What a Dog Sees

Updated: Apr 2

My dogs see unseen bunnies in the grass and mysterious raccoons lurking in the shadows long before I have a clue there is anything there.


Yet, on sunny days, when the world is bright with subtle variations in color, my dog will bark at the movement of his own shapeless shadow, seeing it as another dog. If I throw a green ball in the grass, he can’t see it, and is only able to find it with his nose. This is because humans have more cones -- about six times as many as dogs. Cones distinguish colors. Where we see rainbows, dogs see shades of gray, blue and some yellows. Christmas colors of reds and greens are invisible to them.


If you throw a green ball in the green field dotted with yellow flowers ( photo below), this happy puppy probably will not see the ball. because he cannot distinguish shades of green.

Dogs are also usually a little nearsighted. On average, they have 20/75 vision. This nearsightedness, along with their color challenge, is why dogs might startle-bark at your son when he comes home with a shaved head. Hunting dogs, however, such as Labrador retrievers, long bred for eyesight, can have 20/20 vision. Not only is the world a bit blurry to your dog, colors are not as distinct or clear.


We humans may have more cones, but dogs beat us out when it comes to the number of rods they have -- about five times as many. Rods detect motion, and for this reason your dog can be barking at a squirrel up a tree while you are only noticing the colorful changing fall leaves.


Because of this difference in balance of rods and cones, dogs have a different view of the world from humans. While we focus on the beauty of subtle differences of color, they see the movements, shapes and patterns with far better clarity. They also rely on texture and smell. Remember too, most dogs are closer to the ground and do not see at the same level as we. If a green grasshopper began hopping across the grass, the dog in the picture would probably see the shape and movement long before your eyes noticed it was there.


The dog in the photo below could not easily distinguish the subtle greens of the trees, yet, he could distinguish the blue color of train he is riding.


These cute puppies cannot see the bright color of the pink flowers, yet could easily see their movement in the wind.

Dogs also have superior night vision. This is because their eyes can dilate to a much greater degree than our human eyes. When the sun sets and takes the colors with it, they are seeing shapes moving in the darkness, creatures we do not even know are there.


Depending on the breed of the dog, her eyes can be more to the side of the head, which increases peripheral vision. Increased peripheral vision helps dogs see approaching objects to the sides of them, but compromises the amount of binocular vision. Humans have greater binocular vision than dogs, which increases our depth perception.


An upside of this vision difference is that if a dog becomes blind, he has other senses that can easily take over. I have a friend with a blind dog who gets along beautifully from just her advanced sense of smell. Besides smell, blind dogs use their sense of touch to get around.


Recent studies show that dogs have a bit of ability to “see” infrared light with the tip of their noses, which they can use to detect warm-blooded animals.Dogs can also detect brightness and position better than we can. That is how they know what the color of the traffic light is when leading a blind person. So even though your dog may not recognize your family member with a new haircut, he soon figures it out by recognizing the familiar scent and unique movement of this person.


Does this make our furry friends think differently? Have a different reaction to the world? They see shapes, patterns, movement, position, brightness and creatures that lurk in the darkness much better than we. While we marvel at the colors of our world, they are seeing the many things we do not detect nearly as well.


My dogs have taught me how to live more in the moment; to have a better sense of the importance of fun and laughter. Now I wonder if they have more to teach through the different ways they see the world.


What can dogs teach us through the different ways they see the world? Are there things we don’t notice that will help us think more broadly if we begin to look for them? Are there things we see too brightly, things not as important as we perceive them to be?


How can our knowledge of a dog’s vision help us to train them better?


What have you noticed about your dog’s vision and how it affects his reactions to the world?


In the Clifford cartoon below, what colors would Clifford be unable to see?



Want to learn more? Follow these links.

How Dogs See the World

Do Dogs See Color?

Canine Vision by Mark Plonsky, Ph.D.

Kids Discover: The World Through Animal Eyes (with activities for kids!)


Thank you to our photo contributors: Hook Labradoodles (Kissing Puppies), Dog on Train (Jollity's Australian Labradoodles) Running Puppy (Auburn Sky Labradoodles)

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