Should you zoom call your dog?

Cover Image for Should you zoom call your dog?
Brennen McKenzie, MA, MSc, VMD
by Brennen McKenzie, MA, MSc, VMD

The U.S. has seen a big increase in pet adoptions during the pandemic. We dog lovers all know our canine companions provide us with great comfort and fun during good times. Their support is especially appreciated during tough times. However, vets and others interested in animal welfare have had some concerns about the long-term welfare of these “pandemic puppies.”

One concern at the beginning of the pandemic was that once things started returning to something more like normal, people might rethink their decision to adopt and return their new furry friends to animal shelters. Fortunately, that hasn’t happened.

Veterinarians in particular are also worried about the behavioral health of dogs adopted during the pandemic. Social distancing has limited opportunities for newly adopted puppies to interact with other dogs and humans, which can lead to anxiety and behavior problems later in life. And pandemic pups often had their owners around 24/7 due to social distancing rules. How are these dogs going to cope when their humans return to work at the office or start going out for fun or traveling more? 

There aren’t any reliable studies, but as a vet I do feel like I see more social anxiety in young dogs who were adopted at the start of the pandemic and who haven’t gotten out of the house much since. Separation anxiety can be an even more serious problem. While it is too early to tell how many dogs will experience this, people who adopted new dogs during the last couple of years should be aware of this condition and think about ways to help their dogs cope when their owners aren’t always around.

One novel idea for helping your dog cope with being alone more is to use technology to let them know you care even when you aren’t at home. A variety of products and services have popped up that let you see, talk to, and even give treats to your dog when you’re away from home. While it can be really nice for us to check in on our dogs when we’re at work or traveling, how do our dogs feel about these devices? Could they get sick of being on Zoom all day too! 

We know that dogs use their senses differently than we do. They hear and smell much better than we do, and their vision is quite different. Dogs only see a limited range of colors, much like people with the most common type of color blindness. They can see much better in the dark, though, and they are more sensitive than humans to motion. 

One fascinating difference between vision in dogs and people is that they have a much higher “flicker fusion rate” than we do. Television screens and video monitors actually display a series of still images, like a really fast  slide show. This looks like continuous image to humans because the pictures come faster than the flicker fusion rate of our eyes, that is the speed at which a series of separate images blend together. However, since dogs have a higher flicker fusion rate, a lot of video images likely look like they are flickering to them, more like a strobe light effect than a steady, continuous image. Unless we set video monitors properly for our dogs, they may not even be able to see us when we Skype them!

Another interesting question is whether dogs understand that our picture on a video screen is the owner they know and love. Studies have shown that dogs can recognize their owners on video or by their voice transmitted over the internet. But they pay a lot less attention to these representations than they do to the real thing. And while some dogs have been trained to respond to commands given by their owner over a video-conferencing system, it takes a lot of work, and they don’t respond nearly as well as when their owners are in the room with them.

So when we call our pups on an app, they might be able to recognize us, but they don’t seem to get nearly as excited as when we are really there. And while they can learn to know that a treat is coming when we call and trigger a remote feeding device, they don’t act like it’s really the same as when we come home and go to the treat bowl. 

It seems likely that most of these devices that let you watch your dog on camera or offer them treats on your smartphone are mostly comforting to us more than to our dogs. They might still be worthwhile, but they aren’t likely to do much for a dog with true separation anxiety. If your dog shows symptoms of distress when left alone, you should check with your vet about the best way to help them. 

Learn More

Byosiere, SE., Chouinard, P.A., Howell, T.J. et al. What do dogs (Canis familiaris) see? A review of vision in dogs and implications for cognition research. Psychon Bull Rev 25, 1798–1813 (2018). 

Hirskyj-Douglas, I. Piitulainen, R. Lucero, A. Forming the Dog Internet: Prototyping a Dog-to-Human Video Call Device. Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer InteractionVolume 5. Issue ISS. November 2021  Article No.: 494pp 1–20

Brooks, W. Calder, C. Bergman, L. Separation anxiety: The fear of being alone. Veterinary Partner (2020)Sargisson R. Canine separation anxiety: strategies for treatment and management.Vet Med (Auckl). 2014;5:143-151

Jumbo, miniature american shepherd whispers in human's ear
Join the Loyal list

Sign up today for the latest news on product availability and enrolling your dog in our studies. You’ll also learn about dog aging and wellness from our team of veterinary experts.