Sable and Red and Red and Pink and Pink and Cream and Cream and White, oh heck.


I am going to totally pick on Janet today, because she left a comment about one of my favorite Cardis, Scout.

By the way, how gorgeous is Scout? Oh, very. When Kate and I play Fantasy Football at three AM with Cardigans, Scout is always a top draft pick. She’s just yummy. 

Janet says that her handler likes IOD blackening shampoo with Scout because she’s “technically a sable.”

YES! You win! 

However, what most red-Cardigan breeders and owners don’t realize is THEY ALL ARE. 

Yes, Dorothy, you are not in Kansas anymore, and all non-ee reds are indeed sables. 

I once got thoroughly spanked on this issue because I sent a picture of a very odd-colored Great Dane to the resident Dane color expert, J.P. Yousha (Chromadane is her kennel name). The dog in question was a blue fawn*, which is something we don’t see much in Danes but is not “rare,” but it had a substantial overlay of blue over its whole body. It was somewhere between a “blue sable,” if I use the lay terms, and a red-headed-tri where the black was instead blue. 

* Blue meaning the real blue, the maltese-dilution blue, which is why I personally don’t use “blue” for merle Cardigans. I had blue Danes and so blue always means blue in my brain; I can’t switch to calling merle something that to me means dilute.  

Anyway, I sent J.P. Yousha this picture, with a question along the lines of “Is this a sable Dane?”

I got a very quick response: “Of course it is; every fawn is sable. Didn’t you know that? Now get off my lawn.”

(Actually, she was much nicer than that; she’s a lovely person, but her brain was clearly much larger than mine and I did indeed get off her lawn.)

That was a lot of years ago, and since then she has of course been proven right by the research done by Sheila Schmutz, who is the researcher coming up with so many of the very useful gene labeling discoveries that allow us to test for different colors. 

Here is the deal:

It’s common to talk about dog coat color like it’s a big column of most “dominant” to most “recessive,” and talk about how black (in most breeds) is the “most dominant” or that another color is the “most recessive” and so on. In fact, there are many color alleles and they co-exist on the same animal. Some hide, some reveal, others combine, and so on. There IS, of course, a dominant/recessive behavior within each allele, but not nearly as clear-cut a one as we might assume. It’s great that we all learn about simple dominant/recessive relationships in seventh grade Life Science, but sometimes it hurts us when we expect all traits to act that way. In fact, simple (single) dominant/recessive is very rare when it comes to the traits you can see with the naked eye; most of them are combinations of a whole bunch of genes that combine in different ways, in the same way that there are 26 letters but far more than 26 words. 

So in color you have to keep in mind about a dozen allele areas, which are organized by letter and have changed several times over the years of color genetics research. Little in the 50s did a lot of the groundbreaking work, and his designations are usually taken as the preferred ones until and unless newer research proves him wrong. For example, when I first learned the color series, the locus “A” was thought to be where most black pigments and the agouti (sable) pigments and also brindle lived; newer research has moved black and brindle to K and left sable at A, but put another black (the recessive black found in German Shepherds, for example) BACK at A. It’s completely fascinating stuff, but going through every bit of color naming would get incredibly long and would be interesting to no one but myself, so I want to make this a little shorter.

For the purposes of looking at red versus sable, the two areas we’re interested in are A and E.

A controls the patterns where there is a mixture of yellow and black on the dog, with the black generally being expressed on top and the yellow on the bottom. The different A possibilities are a^y, a^t, a^w, and a. The carat mark is supposed to imply that the next letters are superscripted (made little and lifted above the line). That’s the way you’re supposed to write them. However, the carat key is one of the most annoying in the world to type so I am going to beg your forgiveness and just use ay and aw and so on.

aw = agouti

Agouti means that the hairs are banded along their length, with a dark base, light middle section, and dark end section, or even that there are multiple repeating bands of color. This is the color that Malamutes and Siberian Huskies often exhibit. It is very difficult to tell the difference between agouti and the next color, sable, without closely examining the hairs.

ay = sable

Sable means that the dog has black hairs growing in a mostly yellow coat (and by yellow you should read “any shade of yellow, tan, dark tan, red”–just not chocolate or black). These black hairs occur thickest along the topline (from the top of the head to the end of the tail), but also creep down behind the shoulders and frame the cheeks. 

In many, probably the vast majority of, sables (and this is where Cardi people should sit up and take notice) there is a progressive lessening of the black hairs as the dog ages. The puppy is born with many black hairs among the yellow, but as the dog ages the black hairs are replaced with yellow, though often in a richer shade than that found on the belly or sides. 

