Buying a Rare-Colored Purebred Dog

by TerryMcNamee

Are there really silver Labradors, merle Chihuahuas, red Boston Terriers and white Dobermans? Buyers need to be informed before paying extra money for “rare” dogs.

By Terry McNamee © 2013

Purebred dogs come in many colours. Some are allowed by the official Standard for a particular breed, and some are not. Some colours (as with particolour in Poodles) are allowed for certain breeds in one country but not in another, or even by one show-holding group and not another. Just because a colour is disallowed by a breed standard does not mean it is rare. However, if it is truly rare and not included as a recognized colour by the breed standard, that may indicate that the colour is very unwanted (perhaps being linked to health problems, as with “double merle” dogs) or even that the animal is not purebred.

Merle Chihuahua. This colour is disallowed everywhere except by the American Kennel Club.
Merle Chihuahua. This colour is disallowed everywhere except by the American Kennel Club.
Wikimedia Commons

Merle Chihuahuas

Merle is a gene that creates a splotched effect of light and dark patches on the dog's coat. The color has become popular since it considered new and different.

Because the gene that causes merle is dominant, it cannot be carried as a hidden gene. If the dog has the merle gene, it is merle. Two non-merles can never produce a merle. The problem is that the gene that causes merle never existed in the Chihuahua until the 1990s. The only way to get a merle gene into the Chihuahua breed would be to cross a Chihuahua with a merle of another breed to introduce the colour.

Dr. Malcolm B. Willis is an expert in color genetics in dogs and has described the merle color in the Chihuahua as clear evidence of crossbreeding.

“Recently a number of Chihuahuas that carry merle have appeared in USA and are gaining some credence as 'fashion accessories' and the like,” Dr. Willis stated in an article in the English publication Our Dogs. “Most reputable breeders are against the gene and it would be fair to say that it must have come in through a crossing... probably with Dachshunds. Since the AKC would not register crossbreeds as Chihuahuas, one has to conclude that somewhere Dachshunds have appeared in pedigrees as Chihuahuas... with false names.”

Merle is a difficult color to work with because it is closely associated with blindness, deafness and in the Chihuahua it can cause deformities. A double dose can be fatal. Two merles of any breed should never be bred together.

Neither the English Kennel Club nor the Canadian Kennel Club will register merle Chihuahuas. The United Kennel Club in the USA and the FCI (Fédération Cynologique Internationale, the World Canine Organisation) both list merle as a disqualification. However, the American Kennel Club continues to register merles and they are allowed to be shown.

Since the colour is very undesirable in Chihuahuas in every registry except the AKC, people should not pay extra for a merle Chihuahua, and they need to be aware of potential health problems with the colour.

Mostly white Boston Terrier
In Her Shoes

“Coloured” Boston Terriers

The only currently allowed colors for the Boston Terrier are black, seal (black with a tinge of red in the sun) and brindle (tan or brown with black stripes or black with tan stripes). All must have black noses, dark eyes and white markings on the face and chest. A white collar and white paws or legs are desirable.

However, because they are descended from bulldogs and terriers, Bostons carry the genes for many other colors. They can have a partially white or all white head (clown faced) or be mostly white with colored patches or dark with white patches (splash marked). They are sometimes brown, red or tan with a brown or pink nose, fawn with black on the face and a black nose, or even pale versions of these colors, all with white markings and with or without brindle. None of these colours are rare.

These colors have always been a part of the breed; in fact, white was considered desirable under the original breed standard. But many decades ago, early breeders decided that these other colours were not what they wanted in a Boston, and they decided not to allow Bostons in any colour but brindle, black or seal with black noses and desired markings.

Boston Terriers in these other colour can still be registered, and they make fine pets or obedience dogs, but they cannot be shown. Most breeders sell such puppies to pet homes at a reduced price, since they have a disqualifying fault. Red, fawn or other coloured Bostons should definitely not cost more than a standard-coloured Boston, because these colours are not rare in the breed at all.

There are some people who like the non-standard colours, and those who breed quality Bostons in different colors are currently lobbying for the recognition of additional Boston Terrier coat colors and patterns, or even for them to be recognized as a separate variety of Boston Terrier (Colored Bostons). But to date, the “odd” Boston colours are not accepted in the show ring by any of the established national kennel clubs as a legal colour within the breed.

