What colors can dogs see
The old wives' tale that dogs can only see black and white persists to this day. This is definitely not true! They can see color, see much better than we do at dusk, but are nearsighted. You are probably asking yourself: "Huh, how should you know what and how well dogs see? You can't tell us! "
Correct! So there are a lot of behavioral studies and experiments done by researchers from all sorts of countries who - as curious as we are - have explored this topic.
The best-known study, which is also cited again and again, is that by Jay Neitz, Timothy Geist and Gerald H. Jacobs in California from 1989. You can find the study here. And here an article that explains the study in more detail. It is a bit “heavy fare” because it is formulated very scientifically and grandly, but totally exciting! But here I am of course telling you the most important things you should know from the study.
Our dogs look colorful!
The three researchers Neitz, Geist and Jacobs found that dogs actually see colors in much the same way as a red-green color-blind person. That’s something that you can imagine very well!
Dogs and their relatives see in the spectral range from yellow to green and blue. That is, they see red things as yellow. And other colors that are out of their spectral range see them as gray.
In addition, they perceive things, they move much better than things that are silent. Sure, as a hunter and predator, that's super important! But we'll go into that in more detail in a moment.
On the subject of "seeing colors", researcher Neitz says:
"In fact, dogs can hardly distinguish the colors red and green." To them, red appears yellow, as does green. So if you throw your dog a red ball on a green meadow, he'll see a yellow ball in the middle of yellow grass. 😛 It would therefore make more sense to throw a blue toy, as blue is easier to distinguish and see from dogs. Dogs have a very strong sense of blue tones. And the reason for this lies, as is so often the case, in the past: For a hunter who is on the prowl between dusk and night and shortly before sunrise, it is important to be able to distinguish between shades of blue. Because the light reflected from the sky has a much higher proportion of blue due to the lack of solar radiation. And only when dogs distinguish blue tones well do the outlines of prey animals stand out well for them and they can see their movement immediately.
How is that possible? Nature has invented something really great for this: Our dogs have a light-reflecting layer on the back of their eyes. This is called in Latin "Tapetum lucidum" - a "luminous carpet".
This is responsible for the fact that the eyes of dogs - but also cats and many other animals - glow in the dark when you shine on them. Because the “glowing carpet” directly reflects the light falling through the retina and can thus use it twice!
How is the dog's eye constructed?
If you take a closer look at the structure of the dog's eye, it actually resembles ours. The eye is encompassed by the upper and lower eyelids as well as the nictitating membrane, which lies in the lower eyelid and is placed over the cornea like protective goggles when sleeping. The nictitating membrane is stunted but surprisingly really there:
Humans also have the nictitating membrane; but only as a small remnant of connective tissue, which can be seen in the corner of the eye when looking in the mirror.
“In humans and most other primates, the nictitating membrane is a rudimentary structure,” says the philosopher and biologist Franz M. Wuketits. "In birds and water-bound mammals, they serve as protective goggles against the cornea"; in addition, similar to a windshield wiper, the removal of foreign bodies in the eye. (Source)
And really: when you look in the mirror, you really see a nictitating membrane. Never noticed before that this part of my eye should be exactly the same as Pixie's nictitating membrane!
The canine organ of vision is surrounded by the white leather skin. On the front side, this dermis merges into the transparent cornea (Latin: cornea). Behind it lies the iris with the pupil. The retina contains the photoreceptor cells that are sensitive to light. The yellow spot (Macula lutea), the point of sharpest vision of our dog, is a little higher.
The differences to the human eye begin in the fundus: the ten-layer retina not only contains a very fine network of nerve tissue, but there are also two different types of light receivers: cones and rods.
Chopsticks convey light-dark impressions and are very sensitive to light. The cones are there for vision in medium to bright light conditions as well as color vision. And different cones are susceptible to the primary colors red, green and blue. From this variety of cones, the eye and brain calculate our rich spectrum of colors. Thanks to these cones, we can distinguish around 200 shades of color. The retina of our dogs, on the other hand, has a particularly large number of rods. I will now tell you in more detail why this is the case:
Dogs are nearsighted
There's a good reason why a prey like deer can stop dead at the sight of a dog / wolf. They have learned that this behavior can save them. Because it really is your very best chance that the dog / wolf will not see you. Because they see moving things much, much, much better than things that are stationary. You can even go so far that dogs hardly even recognize anything that is standing still.
If we hide from our dog and do not move, there is a very good chance that he will not be able to find us visually. But he can throw his nose on and then it is again very likely that the nose “sees us”. 😉
What is the cause of this good "movement vision"? Our dogs are actually nearsighted. If an object stands still, he can no longer detect it at a distance of more than six meters. However, we can see sharply for about 20 meters.
However, if the object moves just a little, things are completely different and the dog reacts directly. That's really important for a hunter too. The wolf, as the ancestor of the dog, had to be able to recognize and track its prey on the run in the twilight. If the deer starts running out of instinct, the chase begins immediately. Our dog can't really look sharp, but he doesn't need that if he just has to follow the moving object.
