By Sarah Probst
University of Illinois
College of Veterinary Medicine
Owners who want to better understand their canine companions must recognize that dogs
see the world from a different visual perspective. The differences begin with the structure of
the eye. "We have a good idea what canines see because we know the make-up of the
retina of a dog's eye," says Dr. Ralph Hamor, a veterinarian and specialist in ophthalmology
at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine Teaching Hospital.
The retina, which covers the back of the inside of the eyeball, contains cones and rods-two
types of light-sensitive cells. Cones provide color perception and detailed sight, while rods
detect motion and vision in dim light. Dogs, which have rod-dominated retinas, see better in
the dark than humans do and have motion-oriented vision. However, because they have
only about one-tenth the concentration of cones that humans have, dogs do not see colors
as humans do.
"I generally explain that dogs see like a color-blind human," says Dr. Hamor. "Many people
think that a person who is red/green color blind cannot see any color, but there are
variations of being color blind. Most people have vision that is trichromatic (three color
variations). People who are red/green color blind are dichromatic (two color variations).
Dogs can pick out two colors-blue-violet and yellow-and they can differentiate among
shades of gray." Dogs are unable to distinguish among green, yellow, orange, and red. They
also have difficulty differentiating greens and grays.
Dogs use other cues (such as smell, texture, brightness, and position) rather than rely on
color. Seeing-eye dogs, for example, may not distinguish whether a stoplight is green or
red; they look at the brightness and position of the light. This and the flow and noise of
traffic will tell the dog that it is the right time to cross the street.
The set of dog's eyes determines the amount of field of view and depth perception. Prey
species tend to have eyes set on the sides of their head because the increased field of view
allows them to see approaching predators. Predator species, like humans and dogs, have
eyes set closer together. "Human eyes are set straight forward while dog eyes, depending
on the breed, are usually set at a 20 degree angle. This angle increases the field of view and
therefore the peripheral vision of the dog."
However, this increased peripheral vision compromises the amount of binocular vision.
Where the field of view of each eye overlaps, we have binocular vision, which gives us
depth perception. The wider-set eyes of dogs have less overlap and less binocular vision.
Dogs' depth perception is best when they look straight ahead, but is blocked by their noses
at certain angles. "Predators need binocular vision as a survival tool," Dr. Hamor says.
Binocular vision aids in jumping, leaping, catching, and many other activities fundamental to
In addition to having less binocular vision than humans, dogs also have less visual acuity.
Humans with perfect eyesight are said to have 20/20 vision-we can distinguish letters or
objects at a distance of 20 feet. Dogs typically have 20/75 vision-they must be 20 feet from
an object to see it as well as a human standing 75 feet away. Certain breeds have better
acuity. Labradors, commonly used as seeing-eye dogs, have been bred for better eyesight
and may have closer to 20/20 vision.
Don't expect your dog to recognize you across the field by sight. He'll recognize you when
you do some sort of motion particular to yourself or by smell or hearing. Because of the
number of rods in the retina, dogs see moving objects much better than they do stationary
objects. Motion sensitivity has been noted as the critical aspect of canine vision. "So much
of dog behavior deals with posture and appropriateness. Small changes in your body
posture mean a lot to your dog," Dr. Hamor adds. Dog owners need to modify training
based on this fact. If you want your dog to perform an action based on a silent cue from
you, Dr. Hamor suggests using a wide sweeping motion to cue your dog.
When dogs go blind, owners often wonder if the dogs' quality of life has diminished to the
point where they are no longer happy. "We know that humans deal well with being blind,
and humans are much more dependent on their eyes than are dogs," Dr. Hamor says. "Blind
dogs lead happy lives if they are comfortable." The owner may need to make some
adjustments in the pet's environment, such as having a fenced yard, taking leashed walks,
and not leaving unusual objects in normal pathways. "When blind dogs are in their normal
environment, most people don't know they are blind." When clients visit Dr. Hamor asking
about quality of life for their newly blind dog, Dr. Hamor suggests that they take a month to
see if they and their dog are happy. In the majority of cases, the owners never come back.
For further information on dog vision and problems with your dog's eyes, contact your local