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Can dogs see colour?

By Alice Lang Copywriter

Updated on the

In the past, owners believed their dog’s whole world was seen in monochrome. But now, research has moved forward; revealing that our canine friends may have the ability to see a little more than we first thought.

So can dogs see colour, and if so, what colours can they see? Let’s find out.

Dogs are colourblind: fact or fib?

The question on everyone’s mind right now is this: Can dogs see colour? Well, drum roll, please! The belief that dogs are completely colourblind is, in fact, a whopping great big fib! Years ago, a talented scientist called Jay Neitz at the University of Washington carried out a number of experiments on pups to test out the colourblind dog theory. He discovered that dogs have two cones.

This means they're able to tell the difference between blue and yellow, but not red and green. Aiming to expand on these findings, Russian scientists then conducted a series of tests which proved once and for all that dogs can see colour.

As described in a 2013 report: Colour cues proved to be more informative for dogs than brightness, the researchers used eight dogs of multiple sizes and breeds and conducted tests to see if dogs could associate food with colour. 70% of the time, they did, while 6/8 of the dogs went for it between 90-100% of the time, whether or not the colour was light or dark. It’s clear that dogs can see colour far beyond black and white - though likely, not as full a spectrum of colours as humans do.

Which colours do dogs see?

Remember earlier, when we said that dogs have two cones? A cone is a type of photoreceptor (meaning it picks up some colours). It is found in the retinas of both humans and dogs. But the difference is, that while we have three receptors, dogs only have two.

So while we are able to see a broad spectrum of beautiful colours, a dog’s vision is way more limited in comparison. This means your pooch can probably see a mix of yellows, blues and purples. But reds, greens and oranges are not as apparent to him as they are to you - and likely just appear as another shade of yellow or blue.

There’s no need to feel sorry for your pup, though. Dogs have evolved this way and don’t know any different. Plus, they’re still able to distinguish shades from one another, through shade and brightness. This colour perception is known as dichromatic vision - meaning it’s based on the combination of two scales of colours. This same condition is found in some colourblind human beings.

Can dogs see in the dark?

Dogs might not be able to perceive colour the way we can, but they completely trump us when it comes to night-vision! It’s estimated that dogs can see an impressive five times better than us humans in the dark.

Yup, if you’re ever dealing with a power cut or lose something outside in the dark, your pooch is definitely the one to call on! This is because with what they lack in cones, they make up for in rods.

These are cells in the retina which allow for night and peripheral vision. As well as this, a part of the dog’s eye called the “tapetum” acts as a reflecting surface, which enhances the amount of light entering the eye. This gives the retina a double chance to register all the light and images which enter the eye.

Ever noticed that your dog has a slightly eerie glow to his eyes at night? That’s all down to the tapetum. Oh, and their night vision skills don’t stop there! The huge pupils on dogs allow for tons of light to pass through the eye, even in dim light.

What does this mean for your dog?

So we’ve answered your burning question, “Can dogs see colour?” and told you which colours your pooch can see. Now, you’re probably wondering if all those red and green toys you bought him were a waste of money.

And while the likelihood is that your dog will still play with toys in the red or green spectrum, you may notice he finds it easier to pick up anything yellow or blue coloured, especially on a red or green background. Now, you know exactly why.

Stanley Coren, writing in Psychology Today explained his view: “One amusing or odd fact is that the most popular colours for dog toys today are red or safety orange (the bright orange-red on traffic cones or safety vests). However red is difficult for dogs to see. It may appear as a very dark brownish grey or perhaps even a black.” “This means that that bright red dog toy that is so visible to you may often be difficult for your dog to see.

That means that when your own pet version of Lassie runs right past the toy that you tossed she may not be stubborn or stupid. It may be your fault for choosing a toy with a colour that is hard to discriminate from the green grass of your lawn.”

So while there’s no need to throw away all your pup’s old toys, it may be worth picking up a blue or yellow one when you can, and seeing how he reacts.

If you’re training your dog, using colours he can identify could even speed up the process.  
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