Can dogs see colors?

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One of the most common questions about dogs is the question about their vision: can dogs see and distinguish colors? Most people mistakenly believe that dogs see the world as black and white.

However, the truth is that dogs do see color, but their color vision is much poorer than humans. One similarity between humans and dogs is that they both have light-catching cells in their eyes known as cones that help them to see different colors. 

The difference is that the eyes of dogs have fewer cones then we humans do, so their vision is not as rich and intense as ours.

Researches are proving that dogs can see colors

For a long time people believed that dogs are completely color-blind and cannot distinguish any colors.

However, the recent researches proved that it is only a myth, and actually dogs see our world in color.

In 2010 Dr. Jay Neitz from the University of California in Santa Barbara tested the color vision of dogs. For many test trials, canines were presented with three light panels in row: two panels were of the same color, and the third panel was different.

The dogs were given a task to find the panel of a different color and press it. If a dog could do it, she received a cup with a treat  delivered below the panel. Most dogs picked for the experiment were able to find and identify the color that was different from others, even though it took them some time to learn.

It was the first experiment that proved the fact the world for dogs is a colorful place and dogs are not color-blind.  

The year later there was another research conducted by Russian scholars from the Russian Academy of Sciences.

They picked eight dogs of different breeds and sizes for their experiment, and printed out four pieces of paper of different colors: dark blue, light yellow, light blue and dark yellow. 

For the first test they took a light blue and dark yellow piece of paper, as well as a light yellow and dark blue combination and placed them in front of the bowls with food that were put inside locked boxes.

After that the researchers unlocked one of the boxes and placed a dark yellow sheet in front of the bowl with raw meat.  Each dog was allowed to try open one of the boxes before taken away. 

Three trials were enough for dogs to learn what color sheet was placed in front of the meat ball.  When the dogs understood that dark yellow meant that the meat is nearby, the researchers decided to figure out whether the canines chose that color just because of its brightness.

In order to do this they put a light yellow paper in front of one box and a dark blue one in front of another. If the dogs had chosen light yellow, it would have meant that they were able to distinguish only the brightness of colors.

However, in 70% of cases the dogs picked light yellow instead of dark blue, which proves the fact that dogs are able to see the difference between colors.

What colors can dogs see?

Dogs have dichromatic color perception, so they are not completely color blind, but the number of colours that they can see is very limited. 

In contrast to humans, who have three color sensitive cone cells (blue, red and green), canine have only two – blue and yellow.  It does not mean though that dogs are not able to see green or red colors.

They do, but they cannot distinguish red or green objects based on the color. They still have an ability to see the difference between red and green due to different level of brightness between these two colors.

In order to understand better what colors dogs can see, imagine such disorder as deuteranopia, also known as red-green blindness. People with this disorder see yellow, green and red colors as hue.

Purple and blue colors they perceive as the second hue, while magenta and cyan colors are seen by them as the neutral hue or simply as grey. The dog vision is very similar to the vision of such people.

So what colors do dogs see best? Researchers have found out that such colors are blue, yellow and their combinations.

Therefore, it is recommended to buy toys for your puppy of these colors, and avoid red and green toys. If you notice that your dog keeps losing a toy in grass and it takes too much time for her to find it, most likely it means that it is the toy of a wrong color.

Why the dogs color vision is so limited?

The answer to this question lays in the evolutionary history of dogs. Dogs belong to crepuscular species of animals that live in wilderness and are mostly active during twilight or dawn hours.

The reason of that is that these hours are best for hunting, when most prey is around. Now dogs are domesticated, they do not live in wild nature, do not have to hunt and stay active mostly during the daytime.

However, the vision has not been adapted to their new domesticated life yet, and still remains the vision of a wild crepuscular animal.

What are the visual differences between people and dogs?

Even though the color vision of dogs is quite limited, dogs still have some visual advantages over people.

First of all, it is the position of their eyes: they are located on the sides of their heads, which makes the range of their peripheral vision much broader. Another advantage is that canines have special cells in their eyes forming the tapetum.

With the help of the tapetum that makes the dogs’ eyes shiny, dogs are able to see better in dim light.  Furthermore, there are also more rod cells in the dogs’ retina that are responsible for the ability to detect motion. 

That is why most dogs are able to notice moving objects even at great distances, which humans naturally are not able to do.

Why is it important for you, as for a dog owner, to know your dog’s visual capabilities?

If you know what and how your canine sees, you are able to make better choices for your four-legged friend. 

For example, knowing what colors your dog can see better, you can choose toys of the right colors. As it has been mentioned above, your puppy will rather enjoy yellow and blue toys, rather than red ones.

Also, next time when you’re enjoying the colors of rainbow after the rain, you can be sure that your dog can see and enjoy them too, even though she cannot see and distinguish the whole range of colors.


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