Why do our dogs see so differently from us? Here we come back to the cones and chopsticks! With us humans it is more important that we can see clearly. And as we have just learned, the cones are responsible for sharp vision, of which we really have an infinite number. The point of our sharpest vision lies in the so-called pit of vision. This is a depression rich in nerves, well supplied with blood and only about 1.5 millimeters deep, in which there are about 140,000 cones per square millimeter.
Our dogs also have a nerve-rich area, but this only contains chopsticks, which enable the dogs to see in low light. That’s his priority! That is why we see about six times more sharply than our dogs. But in the twilight we are totally subject to his eyesight.
Our dog's field of vision is larger than ours
Another development of the hunter-being of our dogs is the large field of vision. At 240 ° it is very large - especially compared to the human field of vision which only covers an area of 180 °. This difference is again absolutely logical if you take a closer look: As hunters, dogs have to search their surroundings for prey in order to react to their movement. The more area you can see and scan at once, the better!
But of course the dogs also have a disadvantage for this advantage. The dogs' spatial depth perception - i.e. stereo or better 3D vision - is not as good as ours. This depth perception is made possible by the binocular overlap - the area of the field of view that can be seen by both eyes. This range is significantly smaller in dogs with 30 - 60 ° than that in humans with 120 °.
Can dogs watch TV?
Since you can't watch animal documentaries or dog shows in the same room with Pixie, I'm pretty sure that dogs watch TV. But since I have now made myself so smart about the topic "How do dogs see" I wanted to examine the "TV topic" more closely.
And I found Stanley Coren, who not only has written a lot of dog books, but is also a professor and canine researcher at the University of British Columbia.
He took a closer look at the subject of "Can dogs watch television" (here you can find an article about it) and I learned a lot from him: The development of the HD television actually makes it possible for our dogs to see moving images on television! Older televisions have too low a frame rate that dogs can only see a series of flickering images.
This is certainly neither interesting nor pleasant for them to see. But the new HD TVs have an image frequency from 75 Hertz up to 120 or 240 Hz. That means: 75 (or more) images appear every second, so that a fluid image results for us and also the dog's eyes.
In addition, there is a study - which was published in the "Animal Cognition" journal in 2013 - which proves that dogs can very well recognize images of dogs, people and other animals.
We have also learned that of course our dogs cannot see the bright colors of the HD TV. They don't have to, because they certainly follow the movements in particular and recognize and differentiate between a few colors on the television.
Nevertheless, I now know for sure that Pixie barks at other dogs and animals on TV because she really recognizes and perceives them. But I also know of other dogs who are not interested in television pictures. It's different for everyone. 😉
There is also this crazy dog channel especially for dogs called DogTV (which most in Germany can receive via cable TV) which broadcasts "dog content" all day.
I peeked in there once, but couldn't let it go very long because Pixie was sitting right next to me, barking. Because here, not relaxing films of forest and meadow moods are broadcast. I would have expected that now. You could see other dogs playing and running around. Cute little puppies that have struggled around a toy. For me, of course, totally "making you happy" but this mass of dogs was of course not at all possible for Pixie!
"WaWaWa! How do the strange dogs get into our apartment? WaWaWa! Who let them in? Waaah! "
She even looked behind the television to see if she was "stuck in" with these dogs and if she could catch them. She is really crazy. 😆
The transmitter was developed together with dog behaviorists and veterinarians. So somehow it works for some dogs that are alone at home and should "keep themselves busy". In the USA it is more common than here for dogs to be alone most of the day. Therefore, of course, the station also comes from the USA. You can think what you want about it, but DogTV is definitely not for my "open-minded" terrier. 😀
Can we "help" our dogs with this new knowledge?
Now that we know that our dogs distinguish blue very well, react primarily to movement, red is yellow for them and green is the same, we can certainly not only take it into account. But maybe also change our buying behavior.
Should you be doing agility with your dog, you can now make it clear to yourself that your dog definitely does not see the red marked contact zones as red, but rather as yellow marking on a yellow background in a meadow. Exactly the same goes for a red tunnel. If it stands still and rigid in a meadow more than six meters away from you - and tunnels don't move 😉 - then it may well be that your dog only recognizes it correctly when it stands directly in front of it.
Yes, and the next time you shop, you will of course do your dog a big favor by choosing blue toys. Of course, we can see a red ball on the green field better before it gets lost. But your dog can visually distinguish a blue dummy or ball much better.
Now, of course, I am looking forward to your feedback as always!
Have I forgotten anything? What topic would you be interested in next? Does your dog also watch television or have you observed any things yourself that support this scientific information?
Feel free to write all of that in the comments!
Greetings from Rebecca and the almost eagle-eye pixie
About the author
I run this dog blog together with my Jack Russell terriers Pixie and Archie and I am happy to provide you with information and help on the most important dog topics!
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