Updated by Amy Granger on Jun 9, 2021
Have you ever wondered why your silly dog seems to completely run past the ball whenever you're playing fetch outside? You might have just assumed your ball wasn't in the brightest color but what you might not have considered is that dog simply couldn't see it in the grass because it wasn't the right color. For decades it has been widely believed that dogs live in a world completely void of color. We've been under the impression this entire time that our dogs only see in black, white, and some shades of grey. As it turns out, that's not the truth at all. While they can't see the same color spectrum that we humans can, dogs are still able to see some of the same colors as their owners.
Dog eyes are not so different from our own. They function much like a camera. The light must first enter through the pupil, then through the iris, which expands and contracts to determine how much light it will allow in. The light then passes through the cornea and lens before it can reach the light-sensitive layer called the retina. A dog's retina contains cones that are sensitive to color and rods that are sensitive to motion and light. These cones and rods produce electrical signals that get sent to the brain through the optic nerve. The signals trigger the brain to create an image which is what the dog then sees. Since they can't see the expansive array of colors that humans can, dogs rely on brightness, texture, and of course smell to help differentiate different objects.
While dogs aren't completely color blind, they are limited on the spectrum of colors they can see. Human eyes have three different color-sensitive cones, red, green, and blue, that are used to identify the primary colors and all of their color combinations. In dogs, they only have two cones that allow them to identity blue and yellow, limiting their color perception. If you were to show a dog a rainbow, they would be able to see yellow and blue very clearly, but the other colors would be variations of greys, browns, and darker yellow. Dogs see much of the world in a greyish brown with pops of blue and soft yellows. The graphic below can give you a better idea of what dogs see compared to humans.
Dogs cannot see red, orange, or purple in the same way that humans do. They would see them as faded or muddied shades of brown and grey. If you buy a bright red ball for your dog and they always seem to struggle to find it when you're throwing it in the yard, it's not because they're dumb or stubborn. The reason they often struggle is actually that it's really tough for them to separate the color of the ball from your lawn. Blue and yellow toys are definitely the most optimal for your dog to be able to spot them clearly when you're playing together. When it comes to agility training, it's much easier for dogs to effectively learn and navigate a course that is painted in colors they can easily see.
Vision isn't consistent among all dog breeds either. While the colors they can see remain the same, most hunting dogs have better eyesight than other breeds. They can see a clearer image than most dogs at a distance and can more easily detect motion.
The spectrum of colors a dog can see may be less exciting than that of a human, but they can still see different colors. They may not be able to tell that the ball is red, but they can tell that it's a different color than your blue shirt.
Humans and canines actually have a few visual differences in addition to color perception:
Dogs see blues and yellows best. You can choose to buy blue or yellow toys for your furry friend.
Dogs can see in the dark quite well. They can't pick up as many details or see as clearly in the dark as cats can, but they can definitely navigate low-light conditions better than humans.
Dogs don't have a favorite color, but they do tend to gravitate towards blue and yellow. Dogs have a limited color spectrum, and blue and yellow are the two colors they can distinguish most easily.
While colors may not affect them negatively, your dog may have a color they prefer. We all have that comforting blanket or sweater that we like, and your dog is no different. Experiment with different colored toys and blankets with your dog to determine which ones get them excited and which ones tend to mellow them out.
Dogs may not be able to see the world in its stunning array of colors as we can, but they have been gifted with an incredible sense of smell. Your dog won't notice that bright red beautiful t-bone steak when you're putting it on the grill, but they're definitely going to be able to smell it.