4 min read


Can Dogs Smell Color?



4 min read


Can Dogs Smell Color?


When it comes to color, what dogs can perceive is limited. An object’s hue is what a dog uses to discriminate between different things. It was believed that dogs saw the world in white, black, and some shades of grey, which is not true. What is true, however, is that dogs only have two kinds of color receptors in their eyes. Like most mammals, these are called cones. Humans, however, have three. A dog’s capability of seeing color is therefore limited when compared to humans. As a comparison, having two cones is like a human who has red-green color-blindness.

We know that dogs spend a lot of their brain power interpreting smells. They have many more sensory receptors in their nasal cavity compared to humans. The part of the brain that a dog uses to analyze odors is also forty times larger than any similar part in a human brain. Therefore, a dog’s sense of smell is special and extremely efficient.

With this in mind, we now realize that a dog’s nose is an important sense for a dog. For example, with some flowers, a dog does more than just smell the flowers. It will also use both its sight and sense of smell to assess the flowers and communicate their findings. Dogs are basically the opposite of humans, as we spend more time looking at visual information, where dogs prefer olfactory information. Knowing this, it becomes apparent that dogs can probably smell color in their own way, in the sense that they use their noses as their main sense to interpret what they see around them.


Signs Dogs Can Smell Color

It is believed that some people can actually smell colors or even hear colors, so it definitely seems plausible that dogs can too, seeing as they use more than one sense to perceive the world around them. The actual term for this is synaesthesia. Synaesthesia is described as the ability to join the senses. Sensations in one area (e.g., sight) produce sensations in another area (e.g., smell).

When dogs sense something they will often wag their tails, tilt their head in the direction of the sensation or become more alert and stare intently until they figure out what it is. 

Body Language

If you think your dog might be smelling color, watch for the following:

  • Staring
  • Alert
  • Head Tilting
  • Wag Tail
  • Sniffing

Other Signs

Other cues to watch for include:

  • Respond A Certain Way To Some Colors
  • Turning Away After Sniffing

History Behind Dogs Smelling Color


Research related to dogs and colors has been conducted.

In the early 1980s, tests were performed to see if dogs are actually colorblind. The results revealed that dogs are able to distinguish between some colors but not others. Therefore, they are not totally colorblind as they can see shades of grey. It’s better to describe them as similar to people who can see some colors but not the full spectrum. What was not able to be told at the time was whether the discrimination of colors was down to differentiating between different shades of grey or real colors. Research done at a later date was able to expand on this, however.

Other research related to color vision in dogs was also conducted in the 1980s. These studies highlighted that dogs can see color, but not necessarily as well as humans do. For humans, a rainbow looks red, orange, yellow, green, blue-green, blue, and violet. For a dog, we assume that it looks dark grey, dark yellow, grey, light blue, and dark blue. Like some humans, dogs see violet as blue.

Other studies revealed that dogs distinguish real colors as opposed to brightness cues. Dogs have two kinds of cones in their eyes, and therefore, they match any colors that they see with no more than two spectral lights. It seems that during evolution, the gift of seeing two wavelengths that are needed to be able to tell the difference between greens and red disappeared. In general, having the vision that a dog has does have its benefits, as its good for distinguishing colors in a dim light. 

Science Behind Dog's Smelling Color


When you look at the structure of a dog’s nose, it becomes clear why it is so efficient. The actual structure of the nose is what’s important here. The nose is formed with soft tissue, muscles, and bones, as well as veins, nerves, and a blood supply of arteries. These are connected to a specific area in a dog’s brain.

Humans are able to detect between 100 to 10,000 different scents. Dogs, on the other hand, can sense 100,000 times more than a human. The Bloodhound is the breed of dogs that has the highest sense of smell and has an ability to smell 10,000,000 times more than a human.

It’s believed that dogs can react to colors depending on how they perceive them and the shades of a scent are often related to its taste too. For example, take a yucky green-grey or a delicious orangey-red, or to be more specific, even a buttery yellow. Describing a scent of a color is tricky without linking a taste to it.

Training a Dog to Smell Color


If you want to train your dog to use their incredible sense of smell to smell colors, then you will need to begin by training by association, as this is how dogs learn. Simply put, if your dog does something, then they will be rewarded and this means the action is likely to be repeated. In order for this to work, the reward needs to be linked to the action. During training, a dog needs to get the reward within one second of completing the action.

In the case of smelling colors, a particular scent needs to be associated with a color, so the dog becomes aware that, for example, the smell of lavender links to the color purple.

When you are training a dog, there are some things that you need to remember:

  • Learning needs to be fun and your dog is then more likely to respond quickly.

  • Sessions of training need to be short, approximately two minutes long. These sessions need to take place around five times a day.

  • Rewards can either be a toy/game, food, or praise.

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By Charlotte Ratcliffe

Published: 04/20/2018, edited: 04/06/2020

Wag! Specialist
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