Can Dogs See Color?  And How Do We Know?

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By Dr. Sophia Yin

Illustrations by Lili Chin, Photos from Perfect Puppy in 7 Days

Thursdays are always the worst day for little dogs to play fetch at my local park. That’s because mowing is Fridays and on Thursdays the grass is often over one-tennis ball tall. It was on one such Thursday after having to search for my dog’s ball for the third time, that I exclaimed, “It sure would be useful if, instead of being green, this tennis ball were blue and yellow. Then, Jonesy could more easily find it himself.” Well, a passing pet owner quickly corrected me. “That wouldn’t help. Dogs are color blind.”

For a second I thought, Duh, that’s right. Dogs don’t see color the way we do. But then I remembered that they can distinguish blue from yellow. That’s because while dogs can’t see all of the colors we can, they can perceive some differences.

While humans have three types of photoreceptors in their eyes that transmit signals about color to the brain, dogs have two types of photoreceptors. We know that these photoreceptors work to transmit information allowing dogs to perceive differences in color because dogs have told us so. Well, sort of.

How Have Dogs Told Us That They Perceive Color?

To determine whether dogs can see color, researchers taught dogs to pick the odd-colored circle out of a choice of three circles. So if they showed colors that the dogs could not distinguish, they would fail at the task, but if they chose colors that the dogs could tell apart, the dogs would perform consistently well. Of course. the researchers did also consider that the hue or brightness might be a distinguishing cue, so they systematically tried patches of different brightness too.

Dr. Gerold Jacobs, Professor of Psychology at the University of Santa Barbara, who lead much of this color vision research in dogs, is careful to point out that while we cannot determine exactly what the dog perceives the color to be, we think what we see as red, orange, yellow or green appears as different saturations of yellow to a dog, while blue-green, blue and violet appear as different saturations of bluish gray.

What Colors Do Dogs Distinguish Best?

Back to the dilemma of the tennis ball in the tall grass. Yes, if the balls were two-tone blue and yellow, Jonesy might be able to find them a little better. Overall, if we want dogs to distinguish between colors, the best colors to use are blue and yellow. On the other hand, maybe if the ball was just blue or violet or bigger, that would be good enough. I’m too lazy to actually test it out. I’ll just bring extra tennis balls.

For more information on canine vision, read Perfect Puppy in 7 Days.

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7 responses to “Can Dogs See Color?  And How Do We Know?

  1. I don’t think the parrot photo matches your description well. The the color saturation is just muted down and the red reversed to its opposite color green which dogs would see as gray, right?

    1. The parrot photos in the article are meant to be only a representation of how a dog “may” interpret the colors. As it is impossible to perfectly simulate exactly what dogs see, representations or estimates of color interpretation are used in their place.

    2. Good eye! I think the parrot to the right- had his red inverted into what they called a different shade of yellow (even though it does look somewhat green-whoch dogs apparently can’t see)

      1. No. There is a lot of green hue in the doctored image, in the background and on the left bird’s head. The dog would not see those green blades of grass and green feathers as ‘green.’

  2. So I know that humans have three “cones” in their eyes which allows them to see the spectrum of color that we can see. Dogs only have two. With this information, have we figured out what “cones” allow us to see what colors? I know the dogs are missing the one that allows them to see red and green. Are we able to identify in a human what “cones” are what color?
    Also, what do dogs see in terms of neutral colors such as brown, black, white, etc.?
    Last question. I promise, haha. Can dogs see better or worse than humans? If so, by how much?
    Thanks for your time and patience. I appreciate it!


    1. First off, read these article which explains rods and cones well.
      Now, consider this: the 3 different human cones perceive blue, red, or green, as well as millions of ‘overlap’ colors, as the article mentions.
      But dogs have only two types of cones, and they perceive blue or yellow. There also seems to be little to no ‘overlap’ colors in a dog’s vision based on their inability to perceive greens. This is all based on very systematic and scientific experimentation combined with our knowledge of human and animal eye anatomy.
      Dogs can see from black to white as we can (they have rods similar to ours which provide monochrome vision) but they would not see the color brown, as this would require cones that can see reds and greens.
      Dog vision varies in quality as it does in humans, but generally, dogs are near-sighted and their vision clarity is inferior to a human with near-perfect or corrected vision. Dogs also have a much more narrow range of focus than humans. Their vision is better for hunting, tracking, and detecting motion. Like a T-Rex! (we think)

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