Although it is often said that dogs are color blind, that isn’t actually the case. Dogs can see color in a more limited spectrum than humans, but they have other aspects of vision that are actually superior to ours!
People who love dogs also love to talk about dogs, so if you have some canine fans in your life, you’ve probably heard enough anecdotes and fun facts about pups to last a lifetime. Along the way, you’ve probably heard the offhand comment that dogs are color blind. In comparison to humans, dogs can certainly see fewer colors, but they can certainly see more than just black, white and grey tones! Despite the inaccuracy of the statement, many people still believe that dogs are color blind, or don’t care enough to learn the full story. That’s what we’re here for!
So, are dogs color blind? No…. but maybe a little bit?
How Do Dogs See?
Aside from a shared affection for long walks in the park, dogs and humans share a number of characteristics, including the structure and function of their eyes. Just like us, dogs’ eyes consist of a pupil, cornea, lens and retina. Light passes through the cornea and pupil, which will adjust to change the amount of light that is being let in. The light will then pass through the lens, where it will strike the retina, and be changed into an electrical signal that is carried to the brain via the optic nerve. The brain will then translate that electrical signal into the “image” that a person sees. All of this happens in the space of microseconds!
The retina is the critical light-detecting component in both vision systems (human and canine), but the retina is where the primary difference lies between humans and man’s best friend. You have likely heard of rods and cones in any discussion relating to vision, and these light-detecting cells are also present on the canine retina. Cones allow us to perceive color and see things in sharp detail, while rods help us see things in the dark and also detect motion. Together, these two types of light-sensitive cells help humans and dogs navigate the world and differentiate visually between different objects.
Are Dogs Color Blind?
So, if dogs have rods and cones, just like us, why do so many people say that dogs are color blind? Well, as you know, most humans can see things in a broad visual spectrum of colors, from deep violets and striking blues to soft yellows and fiery reds, along with every green, brown and orange varietal along the way! Dogs, on the other hand, are able to see yellow and violet/blue shades, but are unable to discern orange, red and green.
This limitation on their color perception is because the cones in the canine eye are ten times less concentrated than the cones found in human eyes; basically, there are fewer types of cones and less perception power for dogs! Most humans have three types of cones (blue, red and green), while dogs have only two (blue and another pigment that lies somewhere between red and green), giving them dichromatic vision, similar to a colorblind human. Therefore, dogs are only able to see things in shades of yellow, blue, grey, brown, white and black, which may seem limiting, but there are plenty of other ways that dogs are able to make up for this “deficiency”.
Do Dogs Have Good Vision?
Dogs may not be able to see the difference between the bright red ball in the grass and the vibrant green grass itself, yet they are able to instantly find their toy and race back with it to their owner’s waiting hand. There are plenty of other aspects of vision besides color, some of which make dogs’ vision even sharper than humans. While cones allow for complex color vision, rods are needed for motion detection and vision in the dark. Dogs have more rod photoreceptors in the center of their retina, which allow them to see more clearly than us in the dark. Additionally, dogs have a tapetum lucidum, a retroreflector layer of tissue that helps to reflect visible light back through the retina. In low-light situations, increasing the light available to the eye is a valuable add-on. That’s why your dogs will glow if you shine a flashlight on them during a night hike!
With a larger concentration of rods, dogs are also able to detect movement more accurately than us, and their depth perception is extremely keen. It might be the middle of the night at your campsite when your dog suddenly stands up and stares off into the darkness. This can be a bit worrying for solo campers, but your pooch may have simply seen a rustling movement in the dark brush twenty yards away, something you would never be able to spot!
Most canine eyes are positioned far forward on the head, close together, which is true of most predators that don’t require great peripheral vision. Instead, they are more adapted to binocular vision, as this is critical for depth perception and accuracy. Their eye placement helps them hunt and survive, but vision is not the only sense available to your pup. Your suddenly alert dog may not have seen a movement in the brush outside your camp, but instead smelled a change in the atmosphere, perhaps the scent of another approaching animal. Who needs to know what color a predator is if you can smell exactly where it has been and what it has eaten for the past few days? As if that weren’t enough, dogs also have an impressively keen sense of hearing!
A Final Word
The next time someone casually mentions that dogs are colorblind, ask them if they mean that dogs have dichromatic vision, or whether they’re saying dogs can only see in black and white. If dogs really are man’s best friend, then we should stick up for their abilities when someone is describing them incorrectly. In the tradeoff between rods and cones, dogs have fewer cones and can see a more limited spectrum of color, but have more rods and can therefore see in the dark better than humans and detect motion with more accuracy!
- Rochester Institute of Technology
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- University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point
- University of Pennsylvania