This article is not a detailed, complicated study of coat color genetics. I have written other pieces to answer that need. Here, I would like to aim this toward the beginner, though it should be a good review for the veteran breeder and valuable to people whose experience is only in one or two breeds.
It has been said that there are only two colors in dogs, at least in their coats. This is as true as saying there are only three primary colors in pigments for inks, paints, etc., and that most others are blends of those three. Even truer, for eumelanin (dark or black pigment) and phaeomelanin (yellow pigment) are the only chemically differentiated forms of melanin, the coat’s color substance. The various shades of brown, tan, red, and cream depend on the concentration of phaeomelanin in the hair shafts, the shape of the crystals, and other factors. Certain genes called modifiers can act on the major ones to cause the black to look blue or chocolate. White is not technically a color, but the absence of pigment.
In German Shepherd Dogs the basic allowable color patterns are: sable, two types of black-and-tan, and all-black. In some registries, all-white is also allowed, but the white dog is generally disqualified, as are blue dogs and liver (chocolate brown) dogs. A combination of the double presence of both liver and blue in the same dog gives a light-dusty color called “Isabella” and is what we see in the Weimaraner. Very rare is the GSD piebald mutation that some want to call “panda” although that animal’s pattern is not at all similar. At first, this recent genetic mutation was inaccurately called Waardenburg Syndrome disorder, and was said to produces both the piebald/spotted look and blue eyes. Eye color has not yet been established as verified or genetically connected yet, though. These dogs can still compete in most countries’ obedience rings, although not in their breed rings. Also, in the early days of the breed, from the 1890s to about 1920, we had other patterns in the breed. “Tiger striped” (brindle) and dapple (merle) dogs were used in sheep herding and in breeding programs for a while. Even a few spotted or ticked dogs (with Pointer-like markings) were in the background, but were quickly ignored, and gradually were lost to the gene pool.
You’ve all seen brindled Boxers and Whippets, so I need not describe this except to say it is genetically dominant, and if neither parent is brindle, the pups cannot possible acquire it. Therefore, if you find a brindle GSD, it is not purebred, no matter how good it may look. Merle is a spotted coloration seen in Collies, Shelties, Australian Shepherds, Cardigan Corgis, and a few others. It is a condition of dark (black or dark grey) spots “on top of” larger, lighter, bluish-grey or tan spots. The merling factor was lost from the German Shepherd Dog breed by the 1930s. Von Stephanitz and other founders of the SV (the German Club for GSDs) distrusted this coloring because it was associated with the Collie, which by that time had become known as a fancy or “sissy” dog, unsuitable for real herding work, police duty, or anything besides showing.
The word “sable” is probably the worst-understood in the GSD lexicography. It means different things to different people, and in different settings. Originating from the Greek word zobel, but appearing in similar forms in half a dozen other ancient languages, this word (as a noun) refers to the ermine, a weasel with glossy dark fur. In the arctic, a variety enters a winter white phase in which only the tip of its tail, its nose and footpads, and eyerims remain black. As an adjective, sable means black in any language. As a verb, it means to darken with black pigment. A person’s funeral or mourning clothes are called “sables.” So why all the confusion? Collie people must take the most blame. According to their breed standard (official description), sable is defined as “a fawn sable color of varying shades from light gold to dark mahogany”, with no mention of black except by intimation in the last two words. Fawn is usually taken to mean a fairly uniform yellow or tan, as you would see on many Boxers and solid-tan Danes. The Sheltie standard reads pretty much the same, and the Welsh Corgis merely list sable as an accepted color without hint of definition.
The German Shepherd Dog lays the most legitimate claim to the use of the word in its breed standard, for here it refers to a lighter (grey or tan) background color with a black overlay, as if a hand had been dusted with soot and the dog lightly stroked. The black-tipped hairs are fairly evenly distributed over the head, shoulders, back, sides, and tail, and in some individuals down the legs and chests as well. Unless there is this black tipping, the word “sable” should not be used, but the Collie, Sheltie, and Corgi people at AKC aren’t going to listen to this nit-picker on this subject.
Other breed standards call for sabling, but not by name, which is perhaps the wisest course to follow. The Belgian Malinois and Tervuren are supposed to have the same “black overlay,” with the Terv standard going into more detail about it. Keeshonden, Norwegian Elkhounds, Schnauzers, and Australian Terriers all have banded hairs, although in some circles it is believed not all are of the same genetic classification. Sabling is a result of banding (also called agouti or badger marking), with black always at the tips. Other types of coats or banded hairs may have black further down on the shafts, red (tan) at the top, or some other combination or order. I believe the above-named breeds have more right to claim the sable mantle than do the Collies, Corgis, and the like whose members don’t always have black-tipped hairs in their “sable” representatives.
In German Shepherd Dogs, there are two color varieties popularly lumped together as “black and tan.” The most common pattern is the basically brown, tan, or cream-colored dog with a black saddle, head markings, and upper surface of the tail. Preferably referred to as the “saddle-marked” dog, this pattern is seen in a few other breeds, such as the Bloodhound, Airedale, Welsh and Lakeland Terriers, and the smaller scenthounds from Foxhound to Beagle, although in these latter breeds the presence of white throws many novices off from seeing the similarity in some individuals.
The other black and tan pattern is the same as seen in Dobes, Rottweilers, Manchester Terriers, Coonhounds, some Afghans, Dachshunds, Min Pins, and even the Bernese Mountain Dog, though here again the white may be distracting. In the Shepherd, this Rottweiler-type B&T pattern is known as “bicolor.”
While the solid black GSD is described more fully elsewhere, it should be noted here that the genetic determinants for all-black in this breed are not the same as in several other breeds. In the German Shepherd, solid black is of a recessive nature, which means that to produce a black, both parents must either carry the all-black factor as a recessive or be black themselves (or one of each). Genes exist in pairs, and each pup gets one half of a pair from Dad and one half of a pair from Mom. In Labrador Retrievers and most other breeds, solid black is a dominant trait, which means that you cannot produce a black unless at least one of the parents is black. Recessive black, as in GSDs, can be carried hidden from generation to generation and suddenly pop up unexpectedly.
White is an existing “color” in German Shepherds, apparently recessive to all the others including black, but I’ve already written on this subject a few times. I say “apparently” because not all white GSDs are genotypically the same—that is, there seem to be two different causes for all-white in the GSD. But that is a more involved and complicated genetic study than would fit in this introductory article.
Whatever the color of your German Shepherd or other breed of dog, I hope you will give him the best training and care you can. He didn’t make his color, doesn’t know what color he is, and he doesn’t care. Why should you?