “Stimulation" includes images of an animated mouse, a favorite food of snakes.
As the summer wore on, I tested DogTV on various critters that convened to eat my flowers and vegetables. These animals' fearlessness — sometimes they came into a garden while I was weeding it — enabled me to play DogTV for them occasionally on one of my two laptops, which I would set in the grass.
In general, rabbits preferred the higher resolution of the MacBook, whereas squirrels favored the larger screen of the Toshiba. Chipmunks were too hyperactive to linger around either device, even though I sprinkled the keyboards liberally with birdseed, which chipmunks seem to enjoy far more than birds do. I do not recommend this practice, as the alt and ctrl keys on the Toshiba now sometimes stick.
The rabbits and squirrels occasionally glanced at the DogTV videos but soon resumed pursuit of their apparent goal of eating the entire world.
A more definitive opinion was rendered by Molly, my daughter's cat, a sedentary beast roughly the size of a Volkswagen Beetle.
She began her viewing session exhibiting unmistakable indifference but soon graduated to outright animosity. It wasn't that she was afraid of the dogs on DogTV, my daughter reported; it was that she was annoyed at being asked to do anything outside of her normal routine, which is to do nothing. By the time “Exposure" played, Molly chose to curtail her own exposure by diving under the bed, where she remained for four hours.
The last test subject of the summer was a turtle I rescued Monday as it sat in the middle of Clarksville Road in West Windsor, N.J.
At first none of the three DogTV videos coaxed the turtle out of its shell, but after a while its curiosity was piqued. It seemed to enjoy the studied languidness of “Relaxation" and be intrigued by parts of “Exposure." But a graphic scene in “Stimulation," in which a dog jumps into a pool and chews up a turtle-size water toy, seemed too much for the turtle. It bolted — yes, bolted — off the computer table.
Anyway, it is clear from this summer-long study that DogTV produces exactly the same haphazard, unpredictable responses in nondogs that it does in dogs. Could it be that the distinctions we make between species are artificial, that there are not many types of creatures on the planet, but essentially only one: the one that either stares at a TV screen or doesn't, depending on factors that remain unclear? Aren't we all, humans included, looking for relaxation or stimulation or exposure, unless we're not?