Are dogs colour blind? Do our canine companions really see the world in black and white? What’s a dog’s most important sense? Understanding how your four-pawed pal interprets the world through their five senses can help you provide them with the best, most enriching life.
While canines have the same five senses as humans – sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch – how well they are developed, and how dogs use them, is rather different.
Dogs have specially adapted sight
It’s actually a misconception that dogs are colour blind. However, when it comes to understanding what colours our dogs can see and how the world looks through their eyes, things get a little complicated.
This is because colour doesn’t actually exist. When light hits our eyes, special photoreceptor cells turn it into nerve impulses, which are passed to the brain and processed into ‘colours’. The retina in our eyes has two different types of cells that detect and respond to light – rods and cones. Rods are activated in low light, whereas cones, which provide the eye’s colour sensitivity, are stimulated in brighter environments. Humans have about 6 million cones, and 110 million rods. This arrangement means that while we can see lots of colours in daylight, at night, we just see shades of grey.
By contrast, canines have fewer photoreceptor cells in their eyes than humans, so the colour range they see is more like that of a human who has red-green colour blindness. Rather than the full colour spectrum, canines see in various shades of blue, yellow and green. They also can’t determine how bright a colour is as well as humans. This means, in bright light, the world may seem a bit on the blurry side to them. Their eyes are adapted to see best at low light and to spot fast moving objects. Also, with the position of their eyes, dogs have a wider field of view. Watch this short video from PetMD to see what your dog sees >>
DOG SENSE CHECK
Ever wondered why your dog doesn’t always recognise you from a distance? Try moving and waving your arms around instead of standing still. From 300 metres away, a person is almost invisible to a dog as canines cannot see as well at a distance. However, dogs can recognise objects better when they are in motion as they have highly tuned ‘hunter’ vision.
It’s in low light that a dog’s vision comes into its own. Dogs have more rods that activate in dim light in their eyes than humans. This gives them sharper vision in very low light – such as at dawn and dusk – which is ideal for hunting and likely harks back to their ancient wolf ancestry.
Canine eyes also have an additional after-dark specialism – a reflective mechanism called the tapetum lucidum. This means that they can reflect the light that goes into their eyes back out, allowing a much more detailed view of the world in darkness. Wouldn’t it be amazing to see what our pet dogs see when the sun goes down? No wonder twilight walks are so exciting to them!
Dogs have an amazing sense of hearing
You’re enjoying a peaceful snooze with your pet when suddenly they let out a sharp bark that makes you jump out of your skin. You might not be able to hear anything, but your dog has and it’s their job to alert you to it!
Dogs’ ears have much deeper canals than ours, which creates a better funnel for sound to carry down to their eardrums. All dogs, but especially those with upright ears, such as German Shepherds, use their ears rather like radar antennas. Thanks to the 18 muscles they have (humans have only six) dogs can fine-tune the ear’s position and essentially ‘turn up the volume’ on their hearing as required.
Dogs can hear sounds from four times further away than humans and locate the source of the sound in 1/600th of a second. This amazing hearing ability helps explain why dogs find loud noises such as thunder, fireworks or a passing steam train puzzling, concerning, or even frightening. So, remember, even if you can’t hear anything, your dog is just doing their job to alert you to potential danger, so don’t tell them to ‘be quiet’. Just say ‘thank you’ and reassure them that you appreciate their vigilance, but everything is fine.
DOG SENSE CHECK
Dogs are able to register sounds of 35,000 vibrations per second (compared with 20,000 per second in humans), and they also can shut off their inner ear in order to filter out distracting sounds – could this be the reason why they sometimes ignore us when we’re calling them?
Dogs have an incredible sense of smell
For dogs, along with their specialised eye adaptations and incredible hearing, it’s their sense of smell that’s super important to them. Puppies navigate by smell from the moment they are born, and, throughout their lives, it remains their strongest sense.
A dog has more than 220 million olfactory (relating to the sense of smell) receptors in its nose, while humans have only a measly 5 million. And, unlike humans, dogs smell ‘in stereo’ – that is, they smell separately with each nostril, which helps them work out lots of information about interesting whiffs.
A dog’s nasal cavity is divided into two separate chambers and opens into two nostrils that can wiggle independently and take in smells separately. As a dog sniffs, particles and compounds are trapped in the nasal cavity by mucus while scent receptors process them. Some of the inhaled air goes to olfactory analysis and some of it goes to the lungs.
This enables dogs to sniff interesting smells uninterrupted while being able to breathe at the same time. What’s more, a larger portion of a dog’s brain (about 40 times greater than a human’s) is dedicated to working out exactly what those smells are.
