Photograph by Michael Desmond, ABC via Getty
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A dog watches its owner on a tablet, an invention of a young entrepreneur from Spokane, Washington, that allows pet owners to videochat with their animals—and even deliver treats—while away from home.


Photograph by Michael Desmond, ABC via Getty

Why Can't Dogs Recognize Us on Our Phones and Tablets?

Small screens, compressed signals, and canine nature may all affect whether a dog can identify its owner on the phone or in a video chat.


Nothing hurts like your dog not taking your calls.

Saturday's Weird Animal Question of the Week comes from National Geographic's Christina An, who writes, "I noticed that our dogs (labs) can't recognize our voice via iPad, regular phone, iPhone, etc., and would love to know why." She also wants to know why her dogs can't perceive her image on FaceTime or similar video-messaging services.

Can our canines recognize us through our technology? At least better than technology can sometimes hear them?  

Size Matters

If your dog won't give you the FaceTime of day, don't worry, it's not you.

Dogs can recognize owners on a television screen, "but it's a very bizarre place for your face to pop up and the rest of you is not there," says Nicholas Dodman, a veterinary behaviorist at Tufts University and chief scientific officer for DogTV, a television network designed for dogs. "Sometimes dogs seeing images on television of their owner will go to the back of the TV and see if there's anyone on the other side of the screen," Dodman says.

Smaller screens, such as those found on cell phones or tablets, may make it "harder to recreate the world for the dogs because they're smaller and the quality is more compressed," says Ron Levi, chief content officer for DogTV. (See "Why Do Dogs Watch—And React To—TV?")

Systems like iCPooch, which allows an owner to give an onscreen "hello" and dispense a dog a treat remotely, show some dogs do respond to smaller devices, but "it depends on the dog," Levi says.

A World of Distractions

Some dogs seem less interested in images than other stimuli, Dodman says. With 220 million olfactory receptors in the canine nose--compared with a mere 5 million in a human--a dog may be far more intent on the scintillating scent of scat than a friendly face on a phone. (See: "Why do Animals—Including your Dog—Eat Poop?)

And scent hounds, such as a basset or beagle, which have been bred to hunt by smell rather than sight, may be even more easily distracted.

Tone of voice may also matter. A 2014 study in Current Biology found that dogs showed more brain activity in response to positive voice tones than negative ones. (See: "How Voices Tickle the Dog Brain.")

But if you use your brightest voice and your dog doesn't react, don't feel bad. Some dogs just react more passively, or they may be confused because they can't see an owner's face.

"It's different strokes for different dogs," Dodman says, noting how elusive dog attention can be. His own dog once couldn't see a squirrel hanging on a window screen, "and it wasn't a squirrel on FaceTime. It was a real squirrel."

As for cats, they can recognize their owner's voices, a 2013 study from the University of Tokyo determined. But, being cats, they just can't be bothered to show it.

Home Alone

If you're worried about your dog missing you, and the phone calls and video chats aren't working out, there's no need to panic. There are easy ways to lessen the strain of separation, says Tami Pierce, a clinical veterinarian at the University of California, Davis.

Keep greetings and partings low-key, she says. That lessens the chance your arrival and departure will become a source of anxiety. (Watch: "Reading a Dog's Signals.") 

May 29, 2015 - Nearly two-dozen dogs are spending their golden years at House with a Heart Senior Pet Sanctuary. Sher Polvinale and a team of volunteers at this Gaithersburg, Maryland, home spare no expense and care for the dogs' every  need—from washing and feeding to medications and vet visits.

Click here to learn more about House with a Heart Senior Pet Sanctuary:

And owners should be reassured that dogs without separation anxiety mostly sleep while their humans are at work, Pierce says. "That is why they're so happy and well-rested and jump on us when we get home."

Weird Animal Question of the Week answers your questions every Saturday. If you have a question about the weird and wild animal world, tweet me, leave me a note or photo in the comments below, or find me on Facebook.