Can Poodles See Well in the Dark? What Do They See?

It is one of the most common, subconscious assumptions people make about their fur-babies: Of course, poodles can see much better than humans can at night! Yet, when you really think about it, can they truly see that well – or is it a myth?

Poodles can see much better in the darkness than their humans can. They have a higher number of rod photoreceptors in their eyes, along with the tapetum lucidum, which allows them to reflect even low concentrations of light back through the retina. At night, Poodles perceive the world in hues of blue and yellow.

When compared to humans’ vision, poodles’ vision is certainly much better at detecting both moving and stationary objects during the nighttime. This, of course, is a benefit they have inherited directly from their ancestral wolf DNA. Yet, as time has passed, domestic dogs have developed visual attributes that allow their night vision to be superior to a human’s, but it comes with a few caveats. 

What Makes Up Your Poodle’s Sense of Sight

Behind the common trope that dogs see only in black and white is the ever-popular speculation of their ability to see the world as clearly at night as they do in the daytime. Although your poodle has much better vision during the nighttime than you do, to say they can see in “total darkness” may be a bit misleading. 

When considering the vision capabilities of canines, you must first understand the elements that contribute to their sense of sight. “Vision” is a collective term that refers to an organism’s ability to:

  • Detect light (and the array of colors that light waves create)
  • Perceive the motion of objects and other organisms
  • Have a specific field and depth of view
  • Have a visual perspective that may differ from others’

No matter what type of animal it is, an organism’s sense of sight is powered by components in the eye known as “rods” and “cones.” The responsibilities of these components in the eye slightly differ in the following ways:

  • Cone photoreceptors: These allow your poodle to have color vision. (Yes, your pup can see color! Well, certain colors, anyway!) The number of cone photoreceptors in the eye determines the range of shades the eye can detect. 
    • Note: For context, know that humans have three photopigment populations (groups of cells in the eye that experience chemical changes when they absorb light.) These populations pick up red, blue, and green wavelengths. Your poodle, on the other hand, has only two photopigment populations. This allows them to see blue clearly, and red, green, and yellow, with a bit of trouble. (Sources: Medical Dictionary, American Veterinarian)
  • Rod photoreceptors: These photoreceptors team up with the cones to boost the sensitivity of the retina in low light. They are also responsible for providing both you and your poodle with peripheral vision. Since they are much more sensitive to light than cones (by 500 to 1,000 times), they are essential to an organism’s ability to see in the darkness. (Source: American Academy of Ophthalmology

So, how does this all come together to help your poodle see in the dark?

How Your Poodle Sees in the Dark

Now that you understand what components make up your pooch’s vision, you can better appreciate their proportions and how that plays into their ability to see relatively clearly at night. Human eyes typically have around 120 million rods and 5 million cones. The cones are positioned in the center of the retina. In contrast, the rods are located on the outer periphery of the retina. (Source: Bio Differences)

Though there is no exact number available on the number of rods and cones in the domestic dog’s eye, researchers know that it is comparable to that of a housecat. Both of these animals have tremendously better vision than humans do in the darkness, by several hundred-fold. This is partially due to the higher number of rods in the dog’s eye than in humans. 

Current knowledge reflects that cats have a concentration of rods in the eye that is about five times higher than the average human’s. Again, there is no distinct number available for dogs, but it is known that it is comparable to that of domestic cats.

This ability to see comparatively well at nighttime is also attributed to the presence of a tissue known as the tapetum lucidum. This is a reflective, single layer of cells found directly behind the retina. Not only is it what’s responsible for making your poodle’s eyes seemingly glow at night, but it also reflects light in such a way that brightens the environment from your dog’s perspective and helps them to see more clearly. (Source: Sciencing

Can Poodles See in Total Darkness?

Your poodle will be able to see in much greater detail in the darkness than you would be able to, even though your eyes are constructed similarly (except for a few features). The reflected light from their tapetum lucidum allows their surrounding environment to be more illuminated than it would be otherwise. 

Instead of having to rely on the available light in the area as a human would, their eyes instead take in all that light and enhance it with this mirror-like effect. It is for this reason that poodles can’t see in total darkness. There has to be at least some available light to be reflected and enhanced in this way. However, there are some drawbacks to this ability. 

