On a clear night, you may notice that your dog is mesmerized by the sky. Their natural curiosity seems to be piqued by twinkling stars and distant galaxies. But can they actually pick out the detail of the night sky?
Although our canine friends are well-known for their superior senses of smell and hearing, eyesight can be something of a mixed bag. Dogs have fewer color receptors than humans, which means that they tend to see only muted hues. Some are entirely colourblind. That said, the shape of a dog’s head can provide a far greater field of vision than that of humans, and they tend to have excellent night vision.
In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the ability of dogs to see the night sky, their relationship with it, and ways in which you can gently guide them to become stargazers.
Signs That a Dog Can See Stars
In the first instance, a dog that is looking at the stars may not display any other kind of behavior beyond staring intently. They will be focused on what they can see as they try to process precisely what it is. At this stage, you will likely notice that your dog seems very alert, and their ears might be raised. If they’re wagging their tail, it’s a sure sign that they are enjoying the experience!
A dog may then try to use its other senses to better comprehend what it can see. For example, they might show signs of focused listening, which can mean that they ignore other distractions - including their owners! Your dog may also try to sniff at the sky, utilizing their strongest sense to build a more accurate understanding.
If they interpret any aspect of the night sky to be dangerous or worthy of further investigation, dogs can also provide audio cues to alert their owners to what they see. They may whine, growl, or bark to get your attention, or they might try to lead to you outside using physical prompts, such as nudging or jumping up, then walking away.
That said, your dog may not be so inclined to investigate. They might simply enjoy the view, and find it relaxing to stare at something fairly static, instead of being within the stimulating environment of a busy home. This depends on their breed (with some being more naturally inquisitive than others) and their age. Older dogs tend to enjoy the quieter side of life!
The History of Dogs Seeing Stars
Dogs have a well-established history of interaction with the night sky, although the association tends to be with the moon more than stars. Their shared ancestry with wolves may provide an explanation. It’s actually not the moon itself that causes canines to howl; rather, it is a communication tool that’s more powerful when the head is raised toward the sky.
Unlike wolves, dogs are not nocturnal animals, but these instincts are still present in some breeds, such as Huskies, Alaskan Malamutes, and American Eskimo Dogs.
As our understanding of canine behavior and physiology has developed over time, we have discovered better explanations for their reactions to certain stimuli. In the past, a dog’s attraction to the moon and stars may have been something of an anomaly, but now we know that a dog’s visual acuity is more complex than previously thought. By looking at the science, we can begin to understand why the night sky is so attractive to them!
The Science of Dogs Seeing Stars
There are two main types of receptors that determine how mammals are able to see; cones and rods. Cones are responsible for color and spatial perception and are most useful when there is plenty of light. Rods do not contribute to color or spatial reception, but they do allow us to see in low-light conditions.
Most humans possess three types of cones, allowing us to see a diverse range of colors. Dogs only have two types of cones, which gives them a visual acuity that is similar to people with colorblindness. We used to believe that dogs could only see in black and white, but now we know that dogs can perceive some color, although not as distinctly as humans can. Colors tend to be dull, and dogs are often unable to distinguish between different shades.
Where dogs have an advantage is in their night vision. Unlike humans, dogs have a section of the eye called a tapetum lucidum, which reflects light back onto the retina, providing rod receptors with better conditions in low light. Dogs also have larger pupils than humans, which allows more light into the eye. In combination, this allows dogs to see more than us at night.
Although their vision is not as sharp as ours, which impacts their ability to distinguish individual stars, dogs are less sensitive to light pollution. Whilst we need a clear sky, preferably away from a town or city, to truly appreciate the splendour of the universe, dogs can manage just about anywhere.
Training Dogs to See the Stars
Whilst it is not possible to alter the physiology of your dog to make them better understand the night sky, there are steps you can take to encourage their curiosity. Take them outside when it gets dark and allow them to gaze at the stars. This can be a calming experience, both for you and your dog. Give them a treat and plenty of praise in response to positive behavior.
Some dogs may be overwhelmed and frightened by the night sky. They might demonstrate behaviors such as barking, growling, whining, shaking, digging, scratching, pacing, or panting. In these circumstances, it is imperative to reassure your dog that they are safe. If your dog has become agitated whilst they are outside, bring them indoors as soon as possible and close any curtains or blinds to obscure their view. If they will tolerate it, gently stroke your dog and speak to them in a slow, quiet, and soothing voice. Provide a comforting item such as a blanket or toy and allow them to calm down.
If this behaviour is repeated, you will need to train your dog to become more comfortable with the night sky. Incremental outdoor exposure, with plenty of reassurance and comfort from you, will gradually build their tolerance. Step outside for a few moments at first, reward good behaviour, and repeat daily, adding a few extra minutes each time. Your dog will soon recognise that there is no danger in the moonlight, and you’ll both be able to enjoy an evening stroll.
By Charlotte Ratcliffe
Published: 03/30/2018, edited: 04/06/2020