by C. A. Sharp
Whelping an Australian Shepherd litter is like opening a series of surprise packages. Will the next pup be black? Red? Will it be merle or have showy white markings? Will its copper be bright?
Sometimes the surprise is bigger than the breeder bargains for. There, among the tiny squirming bodiesblack and blue merle, red merle and redis color that clashes with our notions of what an Aussie should look like.
Aussies are a young breed. There are people still active who can remember a time before breed clubs. A few may still recall when no one registered Aussies at all. In those days, Aussies came in all the colors we know today, plus a few. These other colors were not common even then, but their genes still lurk in the Aussie gene pool. Every once in a while those genes align.
In the years before registries, more than a few breeds likely contributed to what is today the Australian Shepherd. At the time, the ranchers and farmers most likely to have the dogs were only concerned that pups would prove useful. Thus two proven workers would be mated in hopes of producing more of the same, without much concern for whether their parents were purebreds or of the same breed and certainly not for what color they were. In those days before neutering became common there were also probably more than a few oops litters.
It is safe to say that just about every herding breed and probably a few hunting breeds were among the contributors to todays Aussie. This contributed to our varied set of acceptableand unacceptablecolors. The Farmers Dog, a classic work on the Border Collie, observes that all of the acceptable Australian Shepherd colors plus the most common unacceptable ones have occurred in that breed. English Shepherds come in the same group of colors, except for merle.
Off-colored pups are becoming more rare, but every breeder needs to be aware of the colors most likely to occur and the genes that produce them.
Dilute: One of the two most common unacceptable colors is dilute, a recessive trait. It should not be confused with dilution spots, which are isolated off-color areas in an otherwise normally colored coat. In dilutes, the coat color, whether black, red or merled, is lightened by the action of a pair of these genes. Areas that would otherwise be black appears slate blue, blue areas are a significantly paler shade than would occur without the dilute genes. Liver will become Isabella, a buffy-orange shade. The dilution will not affect tan (copper) trim.
The result can be quite strikinga blue coat trimmed with white and bright copper or a merle with slate blue on silver. Dilutes of black and blue merle are easy to spot. Not so reds. Due to the variability of pigment depth in our reds and especially red merles, a dilute may appear washed-out but not evoke further comment.
Dilute is also seenand is acceptablein Great Danes, Weimeraners, Neopolitan Mastiffs and Dobermans, among other breeds. In Dobes, but not the other breeds, it is sometimes associated with skin problems. This does not appear to be the case in Aussies, either. Since dilute is a recessive. Both parents must carry the gene for puppies to be dilute in color.
Yellow and Reds with Black Noses: The other most common unacceptable color, the result of another diluting gene, is E-locus yellow. Also recessive, this gene acts on the base color, whether black or red, merle or not, causing it to be colors ranging from pale yellow to chestnut. Aussie breeders have sometimes called the color peach. If the color is at the chestnut end of the scale and the dog also has at least one gene for black, the result will be a red with a black nose.
If the animal is merle, the pattern may be visible when it is young but tends to fade to an even color in the adult coat. Tan markings will not be apparent, though white will. If the dog carries two red genes, the nose, eye rims, lips and pads will be liver.
Sable: This color is most commonly associated with Collies. It may have come to Aussies from that breed or the Shetland Sheepdog, but Border Collies and English Shepherds will also occur in this color. While once seen fairly frequently, it is now extremely rare. Aussies described as sable today are almost always actually E-locus recessives.
According to Clarence Little, author of The Inheritance of Coat Color in Dogs, the gene that causes sable color is dominant to that for tan trim. Most Aussies have tan trim and therefore cannot carry sable. A truly sable Aussie would have to have at least one self colored (no tan trim) parent who carried the sable gene or a sable parent.
When a sable individual is also a merle, the result is a sable merle. The color is often muddy and unattractive. For this reason Collie and Sheltie breeders tend to keep merle and sable lines separate. In some individuals, the merle pattern may be so indistinct the observer will not know the dog is merle.
Saddle Pattern: A color pattern common in German Shepherd Dogs and universal in Airedale Terriers, the saddle pattern features a blanket of full pigment over the back with lighter hair ranging from beige to red over the rest of the body. These individuals will not have tan trim (the lighter color areas are actually very widely-distributed tan). They may have white markings. The color of the saddle will reveal the dogs genotype as regards black/red and merle/solid.
The gene for this color pattern lies on the same series as self-color, sable and tan, falling between the latter two in dominance. Like sable, saddle pattern pups would have to have at least one parent without tan trim. A sable could produce a saddle pattern, but their rarity in the breed makes this unlikely.
Brindle is a lacy pattern of one color over another. The brindling is usually arranged in irregular stripes extending from the dorsal line on a forward slant. It is often seen in Greyhounds and Boxers, as well as a number of other breeds.
The pattern is easily distinguished on a slick-coated dog but may be less obvious on our coated Aussies, as the longer hair would obscure the striping and blend the colors.
The color of the stripes an Aussie can have vary, depending upon whether the dog has genes for black or red, merle or not. The brindle stripes could also be dilute in the unlikely circumstance than the Aussie was also homozygous for the dilute gene. The rest of the color will be beige to deep red. The brindle dog may have white markings, but not tan.
Brindle is recessive to full pigment but dominant to recessive yellow. Brindle will overlay tan areas, so a dog carrying a single brindle gene would have brindled tan. This last might be difficult to distinguish from the blending of tan and the base coat color which occurs frequently in Aussies.
Always rare, this the genes for this color may have been lost to the Aussie gene pool.
Excessive White: Most Aussie breeders learn early on that breeding merle to merle can result in defective pups, most of which will have excessive white per the breed standard. [ see