Now that humans are catching onto the fact that dogs do see colors, and not sepia or black and white, it begs the question, what is my dog’s favorite color? How does my dog see color? The answer to both of these questions is simple- blue and/or yellow.
Red and green are not distinguishable to a dog, and as such, hues containing them become muddled, even if the dog can usually see a primary color it contains. For example, imagine a puddle of yellow paint. The dog can see that the paint is yellow. Add some red paint, and it becomes orange, right? To a dog, it does not look what we think of as ‘orange’, but rather, it registers as a shade of gray. Similarly, you can add green paint to some blue paint, and it may just look pale, whitish-gray to a dog.
How Dogs See Color
But wait, how do we as humans have any concept of how dogs see color? Our most solid knowledge of this comes from a specific study only performed approximately 25 years ago, which explains why our elders didn’t regard facts about colors in dog sight as common knowledge, like it is becoming now. Jay Neitz, Timothy Geist, and Gerald Jacobs performed this study at the University of California, and it has greatly advanced what we can affirm about domestic canines, their vision, and how dogs see color.
The study was performed with three household pets of of two different breeds (two Italian Greyhounds and a toy Poodle) and was rigorously executed via thousands of trials. Colored light panels were presented to the dog, each of whom had been trained to spot the difference in the color of the lights. The variation in the breeds of the dogs tested, along with knowledge of how many types of cones are present to process color within a dog’s eye, seems to satisfy the question that this ‘colorblindness’ occurs regularly across the canine spectrum. Humans have three types of cones present in the makeup of the eye, allowing us to see all kinds of hues that contain low to vivid amounts of red or green. Dogs, as stated, do not, since they only possess two types of cones. Since the 1989 study, more studies have been performed, including a seminal one by a team of Russian researchers, that supports the majority of previous scientific findings. This Russian study ran fewer trials, but used more dogs, this time including mixed breeds.
How dogs see color is immensely important information for training, practically groundbreaking. This applies particularly to owners, as professional trainers know how to adequately utilize a dog’s more dominant capabilities, such as scent and motion, during training. Brightness and contrast can also factor in heavily when it comes to a dog’s ability to identify objects amongst backgrounds and other environs that obscure the vision, due to their limited color spectrum. It’s isn’t just the color, but how light or dark the color is. For example, we can reasonably be assured that dogs see the color blue. But dark blue is a different story, and probably turns out looking black or gray to a dog. There are also questions about how dogs identify colors they cannot see. Going off of the assumption that dogs see color like colorblind humans, red items will be darker than green ones. Depending on the background, a red or green item can become more visible, or become more obscured to a dog. An orange dish on a red rug, or a green tennis ball on a green lawn, for example, can be problematic for a dog if they are just locating by vision. That green tennis ball, however, when placed on the red rug, will pop out more.
For training, toys, and even food dishes, light blue is a good color choice. There has been research that posits that dogs enjoy food the most out of red bowls than any other color, but this is spotty and anomalous, since there are many shades of red, and dogs can’t see red as we do, anyway. Aging dogs with impaired vision should have items in colors they can see to give them a little extra help. If a dog does begin to go blind, the contrast and color of items can help, but they will still map out their territory quickly using other senses, which brings us to another point.
An exception to the blue and yellow guideline would be when scent training a dog, though that is usually left to professionals. A trainer will use items or targets that appear dingy and less distinguishable to a dog in order to make them rely on their noses. The analogy about the green ball on the green lawn? It would actually be useful in teaching a dog to track items. The importance of color choices for dogs even crosses over into the territory of everyday functionality- if you are at a dog park with your pet, and you are running across a field to join them, they are more easily able to hone in on your motion and positively identify you if you are wearing a blue shirt. That is because dogs use subtle motion cues as just one way to compensate for their lack of color recognition. Dogs don’t necessarily need to see color so well, because their hearing and sense of smell is much more advanced than ours. When you consider that humans can see so well, but lack superiority in other senses, the balance seems rational and congruous with our respective evolutions.
The science of how dogs see color has revealed itself in leaps and bounds over the last half-century. At that rate of expanding knowledge, we should only look forward to more advancements and techniques that clarify our understanding of our pets’ senses and capabilities. All of this will lead to more efficient training and more compassionate relationships with our pets. After all, fully domesticated animals depend solely on us to meet their everyday needs.