Dogs have good night vision. They do see flashlights, but appear to be stunned by them because of their ability to reflect light when light shines in their eyes. Dogs have a tissue membrane in front of the retina called the tapetum lucidum. This membrane lets light come through and then reflects it back again. The light changes color in the reflection and appears to be shining out of the dog’s eyes.
It can be rather disconcerting if you are not aware of how dogs, cats, and other nocturnal animals are able to shine their eyes in the dark. Dogs do enjoy night hunting with flashlights. They can also be trained to work in different lighting conditions.
Signs Your Dog Can See Flashlights
The obvious sign of a dog seeing a flashlight is the reflected color of the dog’s eye when a light is shone from a torch or from a car headlight. The dog’s eye reflects the light and the result is a glow-in-the-dark effect of your dog looking back at the light. Dogs can go out at night and see well, and when you try to pick them out with a flashlight it is the reflected light you see.
This light has an almost fluorescent quality as it passes through the tapetum lucidum, a Latin term meaning bright tapestry. The tapetum sends the light through photoelectric phenomena called fluorescence.
Unfortunately, there are dogs that can respond in an obsessive manner to flashlights and to laser lights. Dogs that are light and shadow sensitive may become obsessed with lights and spots of light on the ground. Border Collies who eye stalk as part of their herding behavior are very prone to becoming light sensitive and chasing light and shadows. The tapetum reflects 130 times more light for dogs than the human eye is able to and that makes dogs five times more sensitive to light than we are.
- Tail up
- Ears up
- Anxiously chasing light spots
- Looking right at the flashlight
History of Dogs Seeing Flashlights
Dogs have very interesting eyes with features that make them able to see in all sorts of situations. Their wild canine ancestors were ‘crepuscular’, which means more active at dusk and at dawn. Dogs have adapted to seeing in dim light and their eyes are able to let in extra light Dogs' eyes have bigger pupils and a bigger cornea to focus in dim light.
Their reaction to a flashlight often looks stunned or mesmerized as further light is let into the eye and then reflected out of the eye again. Hunting parties that use dogs enjoy taking a flashlight. A group of nocturnal hunters roams the streets of New York hunting by flashlight and street light for rats. Rats are a big problem in the city streets and the R.A.T.S. (the name of the group) are ready to take their terrier-type rat hunters into the city and catch and kill rats.
The dogs follow their master’s commands and under the light of the streets, hunt out rats. The dogs love the hunt and are not rewarded for their efforts. The thrill of the hunt, and catching rats, is enough to satisfy the dogs and their owners.
The Science of Dogs Seeing Flashlights
Scientists are aware of several differences between the human eye and a dog’s eye structure. Dogs and people have special neural photoreceptors, rods, and cones. Rods help in poor light conditions and dogs have more receptors than humans.
Dogs eyes have what is known by scientists as F. F. F. (flicker, fusion, frequency) which allows them to see light as a constant light source, not flickering. Dogs have an increased field of vision and can see a full 250 degrees while humans are only given 190 degrees.
Dogs' pupils also dilate like the human pupil, but their pupils are larger. However, because of the reflective light, the light on the reflective surface comes from different directions and appears slightly blurred. Although dogs have this extra light facility for dim lit times of the day, they have a blurred vision because of the refection through the tapetum lucidum.
Training Dogs with Flashlights
Flashlights and lasers are not recommended for training as they can lead to obsessive behavior. Dogs can become obsessed with chasing the light source. What may start out as a fun game when you shine the light around the room or outside, will turn into an exhausting, obsessive nightmare. The obsession includes chasing light and shadows and is an abnormal, addictive behavior. It should not be used as an alternative for clicker training in deaf dogs.
Lights flashing can stimulate the dog’s prey drive and lead to the obsessive chasing of light and shadow. Dogs, especially Coon Hounds, that are trained to hunt at night are comfortable with flashlights. The Coon Hound tracks the raccoon on the night hunt and holds it for ransom as it climbs a tree and the dog bays at the bottom. This is known as ‘treeing’ and the hunter will arrive using a flashlight to see the treed raccoon.
The Coon Hound will be comfortable with flashlights as their owners use the lights to track their target. The Coon Hound, who is probably already up the tree, will be aware of the flashlights showing off their ‘treed’ prey. Security officers and trackers will work with dogs using their flashlights in different circumstances. Dogs can wear collars and a harness that will light up to show their whereabouts and there are gadgets to track your dog at night if you would like to follow their night activities.
However, dogs do not especially need a flashlight. They may just need to learn how to work with an owner who is using one for their job. Tracking and tracing, hunting and searching are all activities that would benefit from extra light, but more for the dog’s owner than the dog themself.
How to React to Dogs Seeing Flashlights:
Do not encourage dogs to chase spots of light.
If engaging in low-light activities, use a flashlight for your own seeing needs, not your dog's.