Due to the reflection mechanism, the light that enters your Poodle’s eye is scattered quite heavily. This reduces the resolution – or detail – with which the image is registered on the retina. Fortunately, this isn’t too big of a concern at nighttime, since the cone photoreceptors step in to add just a bit more sharpness to the colors of all objects within sight. However, this can make seeing slightly challenging in broad daylight.

Two more details contribute to your poodle’s ability to see in the darkness:

  • Visual acuity: This refers to the distance that your pup can stand apart from an object and still see it. In humans, the standard visual acuity is 20/20. Comparatively, your poodle’s vision stands at an average of 20/75. This means that they would have to stand 20 feet away from something to see it as well as a human standing 75 feet away from it.
    • Note: While your pup would have to stand closer to an object to see it with the same level of detail as a person that was standing far away, understand that this does not suggest that humans can see better at nighttime. Your dog still has more rods than you and is equipped with the tapetum lucidum, making them better prepared for night vision.
  • Visual resolution: As mentioned before, this is the level of detail with which your poodle interprets their sight. Although this is affected in part by the tapetum lucidum, this metric is also determined directly by the number of cones in the eye. Why? Cones are not only involved in detecting coloration, but they register high-resolution imagery as well. 
    • Note: Again, there is no specific number available for the number of rods and cones in a dog’s eye. However, scientists know that cat’s have only about one-eighth the concentration of cones that humans do, and other domestic animals, such as dogs, are comparable. 

So, although your poodle can use the environmental light much more efficiently than humans can, there are some compromises to this evolutionary adaptation. They will be able to detect objects and other organisms during the night, but not with nearly as much detail as they might desire.

Factors That Hinder Your Poodle’s Night Vision

In addition to the drawbacks caused by the light scattered by the tapetum lucidum, your poodle’s eyes are also fitted with significantly fewer optic fibers than yours. The human optic nerve contains about 1.2 million nerve fibers, whereas your poodle has between 167,000. What does this mean for your pooch? This means that they cannot register as many details of their environment as they might wish. (Source: Leading Edge of Medicine, Review on Vision of Dogs)

Additionally, they do not have a fovea. The absence of the fovea may be dealing a massive blow to your dog’s night vision capabilities, as it is the site within the eye that is responsible for delivering the highest level of visual acuity. It is also the central component of the part of the eye known as the “macula,” which is responsible for central vision. (Source: National Center for Biotechnology Information, Anatomy of the Head and Neck, and Eye Fovea)

Instead of a fovea, your poodle has a “visual streak” that has been handed down to them by their presumed ancestors, wolves. In wolves, at least, this component of the eye allows them to interpret their environment with surprising detail in low light, even out on the horizon. Sadly, though, in dogs, this feature of the eye has been quite degraded as millennia have passed.

Where wolves have a high density of ganglion cells in this visual streak (approximately 12,000-14,000mm2), domestic dogs have only a measly 6,400-14,400/mm2. Ganglion cells are responsible for sending information from the optic nerves to the brain, so this is quite a loss for your poodle’s night vision. 

What do Poodles See at Night?

Your poodle can pick up on most of the same visual cues that they would be able to in the daytime. Yet, what they see will be interpreted with significantly less detail and potentially a misrepresentation of color. (Think of how differently a yellow car appears than it does in the daytime.) When it comes to determining what exactly your poodle sees at night, two main things need to be considered:

  • Evolutionary development of the domestic dog’s eye. 
  • The color spectrum that your poodle can detect.

Recall earlier that the presence of rods and cones in the eye was discussed. The two have very distinct jobs for your dog’s vision, both in the day and nighttime. As domestic dogs gradually evolved (with the help of humans, of course) from their ancestral roots, the needs for certain types of photoreceptors changed. 

The leading assumption of domestic dog evolution is that they came from wild wolves. Wolves are mainly crepuscular, meaning they are most active at dawn and dusk. They can also be nocturnal (active during the night).

What does this mean for your dog’s vision? Nocturnal animals are usually monochromatic, meaning they can only detect the shades of a single photopigment. These colors are usually seen with a red or green hue. Dogs, however, are dichromatic, as mentioned earlier. 

