Are Dogs Really Colorblind? The Surprising Facts

You’ve probably heard traditional lore that dogs only see in black and white, but dogs actually see some color - just not on the same scale as humans.

May 13, 2023By Treba Porter
are dogs really colorblind

You might be surprised to find that dogs do see some colors, not simply black and white. Dogs have two color receptors in their eyes; compare that to humans, who have three. This explains how dogs see differently from humans, but they shouldn’t be considered totally colorblind.

Popular Tradition Holds that Dogs are Colorblind

australian cattle dog with human

Those who love animals often tend to empathize with them. We pet lovers want to know how our pets feel emotions, how they hear, and how they see - particularly in comparison to their human pals. Traditionally, pet lovers believed their furry pals saw everything much like TV’s Lassie - in black and white. We may have been taught in school that our pups were colorblind; perhaps our parents shared this false belief with us.

However, recent studies show that dogs don’t simply see the world in shades of gray. Canines do see color; however, they typically see shades of two primary colors. This means that dogs are considered dichromatic, seeing two color variations. That said, the traditional belief that dogs don’t see things the same way that humans do is somewhat true.

Dogs Actually See Shades of Two Familiar Colors

dog with yellow ball

It’s important to note that dogs see the world around them in much the same way as a “color blind” human does. A human considered to be color blind still sees color; however, humans who are color blind may be unable to distinguish red or green colors. For instance, a color-blind human may often confuse the colors blue and green. They may also confuse red and purple.

Ironically, color-blind humans share something in common with dogs - they only have two types of “cones” in their eyes. The American Academy of Ophthalmology defines cones as “a type of photoreceptor cell in the retina (that) gives us our color vision . . . (the cones) help us see fine details.” Humans with “normal” vision possess three types of cones - red-sensing, green-sensing, and blue-sensing. In color-blind humans, one type of cone is not present.

Dogs with healthy vision are born with only two types of cone cells. Research shows that dogs tend to see the colors yellow and blue most vividly. Because they don’t possess red-sensing or green-sensing cones, dogs have difficulty with objects in these colors. Plus, they have difficulty with objects that are shades of red or green!

black and white dog photo

Could this be the reason so many dogs love those fluorescent tennis balls? Perhaps! Dogs tend to see yellow and shades of yellow very well. They may see red as a drab brown color; they’ll also see mixtures of yellow and red - such as an orange-colored chew toy - as a muddy shade.

Dogs see gray as well as various shades of black and white; yet, for dogs, the world doesn’t look like an episode of The Andy Griffith Show or I Love Lucy. Dogs have trouble distinguishing colors such as purple and pink (both purple and pink contain shades of red). Orange, pink, and purple may all appear brownish to dogs. In addition, dogs can’t see subtle nuances in shades of color. For instance, even though dogs can see blue, they wouldn’t be able to distinguish between a royal blue color and navy blue.

How does this Compare to What Humans See?

dog with glasses

Humans may deal with vision imperfections such as farsightedness and nearsightedness, both of which can be corrected with lenses. Dogs, by contrast, are considered to have healthy eyes even though they are naturally affected by nearsightedness. The American Kennel Club makes this comparison - when a dog looks at an object, human, or another animal twenty feet away, the dog perceives them to be as much as seventy-five feet away.

This might not make much sense to us humans, particularly when we think about dogs as hunters or protectors. Dogs do have an advantage over humans - their eyes are set wider than ours. This means they have a wider field of vision than humans, and they can see quick movements much better than we humans can. This explains how a Labrador Retriever can see a wild rabbit sprinting across a field and spring into action.

Do Dogs See as Clearly as Humans?

labrador retriever in field

In a word, no. They have better peripheral vision when compared to their human friends, but this tends to compromise what we call binocular vision, which has a direct effect on our depth perception. To further complicate vision for canines, the positioning of their nose can affect how they see the world around them.

Dogs typically recognize objects due to movement, and they will smell or hear someone before they see the person. Some breeds are known to have a clearer vision than others; for instance, the Labrador Retriever makes a great service dog for the blind due to a noted natural vision acuity that other breeds don’t possess.

Consider your dog’s behavior - many are told not to approach a strange dog with an outstretched hand over the dog’s head. This behavior is related directly to a dog’s vision acuity; they are simply subject to motion sensitivity. Knowing this about your dog - and other dogs - can have a great effect on their overall behavior.

Dogs can’t see as well as humans, but they do see some colors and movements. Pet parents can pick up toys in bright shades their dogs can see, and they should remember how important movement is in a dog’s world. One should also keep in mind visual acuity and motion when training one’s canine companion. Adapting to your dog’s vision strengths makes for a happy pup!

Treba Porter
By Treba Porter

Treba loves animals of all kinds, particularly dogs and cats. She has four years of experience writing about pets, but she has a lifetime of ownership and training experience. Treba lives with her family, including one very spoiled rescue cat, Pepper.