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Are Dogs Really Colorblind?

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When you look at your dog’s toy collection, you’ll likely find an assortment of colors. You’re also probably familiar with the claim that dogs are colorblind. Is it true that your pup can’t actually distinguish between a red and yellow fire hydrant? Does he notice the colors on his nice holiday sweater, or his personalized food bowl? 

Roses are gray, violets are gray…

For a long time, it was believed that canines can’t see color; instead, dogs see in shades of gray, like an old black-and-white film or photograph. This is likely attributed to Will Judy, founder of National Dog Week, who stated this in a 1937 training manual and whose views quickly spread. 

Throughout the 1960s, researchers believed that primates and some species of birds were the only animals that could see color. It turns out, though, that watching “Lassie” in black and white doesn’t give us as much insight into a dog’s world as we may think. As recently as 2013, researchers have found that dogs can actually recognize colors by more than just their darkness or brightness.  

This means that contrary to the common misconception, dogs aren’t actually colorblind—not completely, at least. Dogs can see color, just not the way most humans do. Like humans, dogs have light-catching color receptors called cones in their eyes, which help to distinguish between colors. 

Roses are yellow, violets are blue!

Humans are trichromatic, meaning that we have three types of cones which respond to shades of red, blue and green (with the exception of those who have red-green colorblindness)

Dogs, on the other hand, are dichromatic, meaning that they have two types of cones which respond to shades of blue and yellow. As a result, your pup sees the world in shades of blue, yellow and gray. 

Interestingly enough, there is a tool created by someone named András Péter, which was designed to demonstrate the difference between what humans and dogs can see. The top image (below) is what a human would typically see, compared to the bottom image, which is what a dog sees. 

Imagine that you and your pup are out for a walk, and see a rainbow on the horizon. You’ll both be able to see it, but in different ways: while you see red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet, your furry friend sees grayish brown, dark yellow, light yellow, grayish yellow, light blue, and dark blue

A bright red ball may seem like a good idea for playing fetch in the lush, green grass, but keep in mind that to Fido, this just looks like a dull, gray ball in a gray field. Stick to blue and yellow toys, instead. These are a lot brighter to dogs and easier to see, which makes chasing and catching a ball a lot more fun. 

You may notice that many dog agility obstacle courses are primarily filled with yellow and blue equipment. As dog lovers become more aware of their four-legged friends’ visual limitations, they become more accommodating. Many organizations have made rules about obstacle courses being painted yellow, with contrasting areas in blue; some just stick with simple black and white for contrast. 

Is my dog missing out? 

Sure, Fido may not get to experience rich and vibrant colors in the same way that you do. However, what your pup lacks in vision, he makes up for with his other senses

For example, dogs can hear a much wider range of frequencies than humans. To put it into perspective, humans can hear sounds 20 to 12,000 hertz depending on age. Dogs, on the other hand, can detect sounds in the range of 40-60,000 hertz, which is why they can hear those high-pitched dog whistles that most humans would be unaware of. 

Even stronger than his sense of hearing, though, is his sense of smell. Humans have around six million olfactory receptors, which sounds like a large number until you compare it to 300 million, which is the number of olfactory receptors in a dog’s nose! In fact, smell is his primary form of communication—it’s how he gets acquainted with other dogs and humans. 

So, don’t worry too much about vision not being your furry friend’s strongest asset. Even if a bright red ball is tough to distinguish from the grass, Fido can still use his strong sense of smell to identify his toys when playing in the park with other pets. 

Of course, it never hurts to do what you can to improve and maintain your dog’s eyesight and overall health. Pet Honesty’s multivitamin chews address issues that dogs commonly struggle with as they age, including vision deterioration.