This means that they fall between humans and their ancestors, able to see things at night with the following hues:

  • Blue
  • Yellow

Your pup cannot distinguish between the colors red, green, and yellow. So, if there is an object that appears green or red, they will interpret it as yellow. (The extent to which something appears yellow depends on which color it is. Red objects will not appear red whatsoever, while green objects can appear somewhat green, with a yellow tinge.)

Your Poodle’s Ability to Detect Motion in Darkness

The ability to perceive motion is a critical element in what comprises your poodle’s sense of vision. One thing that distinguishes domestic animals’ ability to see at night from humans’ is the speed at which they can detect movement. This function is known as the “fusing” of cone responses.

As your eyes pick up light, the photoreceptors are stimulated by each flash of light, otherwise known as visual stimuli. Between each flash of light, these photoreceptors need time to recover to perceive the next one accurately. As these flashes occur back to back at rapid speeds, the photoreceptors cannot recover and end up fusing the stimuli to see continuous movement.

Humans typically experience this fusion when the stimuli occur at a minimum speed of 45Hz. (This is why TVs and other screens depicting motion pictures project images at 60Hz in the U.S.) Your poodle, on the other hand, likely starts fusion somewhere between 70 to 80Hz. 

This means that, essentially, they could be seeing the same motion as you, but viewing at a speed that is slow motion in comparison. This is one of the many reasons why your poodle can see so much better at night than you can. They can quite literally detect more minute movements than you can, even in the blink of an eye! 

Why It Seems Your Poodle Can See Perfectly at Night

Admittedly, when considering all the research behind your poodle’s night vision, the reality of what they can truly see is a tad bit disappointing. Still, though it may seem that human vision and dog vision are comparable on some levels, remember that your pooch’s eyes are not all they use to navigate through the darkness.

There is a lot more to your poodle’s night vision than meets the eye (no pun intended). As Dr. Eric J. Miller of Ohio State University’s Veterinary Medical Center explains, you must be careful about your assumptions of dog’s capabilities concerning sight during the night. Although research is still being conducted on this matter, the way dogs’ brains interpret information may never be known. (Source: Pet MD)

We have to be careful when assuming what animals actually ‘see’ because we know not what their brain interprets from the information it receives,” Miller says. “We understand fairly well what their eyes are capable of, and it’s likely that their brains interpret something similar to ours, but we really don’t know that.”

Dr. Eric J. Miller of Ohio State University’s Veterinary Medical Center

All this speculation is centered on one assumption: That the way dogs interpret visual stimuli is similar, if not identical, to ours. Though it may seem that the absence of a fovea and the numerous issues with resolution reduce their night vision capacity, these things may not have that big of an impact on it at all. 

Remember that sight is not the only sense that dogs use to navigate at night, nor is it the only sense that is sharper than their human counterparts. Other key senses for navigation include:

  • Smell 
  • Hearing
  • Magnetoreception

Yes, you read that right: magnetoreception. Scientists have recently discovered that dogs are capable of using the Earth’s magnetic field to navigate their environment, even in the dark. So, the next time you think your dog is getting around better than you due only to their vision, think again! It takes a lot more than rods and cones to power your dog’s compass, even when you believe they can hardly see a thing. (Source: Science)

In Conclusion

Many things determine your poodle’s ability to see at night, such as:

  • Their detectable color spectrum
  • Their ability to perceive motion
  • The minimum amount of light available to reflect off the tapetum lucidum
  • Additional senses including smell and hearing
  • Their ability to use the Earth’s magnetic field for navigation

Though there are many drawbacks to your poodle’s night vision, the additional senses they use to interact with their environment in both the day and nighttime may balance any potential weaknesses out. The way that your poodle – and dogs, in general – navigate the world is genuinely fascinating!

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Brent Hartman

I'm Brent Hartman. I've been a dog lover my entire life and have owned many animals over the years. When my black lab Angus passed away, I was looking for another friend to share my life with. As a result of my research, I've come to love poodles and wanted to share some of what I've learned with you. Whether you're looking to adopt a poodle, or already own one, I created Poodle report to be the ultimate guide to help you find the answers you need.

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