With such superior sniffing abilities, it’s no surprise that dogs are enlisted in all sorts of jobs that only they can do – from search and rescue canine heroes to detector dogs, trained to search for a variety of items such as drugs, firearms, tobacco, cash and even smuggled people, along with medical detection dogs who support people with life-threatening health conditions, saving their lives on a daily basis. Find out more about jobs only dogs can do >>
By using their incredible sense of smell – scientists suggest it’s 10,000 to 100,000 times as acute as a human’s – your dog can find out all sorts of information, which is why they like to give you a good sniff all over when you come home so they can discern more about where you’ve been, who you’ve been with, and what you’ve been doing. To your dog, having a really good sniff is a very important part of how they greet you.
In fact, sniffing for dogs is an activity like no other – it’s how they interpret the world around them and doing it makes them feel good. Author of How Dogs Think: Understanding the Canine Mind, Dr Stanley Coren says: “Dogs are living in a totally different world than we are, filled with much, much more information than we can possibly process about smell.”
He adds: “A dog relies on her sense of smell to interpret her world, in much the same way as people depend on their sight. Your dog interprets as much information as you do. However, she does much of this by smelling an object or animal, not by staring at it.”
It’s no wonder, then, that your canine chum doesn’t want to walk in an orderly fashion along the pavement, much preferring to zigzag back and forth, sniffing every blade of grass, leaf and lamppost. For your dog, a casual walk round the block provides a whole story of smells, which unfold tantalisingly before them.
DOG SENSE CHECK
When a dog senses an interesting scent, information is transported to their brain, to the frontal cortex to recognise what the scent is, as well as to other regions of the brain that relate to emotions, memory, and pleasure. So, a simple smell, detected by a dog, likely has an entire set of meanings, memories, and emotional ties that only that particular dog can know and interpret. That’s why letting them enjoy lots of sniffing time on walks is so important to their emotional wellbeing.
Dogs do not have a discerning sense of taste
Although dogs absolutely LOVE their food, they don’t actually have a well-developed sense of taste. This is because they have far fewer taste buds than humans. When a dog eats, a unique olfactory organ – called the Jacobson’s organ – located inside the nasal cavity and opening into the roof of the mouth behind the upper incisors, allows them to ‘taste’ the air around the food before they wolf it down.
And, while some canines need no encouragement to chow down at meal times, if you have fussier dog, try adding a little hot (not boiling water) to their complete dry food to create a yummy smelling gravy to entice them to get stuck in to their nutritious dinner.
Having fewer taste buds also explains why some dogs have the baffling habit of chewing and swallowing anything that remotely resembles something edible, even when it will do them no good whatsoever. That’s why, when you’re out and about with your dog, it’s important to carefully monitor your canine chum and watch what they’re putting in their mouth – and teach them to drop undesirable items before the damage is done.
Dogs are touch-sensitive all over
A dog’s entire body is covered in touch-sensitive nerve endings that ‘feel’ the world around them – from the pleasurable sensation of running through long grass to the irritation of an annoying insect landing on their back. Dogs also have touch-sensitive hairs – called vibrissae, better known as whiskers – on their muzzle and above their eyes.
Dog whiskers help canines understand and sense their environment. If a whisker is touched by another object, or air currents move a whisker, that vibration transmits nerve impulses from a dog’s whisker follicles to their brain. Whiskers can detect the size, shape, and speed of nearby objects based on the movement of air currents.
Dogs continually use their sense of touch to communicate with other dogs and with you. Physical affection, petting, a scratch in that special place behind the ear, and regular grooming are all positive and important ways to communicate with your dog through touch.
Understanding the way your dog uses their senses as they explore the world around them can bring a whole new dimension to your daily walks, outdoor adventures, games and time you spend with your devoted canine companion.
CARE MORE Find out more about caring for your dog from Burgess, the pet experts. Training, nutrition, grooming and general care. It’s all here >>
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At Burgess, all our dog foods are made using premium ingredients to ensure excellent quality and superior taste to help keep your dog happy and healthy – from puppy, to adult and senior. We’ve also developed foods to meet the specific nutritional needs of sporting and working dogs, Greyhounds and Lurchers and dogs with sensitivities. And we’re very proud of our Paul O’Grady’s ‘No Nasties’ dog food range, which comes in Hypoallergenic and Grain Free varieties. All Burgess dog food is a complete food. This means, whatever variety you choose for your dog, it will contain all the nutrients they need in the correct balance.
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