Over the centuries there have been a lot of rumors among humans concerning how dogs see the world. Some you may have heard include that dogs only see black and white, and that dogs see the world upside down. While the latter is a ridiculous notion likely intended to fool a human into flipping their dog over so they could see “right side up”, the former is just an exaggeration that has become rather commonly accepted.
How Dogs See The World?
Mammalian eyes are typically comprised of different types of neurons, or cells- rods, cones, ganglion, and the like. The number of each of these determines how we see the world. Your vision is within the range and features the colors you see only because of the number of each of these types of neurons you have present in each eye.
Different amount of rods and cones
Dogs have a different amount of rods and cones than humans. Dogs have fewer cones than us, but more rods. Exactly how many more rods has not yet been determined, but the difference is great enough to support aspects of a dog’s natural instincts. Cones register color, while rods perceive light. This is the key insight into understanding how your dog sees the world. Because dogs have fewer cones, they cannot see as many colors as a human who is not colorblind. In fact, the color red does not factor into a dog’s vision, and so red objects appear very dark gray or black to a dog. Similarly, colors that include red will have a grayer tinge to a dog. Shades of blue and yellow are the primary colors that dogs see the world in, so keep that in mind when you are buying dishes and toys for your pet. Tossing a red ball onto a red carpet for your friend to fetch can actually be rather confusing for them.
This is due to the kinds of cones that dogs have in the makeup of their eyes. Dogs have two kinds, while humans usually have three, allowing us to see a wider range of color. That may be the reason that dogs don’t seem to be as attached to the color of objects, as humans are, but they compensate for that attachment when it comes to range and light perception- these qualities are much more valuable to a dog’s vision.
See the world much better than us
Dogs can see the world much better than we can when it begins to get dark outside. This is helpful information to know if you happen to walk your pet after dusk- it just may be that your dog has a much better idea of where you’re going than you do. Their increased night vision is an ancient quality that makes them better suited for hunting prey. They also have a wider periphery when seeing, opening up the environment wider on the left and right sides. If you are sitting beside your dog, and she is not looking directly at you, she can still probably see you better than you would assume.
Different flicker fusion threshold
Many families watch television on the couch with their dogs. Dogs may appear to watch the program alongside us, but it is unlikely that they are receiving and understanding the picture as we are. While the images on the screen will be visible to them, provided the coloring is perceptible to their eyes, they have a different flicker fusion threshold from humans. This means that dogs probably see a strobing light in most frames of a television. While it may sound disheartening that your dog can’t enjoy a movie the way you can, flicker sensitivity is important to dogs, as it gives them another edge over human vision.
The tiniest inflections
Dogs see and navigate the world with much greater dependence on motion. This is where their excess of rods really come into play. They notice movements that humans ordinarily would not detect, and wouldn’t likely pay attention to if they could. This is important, because dogs compensate for their lack of visual acuity in other areas by utilizing their sharp motion sensing capabilities. Dogs specifically confirm the identity of other living things by the way they move. Simply put, it’s not your face that your dog loves, it’s the way that you walk. It’s also helpful to them in determining emotion and intention. The tiniest inflections in the way another dog walks, or a human’s gesticulations, communicates a lot to a dog who is watching. They know when another dog just wants to play, is being submissive, or potentially wants to assert dominance over them- all with the slightest of gestures.
Detail does not register for dogs
While they do have their advantages over us, how dogs see the world can feel a little lacking if you’ve experienced the world from the perspective of excellent vision. Detail does not register for dogs the way it does for a well-sighted human- if they were us, they’d definitely need a prescription for glasses. They also cannot detect any detail from a great distance, another reason why they inherently pay close attention to motion. Humans have had to have been somewhat aware of this for a long time, even on a subconscious level, because we’ve always called for our dogs to come to us from across the yard or park. It isn’t that your dog isn’t paying any attention and his head in the clouds; he just needs an extra cue for your identity to be confirmed.
Understanding how your dog sees can allow you explore and appreciate the differences in our species. We often regard dogs as our children, but evolution has not eradicated the biological qualities that support a dog’s instincts. While dogs don’t rely on sight the way we do, they are looking for different things, so it’s still important to do your part in maintaining healthy sight in dogs. Make sure their hair is appropriately trimmed away from the eyes, gently and thoroughly wipe away any discharge collecting in the corners of the eyes, and make sure they are clear and bright, with no redness or irritation. Talk to your veterinarian about eye drops or vitamin supplements- many of the things we do to protect our eyes can benefit dogs as well.