While most dog owners are unsure whether their dogs recognize them onscreen, they feel certain that the dogs are reacting to their voice. Kendal Shepherd, an animal behaviorist and author of several books on understanding dogs, agrees that the weight of the experience relies heavily on audio. Just as with humans, a strong internet connection to avoid lags and a clear but not too loud volume setting are crucial to video-chatting smoothly. “The sound must be very, very real,” she says.
When it comes to the content of the conversation, she also advises against pouring your heart out in long, drawn-out sessions. To avoid stressing your dog out, she recommends being mindful of the tone of your voice and using words instead of sentences—tactics that should be applied in person as well. “The whole communication will tell the dogs something about our emotions—whether we are happy, sad, angry, upset or that there is something wrong with us. I think dogs know an awful lot more than we think,” she says.
Stay Still and Keep It Short
While your dog may stare at the screen when a facilitator holds up a phone, Jackson says it’s unlikely they would recognize their owner on a tiny cell phone screen. It’s possible that larger screens that show you as nearly life-sized may enable your dog to recognize you, but she points to research by Stanley Coren suggesting dogs cannot understand moving images on screens at all.
“Dogs can see about 25 percent faster than we can, and they notice the flickering, which can be confusing. It might be better for the dog to just see a still picture of you rather than video,” she says.
Sitting your dog in front of a screen for a long period of time may prove impossible too. The experts we spoke to agree that dogs can be easily distracted. But even if yours is inclined to sit and stare at you on a phone, it’s best to keep the discussion short—especially at first. The experience can actually be disappointing to your dog, as it could mistake your voice for a sign that you will soon be home. Jackson recommends keeping the conversation under two minutes.
“In the real world, dogs are always looking for information. They are looking for it by sight, hearing, and smell, and they need these things to be congruent,” Shepherd says.
Choose a Good Host for the Call
Karl says the facilitator needs to be able to tell whether your dog is enjoying the call or if there are signs of stress that may not be visible to you over a video screen. If there is a good facilitator, who maybe even hands out treats, there is a higher likelihood of the call going well, she predicts.
For Keshia Badalge, that facilitator was her grandmother. Although she is now reunited with her dog, she says she video-chatted with her golden retriever Shandi in Singapore for eight years while she lived in the United States. At the beginning of every call, her grandmother would call out “jie jie” (meaning sister in Chinese), as if Badalge had just arrived home, and Shandi would come running over.
Badalge believes the role of the facilitator was critical to making communication possible. “There needs to be a warm middle person—someone willing to interpret by animating and expressing things on behalf of us,” she says. For instance, if Badalge was curious about Shandi’s most recent trip to the vet, her grandmother would hold Shandi and say something like, “Show jie jie pain pain.”
“I even have an email address for her that I would write to, but we have to go through someone else, because Shandi doesn’t have her own phone,” Keshia explains.
Embrace Your Inner Scientist
Callan Burgess started documenting his video-chatting adventures on Instagram (@facetimewithdogs) last year with his brother’s dog, Missy, who seemed to have a particular interest in screens. “Nature documentaries, and particularly David Attenborough, are very exciting for her, and one day I wanted to see if she recognized me through the phone,” he says.