DogTV is TV for dogs. Except when it’s for people.
By Austin Considine
The talent was beginning to lie down on the job. Temperatures had surpassed 90 degrees on a July afternoon in Ramapo Mountain State Forest in northern New Jersey, and the actors were hot and literally panting. If they had to perform much longer, the director might face a mutiny.
The director, Ron Levi, threw up his hands.
“Tell them union is eight-hour work,” he called out. “What do you mean they’re done?”
A horror story overheard at a recent Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists rally? Not exactly. The director, for starters, was joking. As for the actors … they didn’t get the joke anyway.
The stars — Beasley, Darby, Fuji and Whidbey — are among the four-legged leads on DogTV, a pay-television service designed especially for dogs who are stuck at home alone. In the coming weeks, the Ramapo footage would be recolored, edited and scored for its colorblind, easily distracted and narratively challenged viewers — optimized, the makers of DogTV say, to engage and soothe a growing audience of bored and anxious dogs around the world.
It wasn’t your typical set visit. But then that’s also why I was there: to see, as my boss had phrased it, “how the Snausage is made” for a network whose primary audience can’t operate a remote. One thing I was learning was that when you have canine cast members, they — not the crew, not the guild — ultimately call the shots. Everyone agreed to call it a wrap.
“These dogs are the best we ever worked with, and they can deliver you the goods,” Levi, who is also a founder of DogTV, said as the dogs were led by their trainer, Chrissy Joy, back to their air-conditioned van for fresh water — and, presumably, some well-earned belly scratches.
“But I get it,” Levi added. “It’s very hot today, and we’ve got to be mindful.”
These are boom times for DogTV. During the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic some 23 million households adopted pets, according to a 2021 survey by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals — a huge new potential audience to target.
Americans working from home were also watching a lot of TV — often, apparently, with their pets. In response, DogTV began offering a bunch of new human-targeted videos, notably featuring tips from experts on how to train all of these new pets. Subscriptions to its streaming app have grown by about 388,000 since mid-2020, the company said. (DogTV is also available through many cable and satellite providers.)
“People were at home and started to ask us about content for them as well,” Levi said. “It’s like, OK, you’ve got a new dog; what do you do with it?”
Now DogTV is hoping to fill a new role, as more workers return to the office, and their new dogs, many of whom have never known life without a human at home full time, are dealing with intense separation anxiety. The network is producing content custom made for such anxiety — among dogs and, increasingly, their guilt-ridden humans.
Full disclosure: I am one of those guilt-ridden humans. I became a DogTV subscriber around 2013, as the single dogfather of my beloved mutt Sailor. A few years later, after Sailor departed for that great dog park in the sky, I canceled my subscription.
When, in 2021, my partner and I got a new rescue puppy named Evie, I resubscribed, only to find that DogTV had grown by leaps and bounds. Sometimes I would come home tired from work only to realize that I had just been zoning out to DogTV on the couch for 20 minutes. The basic concept was the same — short, simple videos, mostly for dogs — but the creativity and production values had exploded. I wanted to know more about this world I unexpectedly found myself enjoying, even if I had to take it on faith that my blasé new shelter dog was enjoying it, too.
That’s when I reached out to Levi.
DogTV relies on teams of directors, camera operators, composers, editors and dogs. But if DogTV has a single mad wizard behind the curtain, it is Levi. Before DogTV, he worked in human TV in Israel, including as a writer for that country’s version of “The Amazing Race.” He doesn’t miss it. “This is totally better because the dog is really the director,” he told me. “He teaches you also to be a little bit modest.”
During an editing session at a Manhattan studio in August, Levi, who is also the chief content officer, acknowledged tailoring the content in recent years to appeal more to humans. That wasn’t true of just the new “Tips & Tricks” videos or of reality shows like “Farm Girl,” starring Joy and her dogs. Just as a good children’s show must be semi-tolerable, if not enjoyable, to adults, TV for dogs must bow to a simple truth: The primary viewers aren’t the ones who shell out $9.99 a month.
Given this, Levi’s ideal balance is for videos that appeal 80% to dogs and 20% to humans. The squeaky toy sound effects are for dogs. The shoots in Sicily, Italy — that stuff is for humans.
When it comes to the channel’s two-legged fans, I’m apparently not alone. Actor Billy Bob Thornton described watching DogTV with his daughter and two Cavalier King Charles spaniels as “kind of a Zen moment” during a 2016 appearance on “Live With Kelly.” And although I’ve never watched while partaking in certain forms of herbaceous relaxation, there is ample evidence on social media indicating that some DogTV subscribers do.
Who was DogTV really for, anyway?
To answer that question was partly to consider whether the dogs get much out of it. Guagliardo said DogTV had helped his dogs considerably when he began leaving them home alone for the first time since the start of the pandemic as he resumed in-person meetings. He could tell, he said, because he often comes home to “a present” on the floor if he accidentally leaves them home without it.
Kate Senkier of Nashville, Tennessee, said her two dogs, Piper and Puddles, the latter of whom she got immediately after the pandemic began, started off as devoted “Gilmore Girls” fans before they discovered DogTV. Now whenever she goes upstairs to work, she said, they “sit on the couch and look at me and wait for me to turn the TV on.”
I have watched Evie watch DogTV, and sometimes she seems to care. Usually, I can’t tell. In a study commissioned by DogTV, Nicholas Dodman, a professor emeritus of animal behavior at Tufts University, near Boston, found that dogs visibly watched DogTV around 14% of the time it was on. That was more than they watched Animal Planet and significantly more than they did CNN. (Luckily, dogs aren’t the ones who pay for journalism, either.)
But CNN provided perhaps the best analogy for the way Dodman thought dogs might experience DogTV. In general, dogs understand their world primarily by smell, then by sound, then by sight. It isn’t clear how much dogs merely listen to DogTV, Dodman said, but it stands to reason that they do, just as humans will listen to TV in the background.
“If we had CNN on while we were cooking breakfast — you know, you’re busy with the frying pan and stuff — and then someone says, ‘There’s going to be an earthquake,’” he said, you might suddenly look up and pay attention. Dogs, he reasoned, might be doing the same. Maybe they are always half listening.
That made abundant sense. I just wasn’t sure what it said about humans like me and Billy Bob Thornton who become so fully absorbed.