Dogs are most attracted to the colors red and yellow. These are also the colors they see best. The dog’s retina only consists of two types of cones. The lack of cones means they cannot see color as we do. A dog’s perception of color is very similar to what a color-blind human would see.
We’ve seen “dog-o-vision” portrayed in movies and television; a first-person account of Fido scurrying around his family’s ankles, gnawing on a chew toy and licking his food bowl clean. Notice these scenes are typically shown in black, white, and various shades of gray. It’s no wonder why most people assume their canine companion sees in the absence of color.
But you might be surprised to learn that dogs do not only see in black and white. In fact, dogs can see more than one color on the color spectrum. How do we know this?
Scientists have a pretty good grasp of how a dog sees based on the anatomy of a dog’s eye. The structural makeup of their eyes differs from a human’s and creates a much different viewing experience.
But why is their vision so much different from ours? First, let’s break down how the human eye sees color.
How Does The Eye Perceive Color?
The human eye observes color through the presence of light. The retina is the light recepting part of the eye that perceives color and is in the back of the inside of the eyeball.
Inside the retina are photoreceptors, called rods and cones. These structures take in light in different ways.
Rods sense light and dark changes. They allow vision in low light and for peripheral vision. The rod is the more sensitive of the two photoreceptors and is better at sensing motion.
Cones are the structures responsible for sensing colors. But to differentiate between different colors, cones need ample light. Because they are light-sensitive, it’s more difficult for cones to sense colors in low light.
There are three types of cone cells that each have a different sensitivity to the different wavelengths of light. They are short cones, medium cones, and long cones, and correlate to the colors blue, green, and red, respectively.
Cones are also responsible for sensing the sharpness of an object. Through the combination of rods and cones, people can see all the vivid colors we encounter every day.
So What Do Dogs See?
A dog’s eyes do not have all the same structures that a humans does. While humans have rods and cones to see colors, movement, and sharpness, dogs’ eyes have many more rods than cones in their retinas. This makes for a stark change in vision.
Since dogs’ retinas are dominated by rods, dogs perceive motion better than we do and have a wider line of view. This enhanced motion detection allows them to see better in low light because they don’t have to rely on color to see.
However, the lack of cone structures in their eyes makes their vision more blurry than a human’s. So while a dog can see more at a time than we can, they may not be able to recognize what they see.
Dogs only have two types of cones in their retinas. The lack of cones means they do not see color the way we do.
While the three cones that a person’s eyes have differentiate between blue, green, and red color combinations, a dog has cones for just yellow and blue.
In short, scientists believe the only colors dogs can see are yellow, blue, and combinations of these colors.
Color Blindness in People and in Dogs
A dog’s vision is more akin to a color-blind person’s vision. Color blindness is a defect in the eye that hinders the ability to distinguish between colors or the inability to see certain colors altogether.
Color blindness occurs in the absence or defect of one or more of the cone cells that sense color.
The severity of color blindness depends on the degree of malfunction of the cone cells. Dogs are inherently color-blind because they only have two cone cells to see the colors yellow and blue.
The most common form of color blindness in a person is the defect in red-green perception. People with this defect find it hard to distinguish between red and green colors.
Scientists believe this is how a dog perceives most colors. They can differentiate between shades of yellow and blue, but find it difficult to see variations of red and green.
This also makes it difficult to see red and green hues in other colors. For example, if a dog looks at the color purple, he can’t see the red shades, making the color appear blue.
How Do Dogs Compensate For Color Blindness?
While people heavily rely on sight to observe and explain the world, dogs make up for their inability to see color with other heightened senses.
Dogs are notorious for their extraordinary sense of smell. Scientists say a dog’s sniffer is at least 10,000 times better than a person’s. They can detect the tiniest whiff of an odor that would go totally unnoticed by humans.
While dogs lack the receptors in their retinas to see color, they have around 300 million olfactory receptors in their noses. Comparatively, humans have about six million of these receptors. Dogs also have an enhanced brain capacity to analyze smells and are attracted to new scents.
Dogs’ noses are sensitive enough to detect smells at concentrations of one part per trillion. This amazing ability is why they are well suited for sniffing out drugs, bombs, and people. Some dogs are even employed to sniff out diseases.
A dog’s innate sense of hearing is another ability that compensates for its lack of color vision. They can hear four times further away than we can! A dog’s ear has 15 muscles in it that allow them to rotate their ears in different directions and move one ear at a time.
Dogs can register sounds at much higher frequencies than we can. Through this phenomenon, dogs can predict earthquakes and hear noises from much further distances.
These enhanced senses more than make up for a dog’s lack of color vision.
What Do I Do With This Information?
Now that we have a better understanding of how our canine friends can see, what can we do with what we’ve learned?
Surely the easiest thing we can do is acquire more items for our pets in the colors they can see.
The next time you’re at a pet store and want to pick up a toy for your canine companion, consider getting one in a yellow or blue color.
Another thing we can do is try not only to speculate about all the things that dogs can see, but to realize the things they cannot see. For instance, if you’re playing a game of fetch with your dog and you’re throwing a red ball, it shouldn’t come as a total surprise if the dog loses sight of the ball in a green, grassy field. Even if its location is obvious to you, remembering that dogs can confuse red and green with each other helps explain that your dog isn’t dumb or lacking any skills. The make up of his eyes does not allow him to see the ball the way you do.
A dog’s color vision is very limited, but ultimately is not as important of a factor as it is for humans. The motion of an object and range of sight has proven to be sufficient for dogs because of how heightened their senses of smell and hearing are.
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