How do dogs see? Serious misconception that colours are not perceived by them

Buzgó Csilla

2023. May 27 - Photos: Getty Images Hungary

Although our most loyal companions do not see in grayscale, their perception of color, light and contrast is slightly different from humans.


The main character’s question is a good joke in the movie Cats and Dogs, when he has to choose between the red and the blue wire to deactivate the bomb: “Is it the light gray or the dark gray?!”, but unfortunately it has little to do with reality. How a dog can see colours of course different then how a human can see them. Let’s see how much!

How do dogs see in relation to humans?

The view of the world around them is presented to them with less contrast and somewhat lower resolution than to us. The “night mode” is an exception to this, because the lens and cornea of dogs occupy a larger surface area in the eyeball than humans. They have more rod cells, which are responsible for seeing in the dark. Their vision is also supplemented by a special light-reflecting layer, the so-called tapetum lucidum. That is why their eyes appear green when they look into bright light in the dark.

The light reflecting function of tapetum lucidum is most often noticeable in the dark

If we lock them in a pitch-dark room, of course they can’t see anything, just like humans. The dogs’ visual organs also need a certain amount of light to be able to recognize their surroundings. The difference lies in the organic processing of what they see. They depict depth, the sharpness of moving or stationary shapes, and colours more effectively even in low light conditions.

Compared to our three types of cone cells – with which we perceive waves of violet, green and yellow colors – dogs only have two, so they see much like red-green colorblind humans. According to the researchers, this is because the eyes of the dogs have adapted to the morning and evening activity during evolution. In these times of the day the perception of colors is not as important as the perception of movement or spatial vision.

Colour vision of man
Colour vision of the dog

Put yourself in their shoes!

On the course of his research on the subject, András Péter, a PhD student at the Department of Ethology at ELTE, created a modeling program that can be accessed online, which transforms the uploaded photos to the way dogs see them. Try it yourself! You will find out why it is not appropriate for toy manufacturers to launch bright red or green dog balls!

In the video below, you can see how we perceive certain situations and how dogs see them in comparison:

What does your dog see when he looks at you?

Probably the meaning of their life, but instead of romantic theories, let’s jump to more scientific theories!

A 2016 psychological study revealed that dogs can distinguish between human faces and pay particular attention to the eyes, their movements, and where they are looking. Although they are good at using the eye-nose-mouth facial recognition method, when they were shown photos of these body parts separately, the eyes always came out victorious.

However, what many people are most curious about is whether dogs know from the facial expression that we are angry or satisfied with them. Well, the answer is clearly yes.

Several studies have already attempted to map the ability of dogs to recognize our facial expressions. The results in each case have been encouraging. Based on this, we can say that dogs recognize the facial expressions of the people around them. About at the level of a one- or two-year-old children. Just like babies, they associate our actions with their meaning.

During socialization, they learn that a smile and a friendly tone of voice promise pleasant experiences. Furrowed brows and “snarling” or, in some cases, a mouth that opens to shout are the opposite. Dogs are also capable of mimicking human faces, and it is also thanks to thousands of years of friendship. In these years they have discovered how to influence their owners using facial expressions similar to those of humans.

These clever little creatures have realized during the millennial process of domestication that humans find wide, open, pleading eyes irresistible. So they don’t hesitate to use them against us if they crave a caress or some snacks.

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