Can Dogs Look Up?

By Sarah Jeanne Terry
beagle dog on white background
credit: aradaphotography/iStock/GettyImages

If you spend much time in online forums, particularly those dealing with pets, then you've probably seen this question come up. Many people want to know definitively whether or not dogs are capable of looking up, and even more people are frustrated by an array of more nuanced answers.

So we decided to take a look at the question and explain the issue of dogs looking up to hopefully settle this fierce online debate.

Why are so many people asking the question?

You may first be wondering why a question like this has become popular in the first place. Like so many quandaries in our modern age, this question started with a movie. Because let's face it, we're all a little too apt to believe the things we hear in movies. In 2004, the cult comedy _Shaun of the Dead_ posed the question, and ever since then, people have been wondering if it's true.

The character Shaun (played by Simon Pegg) is drinking in the bar with his friend Ed (played by Nick Frost), when they start going around the bar talking about the other patrons. They bring up a character named Big Al, because he told Ed that the bartender has mafia ties. In response, Shaun says, "Yeah, well, Big Al also says dogs can't look up." You can see the moment from the film below:

Even though in the movie, it's meant as a totally tossed off line to suggest that Big Al probably doesn't know what he's talking about, the internet took hold. Thousands of people search the internet for this question every month.

We can't know for sure how it became such a phenomenon, but it seems that what started as people referencing the movie turned into people asking the actual question — can dogs look up? Because the real answer is somewhat mixed, it's a question that has continued to be asked again and again.

So what's the real story? Can dogs look up?

As it turns out, the answer is yes and no.

Anecdotally, almost any dog owner can tell you — from watching their own dogs — that yes, dogs can in fact look up. Since they're shorter than humans, dogs often have to look up at us. Sometimes dogs look up because they saw a bird or heard a squirrel in a tree. So yes, they can look in an upward direction.

But, it turns out, dogs can't look all the way up.

Dogs' anatomy is different than ours, and the structure of their spine means they can't move their head as freely as humans can. Dogs can move their head upward, but not all the way.

Golden Retriever, nineteen months old, sitting, white background.
credit: GlobalP/iStock/GettyImages

Also, dogs' eyes have limited motion. So when a dog looks up, their eyes also move up, but again, the motion is limited. While a dog is able to see something that is higher than itself, dogs can't look directly upward with a simple motion of the head, like humans can.

In order for a dog to look straight up, they usually have to adjust their whole body position, like this dog made in a video as proof that dogs can look up.

Adding to their difficulties, dogs don't always perceive up and down as clearly as we do.

Even though dogs hear much better than we do (about 40 times better), that doesn't mean they perceive the world in the same way. When dogs hear a noise coming from above them, they don't necessarily understand that it's coming from above.

That's why many dog owners notice, unlike the dog in the video, that their dogs don't look up when they call them from above.

This issue is not about anatomy, but about dogs' brains and how they perceive the world around them. However, too often, we assume that our animals should experience the world just as we do, so when dogs don't react the way humans think they should, we jump to conclusions like "my dog can't look up." When instead, what is happening is that dogs don't look up as frequently as we think they should.

So yes, your dog can look up, but maybe not as often as you think.

Boston terrier looking up at the camera
credit: studio-laska/iStock/GettyImages

This question provides us all with a healthy reminder that our dogs aren't humans, so they behave and move a little differently.