Can Dogs See Colour? Canine Vision Explained
You may have heard of the old wives’ tale that your dog is colour blind. There is no use in trusting them to pick out the red chew toy from the blue one because they just can’t tell the difference.
But how much validity is there to this great myth? Are dogs colour blind? Can dogs see colour at all?
The short answer is, yes and no. This guide will help you understand the colour spectrum for dogs. What they can see and how their unique way of deciphering colour can impact their day to day lives.
A Brief Introduction to Colourblindness
The first thing to note is that colour blindness has nothing to do with actual blindness. There is no visual impairment in any animal or human who is colour blind. They simply perceive colours differently.
Our eyes are made up of clever little receptors knowns as rods and cones. Rods help you perceive motion. Cones help you perceive colour. If your cones are impaired or you naturally have fewer of them, you would be considered colour blind.
Generally, in humans, colourblindness is quite rare. It’s more prevalent in isolated communities with smaller gene pools. For example, rural areas of Finland, Hungary and the Scottish Isles are known to have a higher than average population of colour blind folks.
In Australia, only about 0.4% of women and 8% of men are on the colour blind spectrum. And while it is a relatively low-level impairment when it comes to sight, it does impact your daily life if you’re unlucky enough to be colour blind. (2)
Do Dogs Only See in Black & White?
This is a huge myth! Dogs can see more than black, white and grey.
Remember when I said that cones in our eyes help us perceive colour. Normally, a human has 3 different types of cones that help us have our dynamic range of colour. Dogs have 2. This means that while they can see colour, it’s just less… vivacious than what we can see.
You don’t have to fear that your dog is living a dull, grey existence. They can absolutely appreciate a brightly coloured toy if it is in the right colour for them. Speaking of which…
What Colours Can Dogs See?
The long and short of it is, your dog can only really decipher yellow to blue tones with any confidence. They have a similar predicament to red-green colour blind humans.
Can dogs see red? Kinda. Reds and greens are more difficult for them to see clearly. They just appear brown or grey to them.
This is called dichromatic vision. Humans have three cones in their eyes so this is called trichromatic vision. Our trichromacy is shared with possums, monkeys, and honeybees!
If you want to try this out for yourself, try the Dog Image Processing Tool! It’s a cool free online tool that allows you to change your photos from human view to doggie view. That way you can see your photos as your dog would see them.
Why Can’t Dogs See Colours The Way Humans Can?
From a mechanical standpoint, we’ve answered this question already. You have a red-green cone in your eyes that dogs don’t have access to. So their world is a mush of yellows, lilacs and blues. Sounds quite dreamy!
But why would dogs evolve this kind of eyesight, and not humans? Isn’t it beneficial to all animals to have a full spectrum of colour vision?
Well, not necessarily. It depends on your evolutionary hunting habits and how your sight was used. What was your sight developed to tackle?
Dogs descended from wolves, which are night hunters. Being nocturnal drastically impacts the evolution of your sight. The capabilities and importance of your visual capacity are completely different at night as opposed to in the day.
“For the purpose of hunting in the dark, canine eyes have a larger lens and corneal surface and a reflective membrane, known as a tapetum, that enhances night vision,” - AKC’s chief veterinary officer, Dr. Jerry Klein. (3)
Dogs also have more rods than cones in their eyes which boosts their nocturnal sight. Cones are made for bright light conditions to capture all that beautiful colour. In the evolutionary history of our loveable canines, colour just wasn’t a priority. Low-light vision and motion perception was a more favourable trait to have to our Fido’s ancestors.
Now, look at our ancestors. Ain’t no way cavemen were about to brave the elements to hunt at night. Our circadian rhythms made us very much day creatures. There are several reasons why colour competency was favourable in the human population.
For one, we love fruit! Having rich colour vision helped us determine the ripeness of fruit at a glance, as well as avoid more poisonous strains of familiar berries. (4) Another theory is all about blushing. Having trichromatic vision helps us to see the skin flush in others. This could be a warning sign, or, of course, a sign of attraction. Both are incredibly important things to our monkey brains.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are creatures like birds and fish that are tetrachromatic. This means they have four pigment cones in their eyes that can also detect ultraviolet light. Their unique skills and way of life make it necessary to have even more enhanced colour spectrum vision than we humans.
As you can see, canines and homo sapiens developed vision for different reasons. We are completely different beasts so it’s fair we don’t see eye to eye. (I apologise to no one for that joke!)
How Does Your Dog’s Colour Blindness Affect Daily Life?
Honestly? Not very much! While it may seem quite drab to you to live in a perpetual state of mushy greys, yellows and blues, your dog is perfectly happy. They don’t know any other way to be! They rely on multiple heightened senses that we don’t have to enrich their lives. This includes their rather excellent sniffer and sharp hearing. Their sight is not the only faculty they have in their arsenal to explore the outside world to the fullest.
That said, you may find that certain coloured toys are just not as interesting as blue and yellow ones. Bright red toys are just not that exciting. You’ll notice that tennis balls are super popular with dogs because of that acid lime green-yellow colour. It’s easy for them to spot at any distance.
It’s somewhat counterintuitive that the most popular dog toys on the market today are red or orange. But that is taking into account our buying psychology. Humans are attracted to red things. (5) Flip the script by prioritising your dog’s nature over your own aesthetic. You may also find yellow and blue toys cheaper because they are less popular!
If you are training your dog for agility competitions or simple puzzle games, it’s also worth paying attention to the colours the toys use. Recall games using colour denotations need to include easy colours for your dog to identify. You can definitely teach your dog the word “yellow” and “blue”. “Red” and “green” are to be avoided! Play to your dog’s visual strengths to help them achieve success.
Yes, Your Dog Can See Colour
All this to say that yes, your dog can indeed see colour. They just don’t see the world exactly the way you do. And that’s okay! I find the differences between our senses even more miraculous. It’s amazing to think that my dog is seeing her world in a slightly more monotone way, but still engaging and learning as she should be.
We hope this article helps you to understand the science behind colour perception and how your dog sees the world.
Probably not! They’ll have a preference for the colours they can see more clearly, such as yellow and blue. However, red, orange and green all look the same to them. So it’s more likely that your dog will gravitate to a toy because of its entertainment value over its visual appeal. Dog’s just aren’t quite as shallow as we are!
- “Colour Blindness”. August 26, 2017. Vision Eye Institute Australia. Retrieved September 6, 2021. https://visioneyeinstitute.com.au/eyematters/colour-blindness/
- Shams, H. May 21, 2021. “How colour blindness affects the lives of everyday Australians”. ABC News. Retrieved September 6, 2021.
- Meyers, H. August 29, 2019. “Are Dogs Color Blind? Can My Dog See Color?”. American Kennel Club. Retrieved September 6, 2021. https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/health/are-dogs-color-blind/
- Price, M. February 19, 2017. “You can thank your fruit-hunting ancestors for your color vision”. Science.org. Retrieved September 6, 2021. https://www.science.org/news/2017/02/you-can-thank-your-fruit-hunting-ancestors-your-color-vision
- Martinez-Conde, S. Macknik, S. November 1, 2014. “How the Color Red Influences Our Behavior”. Scientific American. Retrieved September 6, 2021. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-the-color-red-influences-our-behavior/