This question rose to fame in the 2004 film Shaun of the Dead, where Simon Pegg’s character proclaimed that pub landlord ‘Big Al’ was not to be trusted as he wrongly believed, according to Pegg’s character, that dogs couldn’t look up (quote: “Yeah, but Big Al says dogs can’t look up!”). Interestingly, though, Big Al may not have been entirely wide of the mark.
Dog owners will assert that dogs can clearly look upwards, as they often gaze up towards their owners. However, this does not mean that a dog has the same level of head movement as a human; the structure of a dog’s neck and spine prohibits extreme movements. A dog is able to point its head upwards, but only to a certain degree, and they can move their eyeballs upwards much less so. For this reason they often ‘look about’ by moving their heads rather than their eyes. When lying down, though, the level of head-tilting a dog can perform increases, which is why a dog may often lie down to observe an overhead bird or other elevated object. In addition, it is very rare for a dog to be able to look straight upwards without lying flat on its back or standing upright.
Another reason that this question is so popular is that many dog owners often observe that a dog may fail to look up towards their owner when they are called to from a height, leading them to believe the dog is unable to move its head out of a horizontal position. In actuality, a dog’s perception of up and down is very poor, and they are often unable to discern the height of a noise source, although they can ascertain its direction in a flat plane.
So, can dogs look up? Yes, but only to a certain degree. ‘Big Al’ was almost right.