Dogs and 2-Dimensional Vision

Column about whether or not dogs can see in two dimensions.

In summary: writer asks why it is that his dog is ambivalent about images of dogs in two dimensions: photographs, images on the TV, and images in the mirror (later revealed to actually be 3-dimensional, but never mind).

Cecil goes on to give anecdotal evidence about dogs who did, in fact, go into aggressive/confused behavior when confronted with a 2-D dog.

Since Cecil’s answer isn’t very complete, I’ll ask: what is it that causes some dogs to respond to two-dimensional images and others to ignore them? (This behavior has been observed in domestic cats, too.)

I’ve given this some thought after a discussion I had about the Pentagon/flight 77 shockwave video. I think our (people’s and doggie’s) perception of reality is formed by what we are already familiar with. If we see something we are familar with we can quickly register detail about that thing. If we see a novel, new object briefly our perception may not match the actual object. For example if someone totally unfamiliar with guns sees one briefly they might later identify incorrectly at a later time as they only registered a kind of “gunny” L shape and identify a semi-auto as a revolver. Someone familiar with guns will see and remember details since guns are already a set of his reality.

I’ve also heard that audiences seeing one of the first moving pictures of a train coming toward the camera literally jumped out of the way while we modern audiences wouldn’t bat an eyelash. Both people saw the same thing but each had a different perception of reality conditioned by things they had already seen. How many of you saw the theatrical rerelease of Star Wars? When we saw it in '77 we were blown away by the “reality” of the special effects. Watching the same movie 20 years later with a different set of experiences we saw all the flaws in the special effects.

Okay, so maybe I’m talking out my ass but I think it applies to Rin-Tin-Tin. Doggie sees a 2-D dog that does not mesh with his perception of stereo vision reality. Alarms go off. Ahooga! Ahooga! This new and different thing is registered as a threat. That imprinting of a 2-D object as a confusing threat may be hard to override even after more exposure. My cat loves to drape over the top of my monitor and amuse herself with what I’m doing. She still has not managed to catch and disembowel the cursor scurrying over the screen but she keeps trying because her little coconut is wired to do that.

I have heard (yeah, I know it’s only anecdotal) of a cat that actually understood mirrors – i.e. comprehended that a ball tossed behind the cat-in-the-mirror meant a ball tossed behind her. But that’s rare.

I’m still curious as to some of the differences in vision, as I have rarely seen dogs respond to things like paintings or dogs on television (without sound). I know that dogs (or cats) have some fundamental differences with people (different field of vision–they’re lower to the ground, perhaps less binocular overlap), different ability to distinguish color, different ability to see in low-light conditions, and isn’t their persistence of vision different ?(you and I see a movie as a “motion picture” at 24 frames a second. At say, one per second it is a series of stills. I though a read once that dogs and cats need about 60 frames per sescond to see motion)
I’m curious as to whether anyone out there knows how all these things add up, in relation to a dog or cat making sense of a two-dimensional image. Given that television is very different than a static image, or even a movie image, how sure are we that they really perceive that moving dot as images in the way that we do. My experience, with lots of different animals over the years, is that they repsond to tv sounds far more often than tv images (I can only imagine what they would do with smell)

Finally, I get to be first. (Wrong, maybe; but still first)

As I understand it the reason dogs (and to a lesser extent, cats) don’t respond to mirror images and pictures of other animals the way they would to the real thing is because the image has no smell.

A dog’s sense of smell is what, 14,000 times as acute as ours? Something insane like that. Their view of the world is as much informed by what they smell as what they see–maybe more.

Being primarily visual creatures ourselves, we tend to miss this. But a dog might well ask, “Why, when a human gets a whiff of B.O., does he not assume there’s someone else in the room with him?”

(Nott has deleted, and spared you from, a silly and marginally entertaining post, praise Og.)

The original post listed TV along with other 2-D images. I’m no electronics engineer but it seems to me that TV (and any other reproduction of sounds or pictures) is going to be attuned to the human eye/ear/brain; e.g. the 50Hz refresh rate on a TV works because it’s fast enough that we can’t see it flicker. Do we know that a dog’s (or cat’s, or any other non-human animal’s) senses work the same, so that they actually see a moving picture?

We have a couple of cats, and for the most part they completely ignore the TV and stereo, regardless of how loud it is or what the sound or picture is; we’ve even had one of them sleeping in front of the hi-fi speaker at a party with the volume up to eleven. However there have been two notable exceptions to this; one time a bell rang in a TV show (‘time’ in a pub I believe) and the cat ended up at the top of the curtains. (I don’t mean it ran up the curtains; I mean one moment it was asleep on the floor and the next it was standing on the curtain rail!). On another occasion the cat sat and stared at the TV for a full 20 minutes (we timed it!) without moving. It was a natural history show about lions…

Not sure if these two anecdotes prove or disprove my ‘TV doesn’t work for animals’ theory, but I’m sure someone out there knows.

