Do Dogs See in Black and White?

For decades, it was a widely accepted idea that dogs only see the world in black and white, but research has shown over the years that that’s not entirely true. While dogs don’t see the same colors that we do, they are not limited to solely black and white. Technicolor might be beyond a dog’s comprehension, but research shows that their eyes can see much more than simply shades of gray.

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What Is Color Blindness & Does it Affect Dogs?

The idea of color blindness came up in the late 18th century when an English scientist (John Dalton) began conducting studies upon realizing that he and his brother did not recognize some colors.

In people, the most common form of color blindness is a defect in the red-green perception, which affects about 8% of men and 0.5% of women. Color blindness occurs when an animal or human is missing certain color-detecting molecules known as photoreceptors, causing them an inability to recognize certain color wavelengths.

The idea that dogs only see in black and white can first be attributed to Will Judy when he claimed that dogs have poor vision and can only see single shades and tones along with only general shapes and outlines. In the 1960s, researchers began hypothesizing that primates were the only mammals with the ability to discern colors. There was little evidence to support those assertions, particularly when it came to the colors that dogs can see.

Do Dogs See in Black and White or Color?

Over the past few decades, researchers examining the canine eye structure revealed some basic design differences between people and dogs. Because dogs developed their sight as hunters who tracked and caught their food in the darkness of night, their eyes developed to see better in the dark and notice small movements.

The retina is where the key to the color perception differences between dogs and humans can be found. Rods and cones are the two primary light-sensing cells found in our eyes, and dogs have more rods while humans have more cones, which makes a significant difference in color perception. Humans, along with some other primates, have three types of cones, while dogs only have two.

Each of these cones registers different types of light wavelengths—dogs (and many colorblind people) are missing the cone that registers the red-green spectrum.

How Dogs See vs. How Humans See

Let’s take a side-by-side look at how dogs and humans view colors differently. These photos are courtesy of Dog Vision—a website devoted to understanding how dogs perceive color. They printed these comparisons to showcase the differences. The human view is on the left, and the dog view is on the right.

Dog vision: pink

While a bright pink frisbee like the one shown above is easy for us to see, dogs can’t discern red, pink, and orange very well. Some of the most popular dog toys use these bright colors, but it can be difficult for dogs to find them in the grass.

Dog vision: yellow

You can clearly see the difference between the yellow tennis ball and the pink frisbee in this picture; dogs can see the ball much better. Because they can see yellow more clearly than many other colors, it makes sense that a tennis ball is the favorite toy of many dogs.

Dog vision: blue

Now, looking at the blue ball, we can see that the dog can see it about as well as the yellow one. Dogs can easily distinguish blue and yellow from other colors, which might explain why they prefer these colors of toys over red, orange, and pink shades.

So, What Colors Do Dogs See?

Most scientists now agree that the colors dogs see are very similar to the ones that a red-green color blind human sees, according to Jay Neitz, who oversees the Neitz Color Vision Lab at the University of Washington. Dogs can see yellow, blue, and combinations of those two colors, which renders a lot of the world a grayish-brown for them. You can use Dog Vision’s free image tool to see how the world looks to your pup.

Dogs are also less sensitive to the various gray shades compared to humans, and they are only approximately half as sensitive to the changes in lighting. They also tend to be quite nearsighted, and the degree varies based on breed.

But, some visual abilities of dogs outperform human capabilities. They are much more sensitive to motion, especially at a distance—dogs can be anywhere from ten to twenty times as sensitive as us. Their vision is excellent during the dawn and dusk hours.

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What Does All of This Mean for You and Your Dog?

Don’t feel too bad about the fact that your dog can’t see all of the colors that you can. What they lack in vision, they make up for with their other senses. For example, your pup can hear a wide range of frequencies that we can’t, including high-pitched sounds that our ears can’t pick up.

Their sense of smell is even better. According to NOVA PBS, a dog’s sense of smell is at least 10,000 times stronger than a human’s—their nose has about 300 million receptors compared to the six million that we have. To add to that, the part of their brain responsible for analyzing smells is forty times bigger than ours, meaning that they can actually “see” more vivid pictures with their nose than we can with our eyes.

What your dog lacks in eyesight and color perception is made up for by the pictures they can form from their acute sense of smell.

A dog’s strong nose

Knowing that your dog can’t see certain colors allows you to choose toys and products that utilize the colors they see best, like yellows and blues. When you’re throwing a ball for your pup, it’s best to avoid shades of red, orange, and pink, so they’re less likely to lose it. 

Your dog doesn’t need to see all of the colors to know which treats are his favorite. Treat them to something special from Dope Dog!

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