The genetic difference between those dogs that very completely shed out the black hairs and those that retain them is UNKNOWN. They presumably have some form of modifiers but that has not been discovered yet. On the “A” allele, THERE IS NO DIFFERENCE. All dogs of this color type, from the sootiest to the clearest, are “ay” dogs. 

If the “red” dog had even a single black hair on its body, from birth onward, it is a SABLE dog. And most of them retain at least a few dark hairs throughout their lives.
















The amount of black present in the coat also doesn’t reliably indicate whether the dog carries the next color that lives on the A locus, which is black and tan. In other words, don’t think that your very dark sable dog is a carrier of black and tan; she may simply have more dark hairs. Collie people? No, you can’t reliably tell whether a dog is tri-factored by how much black is in its coat. As a rough rule of thumb it can work in SOME breeds, but don’t depend on it.

at = black and tan

In these dogs, the expression of yellow is confined to only the points (broadly thought of as the underparts) of the dog. 

Where this all gets very interesting is as we combine gene loci. 

Remember how I said that the genes work in combination, not by a single relationship of dominant/recessive? That means that a dog can be black AND brindle AND sable AND red AND white all at the same time, and the dog will look white. Or the dog can be brown AND black and tan AND brindle AND red, and the dog will look red. That’s why understanding how color works in your breed, and keeping track of colors on a pedigree, is so important. If you breed that white dog to that red dog, thinking you’ll get red and white dogs, you’re honestly just as likely to get BLACK dogs. You could also get brown dogs, sables, brown sables, black and tans, brown and tans, brindles, brown brindles, black and brindles, brown and brindle, reds, creams, and whites, depending on what colors were carried recessively by each of those units. And that’s JUST looking at the A, E, K, and C (or I) alleles; there are many more. 

Now that I’ve thoroughly muddled you, let’s go back to our Cardis who are (in this case) either sable (what we call red or sable) or black and tan. We’re not going to attack brindle just yet. 

We have to introduce a new locus now, the E locus. The E locus controls whether the dog can have black or brown (think chocolate here, not fox red) pigment. E (dominant) allows the dog to have that pigment; e (recessive) does not allow any black or brown pigment to show on the dog, not even one eyelash.

Our sable/red or black and tan Cardis are almost certainly either E (which means they can show black pigment) or Em (they have some or a lot of black pigment AND they have a mask). However, they may carry and therefore eventually produce a dog with the recessive color on the e locus, which is all-over yellow with no black or brown.

e = clear red

A dog that gets an “e” from each parent cannot produce any black or red pigment in any hair on any part of its body, from tailtip to eyelashes. It is completely without those pigments. That doesn’t mean it can’t be very dark, however; Irish Setters are genetically this color and they can be very richly colored. Cardigans born this color vary from cream to light red; because they are so striking in the litter and used to be considered a light form of red, the color is often called “pink.”

The colors we’re familiar with in the Cardigan all depend on the varying degrees of black in the coat. So when a dog is clear red, the color that cannot be expressed could be anything from a brindle-pointed merle to a light red. That’s why, when and if reds are bred (and there’s certainly no reason not to breed them) you need to know the colors in the pedigree behind the dog and consider doing some judicious DNA testing if you think your red may be an undesirable color for the proposed breeding.

So, to summarize:

What we call red? Sable.

What we call sable? Sable.

What we call pink? Red.

So what about cream and white, then?

I think it’s worth pursuing the “clear red” color to its lightest end purely because breeders so often think that colors should combine sort of like paint, so the color of the parents has a great influence over the color of the offspring in the same way that the color of human skin has a great influence over the color of the skin of the offspring. This perception leads to great wrongs; if a breeder mates two black dogs and gets a cream-colored puppy, or two cream-colored dogs and gets a dark brown or black puppy, or any other combination that creates a puppy that looks radically different from the parents, there is often an assumption that something went wrong. Either this puppy has revealed something shameful about the parent dogs or perhaps the parents are not really the parents.

The oddly colored puppy or puppies are also thought to be somehow “suspect”; for a lot of decades the fawns (light sables with black masks) that were produced from black to black breedings in Great Danes were routinely euthanized, even though fawn is an acceptable, even desirable, color. If they were not euthanized their breeder was roundly criticized and it was a foregone conclusion that the fawn puppies, once grown, could never be used for breeding. Incorporating a “fawn from black” could destroy your reputation. It was as though those puppies were not “real” fawns, because their parents were black, even though genetically they were identical to the fawns produced from fawn breedings. 

That situation has, thankfully, changed in Danes, but there’s still a lot of misinformation floating around out there. So I want to show you where “e” goes when it heads all the way toward white.

