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Basic colors 

There are 2 basic coat colors in Shelties, sable and black.  These 2 colors are found in 3 different combinations, sable and white ("sable"), black and white ("bicolor or bi-black"), and black, white and tan ("tricolor" or "tri").  Each dog carries 2 genes for color. 

Sable is dominant over both tricolor and bi-black.  Any dog that has a sable gene, will be a sable, regardless of what other color gene it carries.  A sable can be a wide range of shades, from golden brown or red to dark brown with heavy black shading.  Some people erroneously think that a sable with black shading is a tricolor.  If a dog's predominant coat color is brown or red, it is a sable, regardless of how much black overlay the coat exhibits. 

 A tricolor is a black and white dog with tan points (small areas of tan above the eyes, on the sides of the face and possibly on the legs.  If a dog has a sable gene and a tricolor gene, it is referred to as a "tri-factored sable," meaning that it can pass on either a sable or a tricolor gene.  A sable with a bi-black gene is called a "bi-factored sable." 

Tricolor is dominant over bi-black, so a tricolor can have either 2 genes for tricolor or one for tricolor and one for bi-black (referred to as a "bi-factored tri").  Since the bi-black gene is recessive to both other combinations, a bi-black can only have 2 genes for bi-black.

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Color modifying genes

Merle

The merle gene is a color modifier that acts on the basic coat color and produces a mottled pattern and can also produce blue eyes.  This gene is in addition to the 2 color genes that each dog carries.  A dog with a merle gene will be a merle.  A sable with a merle gene is referred to as a sable merle.  Merling in a sable coat is more subtle than it is in a black coat.  In a black coat, the merle gene produces a pattern of varying shades of gray with black patches.  Although the term "blue merle" actually denotes this gray blue pattern, breeders most often refer to a tricolor dog with the merle gene (blue merle, white and tan) as a blue merle, and a bi-black dog with the merle gene (blue merle and white) as a bi-blue.  If 2 merles are bred together, the offspring can have 2 merle genes, one from each parent.  These are referred to as "double merles," and most often are blind and/or deaf to some degree.  For this reason, merle to merle breedings are not done by most breeders.

White factor

The white factor gene is a color modifier that affects the amount of white on a dog.  Unlike the merle gene, a dog with only one white factor gene may not be easy to distinguish.  White factored dogs often will have a larger white tip on the tail and/or white along the stifle (the front edge of the hind leg).  However, there are dogs with these markings that are not white factored, as well as white factored dogs that have very little white.  Where the white factor gene becomes readily apparent is when a dog receives 2 white factor genes, from breeding 2 white factored dogs together.  A dog with 2 white factor genes is called a "color-headed white" (CHW) and has a normally colored head and a predominantly white body.  In contrast to the double merle, (which also looks white, but does not have a normally colored head), color-headed whites are perfectly normal in every way.  The only difference between  them and  the other colors is the amount of white on their bodies.

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Basic color combinations

Color gene 1 Color gene 2 Result
sable sable sable
sable tri sable (tri-factored)
sable bi-black sable (bi-factored)
tri tri tri
tri bi-black tri (bi-factored)
bi-black bi-black bi-black


Effect of color modifiers

sable + 1 merle gene =sable merle
tri + 1 merle gene= blue merle (blue merle, white & tan)
bi-black + 1 merle gene = bi-blue (blue merle & white)
any color + 2 merle genes = double merle
any color + 1 white factor gene = white-factored
any color + 2 white factor genes = color-headed white (CHW)

2000 Susan Sparks. This article may not be reprinted or reproduced without permission.

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