Sorry, but my statistically-significant sample size of 1 refutes your claim. My cat, Mike the Cat (and most people refer to him as “Mike the Cat,” as in “Hello, Mike the Cat, how are you?” I know - kinda goofy) has had full-recognition reactions to a couple of cat images:

  1. My mom - bless her heart - loves cats and “cat stuff” - mugs, statuettes, etc. She got my wife a t-shirt with a photo-transfer of Mike the Cat on it from a picture we had sent her. My wife, while appreciative, is not similarly inclined, so stashed the shirt in the bottom drawer. A couple of years later, she was cleaning out some clothes for the Salvation Army and Mike the Cat came around to investigate, as is his wont. She found the shirt and being a little silly, flopped it open in front of Mike (not in a scary way - and Mike is not a flinchy cat) and said “Look, Mike the Cat - it’s you!” And Mike freaked - arched back, puffy tail, hissing - completely like he does when confronted by a cat he doesn’t get along with. We quickly put the t-shirt in the donation bag.

  2. It gets sillier - we got a housewarming gift of a wrought-iron cat that is, well, wrought-iron grey in tone and is hollow - there are little squiggle holes in the thin sheets of metal that make up the cat’s body - you are meant to put a candle inside it and the light shines through, lighting up the cat. We keep it up high, so Mike the Cat never sees it. One day, my wife had it down on the ground in our bedroom while cleaning. Mike once again comes in to see what’s what and, once again, sees the “cat” and completely freaks. This time he is more curious, approaching it very slowly, circling it, sniffing it, batting it with a retracted-claw paw. It was hilarious. Finally, he gave up and walked away…

Bottom line - Mr. Superior Smell, Savage Hunter Kitty was fooled by a t-shirt and a metal statue…too damn funny.

I have no idea what the implications are for how cats and dogs perceive, but I guess I would say that different individual animals may rely on different senses and different experiences…

I agree. A dogs sees it’s world primarly through scent so an image is only, say 20% of it’s reality.

My dog unquestionably can see motion and details on the television. He loves to watch westerns, for example, because he is very interested in horses. If he hears hoofbeats on the TV from another room, he will dash in and sit in front of the tube to watch them run.

Does he understand that they are only images? I don’t think so. Because he also loves to watch what’s going on out on the street and will gaze out the windows for long periods of time as well. And on more than one occasion, he has watched a horse or a dog run across a scene on TV, and he’s dashed over to look out the first window in line with the TV.

My family and I joke about this all the time; the TV is the dog’s “magic window.”

A dog and two cats here.

They all nearly completely ignore the TV regardless of what is going on…nearly.

My dog will respond to other dogs on the TV. Usually it is the dog on TV making a sound that gets her attention and she starts watching. Once the dog is out of the scene she goes back to snoozing. Sometimes she will just see the dog and stop and pay attention even if there is no sound to alert her to her favorite dog actors.

When I was growing up my dog LOVED Miss Piggy. The only time she would watch TV was when Miss Piggy was on and would stay glued to the action till Miss Piggy was off. Otherwise she completely ignored the TV. Don’t ask…I have no idea why.

My cats likewise ignore the TV at all times. However, for some reason a friend gave us a Cat Video. Yes…a whole industry exists to make movies for cats (if that doesn’t speak to their being able to see TV images I don’t know what does…who knew?). We were dubious but figured what the hell and put it in. The cats totally ignored it. About to give up I recalled that cats are notoriously near sighted. So I got a chair and put it a foot in front of the TV and plopped the cats on it. They were immediately mesmerized watching fish and squirrels and what not run about. Their heads were yo-yoing up and down and back and forth following the action. Sometimes looked like they were watching a tennis match. They would go around to look behind the TV then come back to make sure that the critters didn’t really disappear. Then look behind the TV, then back, swat the TV, look behind it, and so on.

So, anecdotal though that may be it is clear that animals can perceive the images on TV. All that this indicates to me is humans do not make shows that cats or dogs like.

I have also seen a friend’s dog respond to its own reflection in a mirror when it was young but it appeared it thought it was another dog. It kept that up for a week or two then ignored the mirror ever after.

I have heard that only chimpazees, gorillas (I think) and dolphins appear to be able to look in a mirror and recognize the reflection as itself. Some claim this as a sign of intelligence or at least a higher order mind that possesses a sense of self (or something new agey like that). I don’t know but it does seem odd only four species on the planet can do that.