The best place to see this progression is actually in Poodles. Poodle “red” is ee red, clear red. When made lighter, it becomes apricot. Lighter still is cream. The end of that road is white. 

The exact gene that causes the progressive lightening is not known; some say it is chinchilla and others want to call it “I,” for “intense” (meaning that the yellow is less and less and less intense as more doses of the gene are dropped into place). What is important about it is this: THE DOG IS STILL BLACK OR BROWN. In most breeds, black is the base upon which this is all built, so I’m going to use that word; substitute “brown” in your head at will.

It’s a black dog, who cannot express any black hairs, with several layers of intensity removed from the clear red coat. That’s why white Poodles still have black eyerims and noses and lips. A similar (though perhaps not identical, since they don’t seem to have the intermediate red/apricot/cream stages) thing happens in white Shepherds, who are genetically ee. Samoyeds are also ee dogs, as are white Pulik. But Great Pyrenees are NOT ee dogs; they’re actually piebald sables or piebald agoutis with a very fast-acting greying gene.

Identical appearances, but if you bred a Samoyed to a Great Pyrenees (at least with what we know about color genetics right now) you’d probably get almost all dark puppies!

Anyone who has known me since Dane days knows that I can go on about this for hours and hours, so stop me if you’ve heard this one or, if you want to make my day, ask me more about it. Just as a sneak preview: Did you know that the white we have on our dogs (Cardigans; also true of the other herding breeds) is actually not white spotting? Yup, it lives on a totally different, mysterious, as yet undiscovered gene and is completely different from the white spotting that you can see in hounds or terriers or most other breeds. But we ALSO have their spotting, which is why we get the major mismarks. Interested? Just let me know :D.


10 thoughts on “Sable and Red and Red and Pink and Pink and Cream and Cream and White, oh heck.

  1. This was a really interesting post. Thanks.
    So I think my my Katie is actually an agouti. I have been calling her sable for nearly 3 years, but each hair actually has 3 bands, light tan at the base, red in the middle, and a black tip. They differ in the length of each band over her body, except for her legs, with are only tan, and her muzzle which is only black. Am I right?
    You can see a pic of her here. She is lure coursing (I love the photos this photographer gets of Katie, 1301-1319 are all of Katie)

  2. OK – believe it or not – I totally knew that I would get picked on when I left that comment! I was just too lazy to re-write it. It was that “techncal” thing that sunk me. (And thanks for the lovely comments about Scout – when can we get you a judge’s license??) What I meant is that Scout is on the light side of what some folks call “sable-y (not a word, I know)” appearing .

    It’s too early in the morning for me to absorb what looks like a very interesting post – I will hit it again tonight!

  3. Love me some paint jobs.

    It’s usually written that Irish Pattern white exists at the S locus (S^i). Overall white spotting (piebald) is at s^p. Of course they learn new things all of the time.

    What I find interesting is that there are definitely modifiers in place. We’ve seen some interesting results coming from excess head white, for example. There has to be an extra gene in place that makes white-headed and half-masks and the extra head white is genetically unrelated to extra body white (s^p) even though they may exist on the same dog.

  4. THIS, is why I wish there was universal naming terms among breeds. I hate when I’m talking to people about genes, having to first educate myself on random color terms (‘Dapple’ as an example- WTH Doxie people!) before I can even answer their gene questions. Seems just about every breed, has a random term for a gene in the breed, which is not the same as is generally used for said phenotype.

    Universal color terms, would be very helpful, just as in rats universal terms are NEEDED (they vary between regional clubs, and even individual breeders). Maybe someday there’ll be a revamping of breed color naming at the host club (AKC/FCI/KC) level, but I know it would create an uproar among breed clubs, and breeders…

  5. Any chance you can post (or point me at) that picture of the blue sable dane with extended clear areas? I’m curious, and it’d be useful for a presentation I’m worrking on for collie club.

  6. mspitz – the dog in question was from very long ago, and I only had a physical picture (I scanned it, but there’s no way it would still exist). He would have been born sometime in the 70s. Even if I still had it, I couldn’t give it out; his breeder is still around and would not be thrilled to have his picture out there.

    I DO have, if the files survived, pictures of my own blue fawn puppies (fawn with blue masks). I’d be happy to post them if I can find them. They don’t have a lot of blue sootiness like that puppy did, though.

  7. Was the blue sable Dane like a bluie sable Pem? BTW the picture on the PWCCA website of the puppy bluie sable and the adult bluie red are the same girl. She was one of ours at the time. We ended up placing her as a pet with parents of a friend. They lost her to old age and kidney problems just last year.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s