Colour & Pigment
Written & Illustrated by Linda
Acceptable colours in the shepherd
coat are black and tan. Black, created by the pigment eumelanin,
varies in its degree of extension over the body, while tan, created
by the pigment phaeomelanin, varies in its richness. A well
pigmented dog will show black extending over at least 50% of its
body, with a strong, uniform tan ranging from a golden, "autumn
grass" colour to a rich, reddish mahogany. These colours are
arranged in four patterns. They are, in order from most to least
dominant: sable, black and tan (B&T), bicolour and black.
1. Rich saddle sable, black sable,
Sable is the original wolf colour, with a paler ground colour
overlaid with a mantle of black tipped guard hairs. In the shepherd
this ground will be tan, with an overlay which is heavy and may
appear from a distance to be black. Willis discusses, but is not
convinced of, the existence of two alleles for sable: grey and
yellow. However, the same variation in colour can occur in B&Ts, and
can be perfectly well explained by other, better documented genetic
influences. I do suspect however, that there may be two sable
alleles affecting the degree of extension of the black mantle: one
for the saddle or blanket marked sable, the other for the so-called
black sable, which shows distinct black markings on its pasterns,
toes, stifles, and hocks, and often black overlay on the throat and
chest. Some black sables are so dark that they appear black, until
they move and the lighter under fur shows through. Two such alleles,
if they exist, would coincide with the genetic distribution of
pigment in the B&T and the darker bicolour.
I don't believe a sable actually
improves pigmentation in breeding just because it's a sable. A sable
can be as poorly pigmented as any other pattern. I do think that a
sable must be more melanistic (dark) than an average B&T just to
appear equally dark, and therefore brings greater pigmentation to a
breeding because it is genetically darker. But the same results
could be achieved by breeding to an equally melanistic B&T.
2. Rich B&T, melanistic B&T, faded
B&Ts also show a rich tan ground, but have black saddles or blankets
made up of guard hairs which are black to, or close to, the skin.
The black mantle should cover the nape of the neck, the shoulders
and distinctive harness markings, back and sides down to nearly the
belly, croup and tail. Often tan or grey shows through at the neck
and down the tail, but if this is noticeable over the croup or along
the sides, or the tail lacks a black tip, colour paling is present.
"Salt and peppering" of the withers and back is quite common in
bitches, even very dark ones, but is more commonly seen in faded
males than dark ones. A very pale B&T can easily be mistaken for a
light sable, but if they're that hard to tell apart, they're both
very faded in pigmentation and should be faulted accordingly. Very
dark B&Ts are often advertised as bicolours, and can have heads,
necks and bodies that are nearly solid black. However, they usually
show some tan shading about the base of the ears, and have few or no
black hairs down the pasterns, or on the toes or hocks.
3. Rich Bicolour, Melanistic
Bicolour, faded bicolour.
Typically, the bicolour is a black dog with tan points much the same
as a doberman. It is in fact the same gene. A very dark one with a
strong black mask and much extension of the black may appear to be
solid black, with a black undercoat and only some tan shading on the
feet. Theoretically, bicolours always show tan around the vent, but
I have seen a virtually black dog with just enough tan around the
vent (and between the toes) to suspect that it was a bicolour, but
not enough to be sure. However, a pale bicolour can look strikingly
like a black sable, showing much black over a light grey undercoat,
with tan or grey over the nape of the neck and along the harness
lines, and black markings on the legs and feet. These dogs have the
genetics for fading of the black mantle, and while they can still
appear dark to the eye, will produce colour fading.
A black is a black is a black. Some blacks may show tan hairs
between the toes or on the pasterns, and some may even show a bit of
grey undercoat over the neck and shoulders. Maur Ray kennels, an
American show kennel specializing in blacks in the 1940's, suggested
that blacks bred of blacks for several generations showed fewer and
fewer light hairs, until they were absolutely pure black. Breeding
to a black to improve pigmentation however, is not recommended
unless its pedigree is made up of dark dogs of other patterns. It is
not uncommon for pale B&Ts to throw blacks, who will in their turn
throw pale B&Ts. A black will not reliably show the genetics for
absence of mask, paling tan or fading mantle, and can easily hide
and pass on the genes for fading colour.
The black mask, so necessary for strong shepherd expression, appears
to be a separate dominant gene. It is quite possible for a very
strongly pigmented dog to lack mask, or for a fading dog to show a
strong mask. The mask involves the muzzle up to and around the eyes.
