You have likely heard that animals like dogs and cats have special night vision so they can see better in the dark. Maybe you have come home late from work and forgot to leave on a light for your pooch, only to find that your house is pitch black inside.
Although it may depend on the dog and just how dark it actually is in your house, dogs can indeed see with the lights off and have better vision in the dark than humans do.
Signs of a Dog Seeing With the Lights Off
Since dogs are able to see a bit better in the dark compared to us humans, how can you tell your dog can actually see and navigate better in the dark than you? One of the most apparent signs your pup can see in the dark is that yellow-green glow you can see in their eye when a light hits the eye a certain way, like a flashlight or camera flash. This glow comes from the tapetum, which is a shiny surface of the eye that can bounce light. Keep an eye out for this special glow when it is dark inside or outside of the house - it will let you know their eyes are letting in more light to help them see better in the dark.
You can also tell you dog can see well in the dark from their ability to find toys, treats, their food, water bowl etc. when it is dark in the house. Yes, they use their sense of smell as well to help them navigate, but they also use their sight. If you throw a toy in a dark room, your dog will most likely know exactly when to run to fetch the toy to bring back to you.
If you have your pup outside at night, take note if they are staring off into the distance intently at something. You likely won't be able to see what they are looking at, but they are fixated on something they can see. If they are barking, whining, pacing, staring, and very alert to something in the distance, they are most likely seeing something in the dark you cannot.
History of Dogs Seeing With No Lights
Since dogs can see quite well in the dark, there has to be a reason they have such advanced night vision. We must first look at what dogs have evolved to do, which is be a nocturnal hunter.
Not as much today, but through their evolution process, dogs mainly hunted for their food during the darker times of the day, like at dawn and dusk. Dogs are natural predators, so hunting for other animals to eat was their main source of food. Since they were crepuscular, their eyes needed to have better sight in dim lite environments. This would allow them to hunt for their food at dawn and dusk and they could hide behind the blanket of darkness so they could be less detected by potential food sources.
People who live in the country where the nights are very dark and free of light pollution claim their dogs can see animals like deer, stray cats, and even coyotes from a long distance when the owner cannot detect any movement with their eyes. Many people also claim that their dogs come back from being outside in the dark with animals they have hunted, like small rodents. This shows a dog's vision is strong enough in the darkness of the country night to hunt and bring home a small animal as their prize.
Science Behind Dogs Seeing with the Lights Off
The science behind how a dog can see in the dark in complex, yet fascinating. Firstly, dogs have a larger pupil than humans do. Their retina also has light-sensitive cells, more commonly known as rods, which help dogs and humans see in lower light settings. However, dogs have many more rods in their eyes than we do, making it easier for them to see in the dark.
Secondly, dogs have something called Flicker Fusion Frequency, or FFF. FFF is the rate at which flickering light actually doesn't seem to be flickering any longer and the light appears to be still. The faster the dog moves through the dark, the higher their FFF becomes.
The green/yellow glow your dog has in his eyes at night when the light flashed by the eyes, also helps them see with the lights off as well. The tapetum is able to amplify the light the is entering the dog's eyes through something called fluorescence. This means the light they are seeing isn't just brighter than it appears to us, but it also changes the colors of the light that is reflecting. This is why dogs are five-times more sensitive to light than the human eyes are.
Lastly, dogs have 250-degree vision, compared to the human's 190-degree vision. Their eyes are able to see much more, which helps them see better in the dark.
Training Dogs to Not Be Afraid of the Dark
The good news is, you do not have to train your dog to see in the dark. Seeing in the dark is part of the biology and not something that has to be fine-tuned and isn't teachable.
However, some dogs are afraid of the dark and there are things you can do to train your dog to not be afraid of the dog. Dogs are generally afraid of the dark because it pulls on their anxiety and fear trigger. The reason this may happen is that it evokes a biological response that the dog should be on higher alert in their dim environment.
If your dog seems to be afraid of the dark, the best way to train them is through desensitization and counter-conditioning. This is where you will introduce your dogs gradually to the things that are making them anxious, like the dark.
For instance, you may bring them into a fully lit room, then turn one light off so it's dimmer, then turn another one off until the room is fully dark. This process will likely take repeated attempts. While you are doing this, when your pooch is being good and reacting well, you will reward them with positive reinforcement and treats.
The goal of this process is to train your dog into realizing the dark, or the fear stimulus is not as bad as they may have perceived. It changes their outlook on the negative situation into something more positive. It is best to use high-reward treats when going through this training process. Use treats like fresh chicken, turkey, beef, fruit, and veggies, or anything else your pup tends to go crazy over. This will motivate your pooch much more than a generic, bagged dog treat. The most important part of this process is to catch the problem before it turns into a lifelong phobia of the dark.
Written by a Samoyed lover Kayla Costanzo
Veterinary reviewed by:
Published: 02/08/2018, edited: 04/06/2020