“Dog TV”: Enriching their lives, or asking for trouble?
I worked with someone once who called letting their dog look out the window all day while they were at work “dog TV”. I thought it was such a cute comparison, and we laughed about how her pup was watching their “stories” as they watched the world go by.
Luckily, their pup really did seem to enjoy watching out the window and very rarely got upset by anything going on in the neighborhood. She would hang out on top of the couch and watch everybody go about their day, giving a cursory “woof” at the mailman, but no more than that.
Unfortunately this is not the reality for the vast, vast majority of dogs.
Regis, Phoebe, and I go for a walk pretty much every day. We love walking together, and can often go 2-3 miles daily when the weather cooperates. And every day, I see dogs in their houses, barking and lunging out the window, sometimes even throwing themselves AT the window, working themselves up until they are completely over their stress threshold.
I have had a discussion like this with countless clients: have you considered closing the blinds/putting up window film/restricting access to the front window either all the time, or just when you’re not there to train and interrupt the barking? More often then not, folks are not into this idea. I completely understand not wanting to live in total darkness by keeping the blinds closed all the time (ps window film is a great tool to allow light in but not allow your dog to see out, you can purchase something like this online: https://amzn.to/3iaSD7g), so I usually say “okay what about only when you’re out of the house?”
Interestingly, I often get pushback here as well, even with the owners out of the house. And when I ask the person I’m working with “why”, it usually comes down to them thinking that their dog is getting something out of the ability to look out the front window during the day. They feel guilty cutting off their dog’s access to the front windows because it seems like they WANT to watch the world, because they spend so much time hanging out at the front windows.
I do think SOME dogs, like the one I talked about in the first paragraph of this blog post, enjoy looking out the front windows and watching the world. But I think these dogs are absolutely in the minority, and most dogs really struggle when they have too much unsupervised access to looking out your front windows.
So how do you know which option is right for your dog? Should your dog have access to the front window, or no? Well, what does your dog do when they’re looking out the window? Do they lie down and watch your neighborhood calmly, or do they explode into barking, growling, and lunging at the window every time they see a person or dog? If your dog does bark and carry on at the window, how long does it take them to “come down” from the barking, and do they seem more likely to bark even more explosively at the next thing that triggers them? This escalation in behavior tells us that the dog is likely not recovering from the stress episodes fully before becoming triggered again!
It’s been my experience that some dogs who are given access to their front windows and doors, especially if these dogs have any anxieties about new people or other dogs, are sometimes living in a state of chronic stress having to constantly tell the scary new people and dogs to “go away”. It's like they can't pull themselves away from defending the front of their house!
If your dog sounds like the dog above, who stresses up and “freaks out” any time they see someone or something passing by the front window, stepping up and restricting your dogs access to these triggering areas can really help your dog feel better and reduce their overall stress levels day in and day out.
But what if you’re worried about taking away your dog’s “hobby”? Then we need to find other, healthier options for your pup! So, what are some alternatives if you decide you have to take away your dog’s “TV time”?
1. Is another window an option?
If your dog reacts by barking and lunging at people and dogs passing by, but doesn’t get upset by birds, squirrels, and critters outside, consider making another window available to your pup, and providing things to look at out that window. Hang some bird feeders and bird baths, and if it’s a window that’s not floor level give your dog a nice ottoman or comfy stool to rest on. Make the spot comfy for your pup by adding their favorite bed or blankets (or a heat pad if you've got a heat seeking pup!), and encourage your dog to hang out there by reinforcing when they do so!
2. Dog walkers or doggy daycare
Worried about your dog’s energy level if you take away something for them to do but don’t give them something else? While it’s a financial commitment, hiring a dog walker or looking into a well run dog daycare (assuming your dog is comfortable with new people and dogs) can be helpful and is a healthier way for your dog to burn off some energy and get some mental enrichment! Some dogs who are very social still struggle at windows and other barriers due to what we call "barrier frustration"; the pups look vicious and out of control behind fences, windows, and on leash, but when they can actually greet the other dog or person they do very well! Unfortunately, barrier frustration can tip over into true aggression with time, so even if your dog loves other people and other dogs, if they get really upset at the front window it's best not to allow them to rehearse that behavior!
3. Food toys and foraging opportunities throughout the house
If you only have one dog to entertain (or if your dogs are separated when you leave!) try creating passive foraging and scavenging activities for them while you’re working! Before you head off to work, prepare multiple food toys (snuffle mats, treat balls, stuffed kongs, etc) and hide them throughout your house (make sure to remember where you hid them so you can make sure they’re empty at the end of the day!). If your dog gets bored they’ll have a few appropriate options for them to work on that will give them something to do!
Your dog’s behavior will tell you if you need to limit their access to the front window; when we are looking for ways to enrich our dog’s lives, it’s imperative that we pay attention to what the activity is doing for our dogs. Just because they seem to go back to an activity over and over it doesn’t necessarily mean that that activity is your dog’s best interest! So if your dog seems like they get upset and worked up by “dog TV’, consider the options above and start giving your dog some other healthier options!
PS Even this dog trainer's dogs can't have unlimited access to the front windows, so don't feel bad if your pup can't either ;)