The dark brow band is genetically related to the mantle, so that a
dog with a faded mantle will probably have a tan or nearly tan
forehead, while the dog with the strong, heavy black mantle will
show a black brow. A bicolour with no mask will be marked like a
Doberman; black through the face with a tan muzzle and throat, and
the black with no mask will be impossible to distinguish. In sables,
the brow takes on the badger-like sable effect, while the muzzle
6. Black & Silver, Red and faded
Paling pigmentation is not desirable, but its various manifestations
can be rather complicated. A fading of the black mantle to little
more than a smudge is decidedly unattractive, but on a tomato red
dog seems less apparent and is often forgiven. The dog with the
strong black mantle and mask, but with a creamy or even silvery
ground colour may possess a gene for partial albinism, and is
equally undesirable. Under certain circumstances, this dog may
produce whites. White markings are not desirable of course, although
a small white spot on the chest is common even in dark phase wolves,
and may as well be ignored so long as it doesn't spread further.
Pink toenails may signal the appearance of a more invasive white
spotting gene. Deep black nails are an indicator of overall mantle
pigmentation, as dogs with poor saddles usually have fleshy or dusky
nails. White can occur as a result of several different genes, some
associated with colour fading (appearing creamy, with dusky lips and
nose), some not (appearing milky, with black lips and nose), but
under the standard, white is white and is not acceptable. However,
according to Willis, deafness is the result of a double recessive
merle white which does not occur in shepherds, so white shepherd
puppies are not at risk of this defect.
7. Four patterns of Blue. 8. Four
patterns of Liver.
The blue and liver genes, once rare, now seem to have captured the
imaginations of pet breeders, if my search of the internet is any
indication. If otherwise well bred, they can be quite striking in
appearance. They are not expressly forbidden, but the standard
demands the nose leather be black, and these dilutions show blue and
brown leather. The blue gene causes the black pigmentation in both
hair and skin to turn steel grey, often very dark, while the tan
ground remains much the same, or takes on a slightly silvery cast.
The liver gene does much the same, turning black pigmentation brown.
In both, the eyes take on a peculiar, silvery yellow colour. Both
dilutions are simple recessives and can occur in all patterns, and
when these recessives link, the result is the silvery fawn of the
Weimaraner and Isabella Doberman Blues and fawns, according to
Doberman breeders, tend to have poor hair coats, a good enough
reason for culling them, but the so-called lethal gene once thought
to be associated with liver appears not to exist. Blue, liver and
white puppies should be placed in loving homes where they will be
neutered and live as valued pets. Puppies should never be euthanized
because of their colour.
B&T with bright points, Sable with bright points, Willis pg 132*
One oddity of colour seen occasionally is the tendency for the tan
ground colour to divide into two different tones of tan. The
"points" of lighter markings most obviously seen in the bicolour
seem to exist genetically in all patterns. I've seen B&Ts and sables
with strong mantles and deep, rich tan, but showing well defined
points of cream on the feet, chest, throat and cheeks; what the
Germans seem to call "bright". In one family I've observed, this
trait has been remarkably tenacious, and great care should be taken
to select partners who have tan which is uniformly rich.
10. Brindle B&T
I can't resist mentioning the brindle, which was one of the founding
patterns of the breed and seems to have become extinct. The
brindling gene affected the tan ground, so that B&T's and bicolours
showed a dark striping or marbling (the same effect seen in brindle
boxers) over the tan which was not at all unattractive. I wouldn't
hazard to guess what a brindle marked sable would look like.
Hopefully, if the pattern somehow reappeared, it would not be
discarded as atypical.
Eye colour is unrelated to coat
pigmentation. A very dark dog can have very light eyes, while a very
pale dog can have very dark eyes. The standard says eyes should be
as dark as possible, but a dead black eye is rather expressionless.
Others suggest the eye should harmonize with the overall colouring,
but a lighter face is even more attractive with a rich, medium to
dark brown eye, so there is really no reason to settle for a lighter
eye. In very melanistic dogs even the gums can be black, and black
spotting of the tongue is not uncommon. The skin under areas of
black, whatever the pattern, will be an ice blue, but under areas of
tan will tend to be pinker. All areas of exposed skin, except for
the ear flap and vent, should be black, although in dark dogs, even
these can take on a blackish cast. Nails should always be black.
* Willis, Malcolm B., B.Sc. Ph.D.,
1977, The German Shepherd Dog: Its History, Development and
Genetics. New York; Arco Publishing. p. 132.