Dog owners often choose a particular type of toy for a reason. Some have dogs that love to cuddle, so they go for the cute plush toys. Others look for rugged toys that can resist their dog's chewing. I've even known several dog owners who shopped for "natural" toys that simulated the types of objects that dogs might encounter in the wild. One dog owner only purchased brown dog toys in the hopes that her dog's play would be more fulfilling and exciting. It's true that many elements in the wild contain shades of brown, including animal fur and tree bark; but does the color of a toy really change how a dog will react to it?
To understand the effect of color on dogs, first we must understand the difference between human and canine color perception. You've probably heard that dogs are "colorblind" or "only see in black and white." While we can't talk to dogs about what they see, certain trials have been performed to study how dogs' eyes work. Studies have shown that dogs have something called dichromatic vision. This means that their eyes can detect only part of the visible spectrum of light, and as a result dogs are thought to see mostly in shades of yellow and blue.
The colors that humans can perceive usually include violet, blue, blue green, green, yellow, orange, and red. For comparison, a dog's rainbow probably consists of shades of dark blue, light blue, grey, light yellow, darker yellow (probably similar to what we perceive as brown), and very dark grey. What we perceive as green, yellow, and orange look yellowish to dogs, and violet appears similar to blue. Dogs might perceive red as a very dark grey or black. Their ability to distinguish between shades of grey is better than that of humans and is likely linked to their ability to see in low-light environments.
More significant than simple color to dogs' vision is the amount of contrast between the object and the background. Those bright orange balls and rubber bones that are easy for humans to find become almost invisible to dogs when thrown into a grassy field. Dogs perceive the orange of the toy and the green of the grass as similar shades of yellow. Finding a blue version of the same object in a grassy field is much easier because of the contrast between the blue of the toy and the yellow of the field. However, toys that are violet, dark blue, red and brown might work best when playing on a lightly colored carpet.
Multicolored toys such as can be easy for dogs to see because their contrasting hues can stand out on indoor surfaces. Toys with contrasting bands of bright colors such as white and red or blue and yellow can be easier to find in a variety of environments. Some toys, come in several colors that can be easier for your dog to see in different situations. "Flying" toys must contrast against a blue sky, so green or yellow or pink-colored toys like are easy for dogs to track as they zoom through the air.
One more thing to consider is how important the sense of sight actually is to dogs. Humans collect most of their information about the world by seeing. Dogs, however, rely mostly on their sense of smell to learn about the things around them. Although certain aspects of sight such as night vision and the ability to perceive small movements are more developed in dogs than in humans, smelling is still the predominant way that dogs collect information. Scents that might be particularly intriguing to most dogs include urine, feces, certain types of food and the smell of animals such as mice and chipmunks. Materials that seem unscented to humans might be quite fragrant to a dog. The scent of a specific toy, rather than its color, might be a powerful attractant. Even if a dog has a hard time seeing a toy, a pup's nose can lead him straight to it.
If you are trying to provide an outlet for your dog's "natural instincts", earth-tone toys probably won't be much help.
What factors best determine whether or not a dog will enjoy a toy? The toy's smell and the dog's ability to find the toy play a much larger role than the toy's color. Your pet's desire to play with sticks or to chase a rabbit probably has more to do with the scent of those items rather than their color. The object's motion is a factor as well, since dogs can perceive smaller motions than humans can. If encouraging instinctual activities is important to you, behaviors like tugging and chasing can be encouraged with toys designed for these activities. A toy called Pentapulls which is a pull-tug toy is excellent for a rousing game of tug-of-war and interactive toys puzzle toy use the appeal of a tasty snack to encourage play.
For the ultimate "natural toy" experience, some dogs enjoy interacting with grass, sticks and pinecones. It's not quite the thrill of the chase through the woods, but for domestic dogs it's often a welcome taste of the wild.