Genetics of German Shepherd Coat Colors

Concerning the GSD and German Shepherd coat colors, the breed standard from the SV specifically states: “The color of the GSD is in itself not important and has no effect on the character of the dog or on its fitness for work and should be a secondary consideration for that reason. The final color of a young dog can only be ascertained when the outer coat has developed.”

Of all undesirable things to try to eliminate and to consider in a GSD (aka the Alsatian), coat color should be at the bottom of the list. Good pigment should be sought after but many factors such as health and temperament, to name a few, should be much more important than coat color which should always be subordinate to structure, gait, type, and character and should never take precedence over the working ability of the dog. Eye color should be dark and nose pigment should be black as well.

Concerning the coat, the SV breed standard states the following: “The normal (stock) coated GSD should carry a thick undercoat and the outer coat should be as dense as possible, made up of straight hard close lying hairs. The hair on the head and ears, front of the legs, paws and toes is short. On the neck it is longer and thicker, on some males forming a slight ruff. The hair grows longer on the back of the legs as far down as the pastern and the stifle, and forms fairly thick trousers on the hindquarters. There is no hard or fast rule for the length of the hair, but short mole-type coats are faulty.” “No good dog is a bad color” — Max von Stephanitz (breed founder of the dog) concerning coat colors.

Ask just about anybody to describe a German Shepherd Dog and they will almost always mention the “saddle Back” markings. It is also just as possible for the GSD to be one solid color such as black (solid white is considered a conformation disqualification for showing by the AKC) or sable. Sable coat colors are easily identified by multi-colored individual hairs all over the body. Sable GSD’s may also be masked by dark or black guard hairs.

Alsatian coat color patterns may include any of the following: black & tan, black & red, black & cream, solid black, solid white, (considered a conformation disqualification), sable (also called agouti or wolf gray, in various colorations), black & silver, liver (rare – conformation fault) and blue (rare – considered a conformation fault).

Richer pigmentation is preferred, color wise. While I won’t delve deeply into the science of genetics (feel free to do that on your own if interested), just know that the liver color comes as the result of matched recessives in the black series and the blue color happens as the result of matched recessives in the dilution series.

Coat colors and inheritance in the GSD is very complex and controlled by several series of genes. Following is a very brief description and summary of the various gene series in the GSD responsible for color based on information from “The German Shepherd Dog: A Genetic History” and “Practical Genetics for Dog Breeders”, both by Malcolm Willis. Both of these books should be considered as required reading for any serious fan and even more importantly for breeders. Another suggested resource is “The German Shepherd Today” by Winifred Strickland and James “Jimmy” Moses.

THE AGOUTI SERIES

The basic body color of the GSD is controlled by the genes. The order of coat colors dominance is as follows: golden sable, gray sable, saddle marked black and tan, bi-color* black and tan (bi-color is where the dog only has tan on the legs and face, not on the body), and black.

Additionally, know that the black gene is recessive to all the other colors in GSD’s. Solid black German Shepherds bred to solid blacks German Shepherds will only produce blacks. The sable colors are dominant over the other colors and patterns in the breed.

THE BLACK SERIES

This gene controls the black pigment formation on the GSD, not the hair color. The German Shepherd coat colors order of dominance is exactly as follows: Black pigment including nose, eyerims and pads; Carrier for liver color; Liver color – brown black colors, brown nose, eye rims and pads.

Note: most GSDs are considered black pigment including nose, eyerims and pads.

THE WHITE SERIES

White coat color in the German Shepherd Dog is recessive to all other colors. In order to get a white coat color in the German Shepherd, both parents must carry the white gene (either be white themselves or be carriers.) The order of dominance is as follows: Melanin is produced. (Standard GSD’s colors have this); Partial albinism (not seen); White coat with dark eyes and nose (not albino); Yellowish coat collar (proposed).

THE COLOR SERIES

This controls the intensity of the non-black coloration. The order of dominance is as follows: Lightest tan (cream); Intermediate tan (tan); Darkest tan (red).

The intensity of the color series determines whether GSD’s with color (i.e. not all- black or all-white recessives) will be black & cream,black & tan or black & red.

Coat Lengths in GSD’s

Short-coated German Shepherd’s maintain a short coat, which lies close to the body. These dogs usually have less undercoat.

“Plush” Coated GSD’s have a medium length coat with a thin, fluffy under coat. These dogs do not have any feathering as in the long coated GSD’s.

Long coated German Shepherd’s have much longer fur around their ears, on the backs of their legs, chest and tail (feathering) than other German Shepherd’s.

THE DILUTION SERIES

This controls how intense the black pigment will appear on your German Shepherd. The order of dominance is as follows: Dense pigment; blue dilution.

Black pigment combined with blue dilution will produce a blue coated German Shepherd which looks as though it has a dusty or flour sheen.

THE MASK SERIES

This controls whether or not a mask appear on your German Shepherd.The order of dominance is as follows: a black mask on the face; dark coat with no mask; Brindle (rare, will be seen as striping on the legs); clear tan.

All these genes put together determine your own German Shepherd’s coat colors.

German Shepherds are really incredible dogs. But they’re not for everyone – and if you’re thinking of getting one I highly encourage you to do all the research you can about them ahead of time.