What Colors Dogs See and Why It Matters for Dog Sports
Dog Vision and Agility
Do Dogs See in Only Black and White?
Growing up, I had heard that dogs see in black and white. It was easy for me to imagine how a dog saw the world as black and white televisions were still fairly common when I was a child. Watching black and white "Lassie" episodes, I was able to see exactly what I believed Lassie saw. Her black and white world was right there on my TV set.
I have since learned that dogs see more colors than just black and white. However, they do not see the color spectrum that most humans see. Dogs, it turns out, are color blind.
How Do Dogs See Color?
"Cones" on the retinas at the back of our eyes allow us to see colors. Typically, most people have three sets of cones. Dogs and humans with color blindness have only two. This means dogs can see in shades of blues, yellows and grays. However, dogs have more "rods" in their eyes, which gives them better night vision.
Check out the two color spectrums below to get a sense of the colors people can see versus what dogs can see.
The Dog's Color Spectrum
The Human's Color Spectrum
You may be thinking while knowing a dog's color spectrum is an interesting piece of trivia, it really doesn't matter from a dog training perspective. After all, we aren't training dogs to drive, so it doesn't matter if they can see red stop signs or green lights. However, with the upswing in fast-paced canine sports, the dog's color vision becomes a very important piece of knowledge that can help keep the dogs safe.
Why Does a Dog's Color Eyesight Matter in Canine Sports?
Take for instance the sport of agility, where a dog runs at top speed through an obstacle course. The dog must take the obstacles in a certain sequence, and each course is laid out differently. A handler has only a millisecond to communicate to the dog which obstacle is next. Poorly timed communication can not only result in the dog taking a "wrong course" obstacle, it can result in the dog miscalculating a jump or obstacle, "crashing," and possibly injuring him or herself.
To ensure that the millisecond communication between handler and dog is clear, handlers work for years to train their dog to read the slightest physical cues such as hand signals, deceleration of forward motion, proper shoulder placement, footwork, and much, much more. These cues are perfectly placed and timed for the exact moment the dog will need that communication. Yet, if a handler is dressed in brown and is running on brown dirt in a horse arena with dull tan walls, all of the handler's hours and hours of preparation may be for naught if the dog cannot clearly and quickly visually distinguish the handler.
This information from the handler is coming at the dog fast and furious. Except for occasional verbal information, almost all of the cues are non-verbal. The dog needs to respond to this information immediately. Fast dogs cannot take a second glance to see if they read that information properly. To help the dog, handlers must stand out visually from their background so that a fast-moving animal can see them.
Wear Contrasting Clothing
I learned this concept from my fast dog, Asher. We usually compete in horse arenas on brown dirt with dirty white walls and fencing. I noticed from videos of our runs that when I wore one of my favorite tan agility shirts Asher wouldn't see some of my physical cues. He wasn't intentionally ignoring them. He appeared to simply not see them. Yet, when I wore shirts that contrasted with the background, he appeared to see all of my physical cues. After several weekend agility trials taped with my tan shirt and other contrasting shirts, I saw the pattern and discovered that Asher did better if he could see me better.
Of course, this is obvious when you stop and think about it.
Good Color Contrast in Clothing
Blue May Be the Clue
If I am going to be showing in an arena with dirt surface and dirty white or gray walls, I will choose shirts that are in the blue spectrum. This can include bluish purple shirts. I also can wear black. I avoid reds, oranges, yellows and greens as they will become shades of yellow and brown. I also avoid solid whites as they can blend with the white walls. If I am going to be competing on soccer turf with white walls or walls covered in advertisements, I again choose blue shirts unless the soccer turf is a bluish green. I can also wear black. I avoid reds, oranges, yellows and greens and solid whites. Remember, green looks like yellow to a dog.
A handler also needs to pay attention to the color of their shorts or pants. They may even want to think about wearing long pants if they'll be running on dirt, as all colors of human skin could blend easily into the colors of a dirt agility surface. By wearing pants, handlers can make themselves stand out better from the background.
This clothing contrast concept would be important not only for agility, but for almost all dogs sports from obedience to disc dog. Anytime a handler gives the dog a visual cue, it will help if the dog can see that cue clearly the instant it is delivered.
Poor Clothing Choice
Good Contrasting Clothing
Dog Training Equipment Color Matters Too
But clothing is not the only consideration when it comes to understanding color contrast for the dog. Training equipment must also be taken into consideration. For disc dogs, this would mean knowing the basic colors of the environment where the dog will be competing and using flying discs that will contrast with that color. If a disc competition is being held in a park with green grass and blue skies, then the discs need to be in shades of dark blue, white, or black. If a disc competition will be held in a park in the winter with dried, brown grass and gray skies, then discs in shades of blue, white, pink, purple or black would be best seen.
For agility, this also means that agility clubs and schools need to have a full understanding of what colors dogs see when choosing paint colors for their equipment. Many agility titling organizations have rules on color options for contact zones (see video above), and most clubs go with yellow. If going with yellow, then the other color on the contact equipment should be a shade of blue. This way, if a dogwalk sits on a dirt brown surface, the yellow contact zone may be harder for the dog to see, but the rest of the dogwalk's up-ramp will be easily seen. Conversely, if a dogwalk painted yellow and blue sits on a bluish rubber surface, the dog may not see the blue part of the dog walk as easily, but it can very easily determine the yellow contact zone, allowing it to safely find the up-ramp.
However, using contact equipment painted yellow and red on a brown or green running surface will cause the equipment to easily blend into the background as everything will be shades of yellow and brown. Remember, dogs don't see red. Instead they will see shades of yellow and brown. I believe contact equipment is best if painted the usual, albeit boring, yellow contact zones with contrasting blue bodies. Then, no matter the surface and background, some part of the equipment will pop out to the dog as it heads to the up-ramp.
Colored agility jumps must be considered, too. Red, yellow and green jumps will all be shades of yellow and brown. If they are located on a brown or green surface, the dog is seeing it all as shades of yellow and brown. The white bars do help, but solid white jumps with contrasting blue tape or bright blue jumps with white bars would probably be among the best color choices.
The Problem with Yellow Tables in Dog Agility
A trend I am seeing in agility is to paint pause tables yellow. This is causing many dogs to run by the tables when the tables are placed on dirt surfaces as the yellow will "blend" into the brown. Handlers are often befuddled as to why their usually consistent dog avoided the table when the simple fact is that the dog just didn't see it.
Dog safety is the most important consideration for any dog agility handler, and clubs need to be paying more attention to the colors of the trial sites where their equipment will be used. Based on that information, clubs need to choose equipment colors that will help the dogs see the equipment easily and quickly.
Other dog sports need to take dogs' color blindness into consideration as well. From flyball to obedience competitions, teams can gain an edge by paying attention to contrasting colors from the dog's perspective.
Understanding Color Vision in Dogs is Important for All Types of Training
Even when training a house dog, this knowledge is helpful. If asking a house dog to learn to fetch a stick on winter brown grass, it will be harder for the dog to see where the stick is thrown. Instead, use a toy in shades of blue on that winter brown.
For the house dog, it might be wise to make the dog's "things" color contrasting to the environment. From dog bowls to beds to toys, having them visually stand out to the dog will make them easier for the dog to identify and might make them more engaging to the dog.
This information becomes a bit obvious once it is pointed out, but paying attention to contrasting colors in dog training can help your dog learn faster and stay safer as you both play together.