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Are Dogs Color Blind: Functions of a Dog's Vision

Since the 1930s, people have deeply misunderstood a dog's vision, concluding that a pup's eye is incapable of seeing color at all, only shapes and movement in grayscale. But are things truly that black-and-white? We're revealing all-new information on how dogs see their world!

What does the world look like through the eyes of a dog?

The notion that dogs can't see color was first claimed by famous dog fancier Will Judy in the 1930s, who claimed that instead, they see single shades, tones, and the general outline of shapes. 

We believed this conclusion for decades, but the research studies were both flawed and unreliable. 

Can dogs see color? 

We can't exactly ask our pups what they see – well, I suppose we could ask, but they're unlikely to be able to give us an answer. In the years since the initial research on how and what dogs see, better research studies were designed to uncover a more reliable and definitive answer about our dogs' vision. 

Read below about color blindness and whether our pups see the world in technicolor vision or black and white. 

What is Color Blindness?

Color blindness is a phenomenon first studied in humans in the late 18th century by John Dalton. He and his brother could not see specific colors in the spectrum due to color-blindness. 

Each color bounces different light wavelengths into our eyes to communicate their color. A human eye contains a few types of cones in the retina that detect these wavelengths and turn them into tiny electrical impulses that our brain uses to distinguish colors. 

Some eyes are missing individual photoreceptors altogether, or the receptors or abnormal. These missing or faulty receptors mean some color wavelengths aren't registered or read by our brains. 

Monochromacy occurs when eyes can distinguish no colors at all. Still, most commonly, color blindness only affects their red-green spectrum of vision, with both colors appearing as a muddy brown. Blue and yellow receptors are still present and functioning within the eye. 

Red-Green Color Blindness

Red-green color blindness occurs in eyes that are missing both the red and green photoreceptor cones in the retina.

There are varying types of red-green color blindness – sometimes green might look more similar to red, or red might look more similar to green. 

It's also sometimes possible that one might be unable to tell the difference between red and green colors, instead of seeing them both in shades of gray.  

Are Dogs Color Blind?

The poorly designed original studies were completely incorrect – dogs can see in more than just black and white! And this is how misinformation starts, with one inaccurate statement by a reputable person. 

Before you get too excited, dogs don't see every color as we do. They still have some traits of color blindness. 

There are two central receptors in the eye:

  • Rods detect motion and shades of light within the eye
  • Cones differentiate the range of colors our eyes can see

As we already know, cones are the determiners of color blindness, so dogs must have an abnormality within their cones that affects their color vision.

What Colors Can Dogs See?

Much like most color-blind humans, dogs are missing their red-green cones while still seeing blue, yellow, or a combination of the two. 

Dogs have what's referred to as yellow-blue dichromatic vision.

That means any colors that contain green or red are likely dulled down quite a bit in the eyes of our pups. 

Consider the dog vision of a color like purple, a combination of red and blue. While a dog has blue cones, they don't have red ones, so the object will only look blue – the red color gets canceled out as no cones pick up the color wavelengths. 

A Dog's Eye View

Can dogs see in the dark?

Dogs are natural hunters who often track their prey at night, and over time they've evolved to have much a sharper night vision and sense of smell than us.

Dog vision is better in the dark because of their larger lens, corneal surface, and reflective membrane. Have you ever seen the reflection off of a pair of night-vision goggles? They mimic this reflective membrane, which helps to take advantage of low-light situations. 

A dog's eye contains more rods in the retina to help them to see well at night, but it also means they have fewer types of cones in their eyes compared to us.

In a nutshell, a dog's genetics sacrifice some of its color vision for stronger night time vision, which naturally serves them better in the wild. 

What Does This Mean For Your Dog?

While dogs can't see a full-color spectrum, it doesn't seem to be slowing them down much in their day to day lives – they're still able to run back and forth like the goofy mutts that they are!

Why are the most popular dog toy colors red and orange? Knowing what we know now, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

Sometimes, a dog can't see an item that's right in front of its face, and while we're sure color is to blame sometimes, increased excitement and lack of focus are probably the most common culprit.

If you're concerned about your dog's color blindness, you can choose toys and accessories, like dog bed ramps, in blue or yellow colors so that your dog is better able to differentiate them from the objects around them. 

Final Note: Effects of a Dog's Color Blindness

For the most part, a dog's genetics have more than made up for this small shortcoming in their vision.  

A dog's color blindness doesn't affect how to pet a dog or other ways we interact with it – he or she can see you just fine, even with a limited color range. 

Over the years, dogs have evolved to develop more rods in their retina to aid nighttime vision for hunting and a keenly sensitive nose that can sniff out anything their eyes can't see. 

If you want to see for yourself, try out your own little experiment at home by buying your pup a blue or yellow toy to see if they prefer and have an easier time spotting it than any red, orange, or green toys!

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