For many years it was widely accepted that dogs could only see in black and white, leading to the conclusion that pooches are in the true sense, color blind. But as with most things in life, the issue has proved to be not so simple and science has since shown your dog’s vision is much more sophisticated. While he may not be able to see in glorious technicolor, your dog can see in more than monochrome. But what colors can your canine actually see in and do they also rely on their other senses to get the full picture? We take a look at the issue to find the definitive answer to the question: are dogs color blind?
What is Colorblindness?
To understand what your dog can and cannot see, we need to take a quick look at the concept of color blindness. Simply put, color blindness is not a total loss of color perception but is where the eye confuses colors, such as green for red or pink for blue. The condition is caused in humans by abnormalities in the color-detecting molecules – known as cones – in the eye’s retina, meaning the eye cannot recognize certain light wavelengths.
The ‘do Dogs See in Black and White?’ Theory
The debate over whether dogs can see in color has been longstanding and comes from a theory developed in the 1930s that dogs can only see in black and white. Dog magazine publisher Will Judy was the first to declare that dogs viewed the world in monochrome, writing in a 1937 training manual, that it was most likely dogs could only see in shades of black and gray.
The debate continued into the 1960s, when researchers declared that the only mammals to see in full color were primates. Despite little evidence to back up either of these claims, it was widely thought that dogs could only see in black and white until just a few decades ago, when researchers started to challenge the belief. Their research revealed some fundamental differences in the design of the canine and human eye and that while dogs can see in color, they have a more limited range than humans. Hence the claim that dogs are color blind.
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How Dogs’ Eyes Differ from Humans
Due to evolution, there are key differences between your eyes and those of your furry bud. As nocturnal hunters in the wild designed to track their prey at night, dogs developed eyes that were well adapted to seeing in the dark and responding to movement. This means they have a much larger lens plus a reflective membrane, which helps to enhance their night vision. Dogs also have more rods – which help to improve low-light vision – in their retina than humans.
However, it is in the retina that scientists have found the key difference between dogs and their human ‘parents’. While dogs have more of the low-light-enhancing rods in their retina, humans have many more cones, which register light wavelengths and manage color perception. Humans also have three different types of cones, whereas dogs only have two. This means canines are missing the cone that helps them to distinguish shades of red and green and so answers the question, ‘why are dogs color blind?’
Dogs are also very nearsighted but thanks to their wide-set eyes, they have a wider field of vision than humans, making them more adept at spotting fast moving objects such as thrown balls or prey.
What Colors Can Dogs See?
Rather than seeing in straightforward black and white, scientists now believe that a dog’s color vision is similar to someone who has red/green color blindness, rather than being totally color blind. This means that they cannot perceive the colors of red or green. Not only that, dogs cannot see shades of these colors, including pink and purple. Dogs are also unable to register subtle changes in the brightness of a color.
So, what colors do dogs see? Well, when it comes to the dog color spectrum, their eyes can register certain colors, namely yellow, brown and blue as well as combinations of these colors, including grays as well as black and white. To help you appreciate what your pooch can see, think of a lush field on a summer’s day. While you can see a vibrant, fresh green of the grass, your doggo is most likely looking at field that seems to be already mown for yellow hay. And his red ball? Well, while he still loves his bouncy toy, the color isn’t the draw as it is probably more of a dark sludgy brown to your pet’s eyes.
Dogs and Night Vision
Your dog’s vision really does come into its own during the night, when those extra ’low light’ rods in his retina create his own form of night vision. As well as helping his eyes to work well in the dark or low light, these rods also help your dog to better interpret motion, which you will see evidence of when you play fast fetch games with his favorite ball. His eyes also work better in low light conditions due to a special reflective layer called the tapetum lucidum, which can be found beneath his retina. If you ever catch a bright green reflection in their eyes, this is tapetum lucidum shining back at you.
What Does This All Mean for you and Your Dog?
So now you know that your dog is not totally color blind, and that while he doesn’t have a full color spectrum, he can still detect certain colors. Add in his superior night vision and motion sensor, plus his other senses such as smell, and your pooch can see sufficiently well to do what he does best – and that is being a dog.
As his favorite human, you can now use your new-found knowledge on your pet’s eyesight to make things even easier – and fun. Ways to max out on your dog’s unique eyesight is to pick colors for his toys he is going to see well and appreciate. So many dog toys are in red, orange or purple and while these may appeal to you, for your pooch they are pretty underwhelming. And in certain circumstances, such as when a ball lands in grass or a pond, they may not be able to distinguish it at all. But choose a blue or yellow ball and you should have your hound’s undivided attention!