Beware of people selling very poor quality Bostons as “rare” and charging a lot of money for an inferior puppy just because of the colour.

Silver Labrador Retriever puppy. This dog has the dilution of black to blue, and is not chocolate.
Silver Labrador Retriever puppy. This dog has the dilution of black to blue, and is not chocolate.
Wikimedia Commons

Silver Labrador Retrievers

In the last couple of decades, there have been a lot of people selling “rare silver Labradors”. The colour is rare for a good reason: silver (which is actually a dilution called blue or fawn) was unknown in the breed until recently, meaning it was the result of a cross with another breed.

The original colors of the Labrador in the 1800s were solid black and black with small white spots (“hailstone”). Yellow, varying from nearly white to rich red, was introduced in the early 1900s. Chocolate also appeared early in the Labrador’s development. When the first Breed Standard was created, the hailstone color was not included (despite lobbying by one of the first and foremost breeders) and the colour has almost disappeared. But at no time in the breed’s history were there ever grey Labradors until after 1940.

Unlike the Bostons with their odd colours, there is no history of silver in this breed's history, which means that silver is evidence of a dilution gene that has been introduced from crossing Labradors with another breed. Was the grey gene introduced by crossing to another breed such as the Weimaraner or the Chesapeake Bay Retriever, or even both? That is one theory. The physical color (phenotype) indicates that some silver Labs are actually blue, a dilute of black, and others are fawn, which is a dilute of chocolate like the Weimaraner. Because neither dilute silver colour existed in the original Labrador Retriever, dilute black (blue) and dilute chocolate (fawn) are considered highly undesirable by most breeders, who consider them to be of mixed breeding, and silver Labs are immediately disqualified in the show ring.

A few years ago, representatives at the AKC and from the Labrador Retriever Club of America examined registered “silver” Labs and concluded that the so-called silvers were actually “sedge” or light (dilute) chocolate. The AKC decided that they should be registered as chocolate, but the Labrador club still objects to that, since these dogs are not true chocolates, but fawn, while others are blue and not chocolate at all. Because of the AKC ruling, silver Labs can be registered and compete in any event with the exception of conformation, where the colour is a disqualification.

People who want a silver Labrador need to be aware that the colour is no longer rare and is considered very undesirable because it is a sign of mixed breeding somewhere in the pedigree.

White Dobermans: Purebred But Undesirable

Dobermans come in four recognized colors: black, blue, red (brown) and fawn (Isabella), all with rust markings. The first known white Doberman was a mutation born in 1976, and all later white Dobermans are descended from her.

This color is inherited as a simple recessive, which means a dog can carry one copy of the gene and still be a normal Doberman color, but it can pass on the white gene, so it is called white-factored.

A dog that inherits two copies of the gene (one from each parent) will be light golden tan or cream-colored, and the usual rust markings that characterize the Doberman will be white. The eyes will be blue and the skin will be pink. All registered white and white-factored Dobermans have an X as part of their AKC registration number so breeders know when a correctly-coloured dog carries one white gene and thus could pass it on.

Besides being a disallowed color, a white Doberman is prone to sunburn and skin cancer and its eyes are sensitive to bright light, which is detrimental in a working breed. Therefore, the color is considered extremely undesirable.

Piebald Smooth Dachshund, one of many legal colours in the breed
Piebald Smooth Dachshund, one of many legal colours in the breed
Wikimedia Commons

Other Examples of Unusual Colours in Dogs

There are unusual colors in many breeds. Some are fully recognized colors — for example, wheaten Scottish Terriers, biscuit Samoyeds, fox red Labradors and piebald Dachshunds. Some, like white Boxers, are considered undesirable although the dogs are still purebred. A few colors, like white Schnauzers, White German Shepherds and spotted Poodles, are recognized by some registries such as the UKC and Europe's FCI but not by the AKC.

However, there are a few colours, like brindle in Pugs, that clearly indicate impure breeding. Such puppies are mixed breeds, and they should cost less, not more, than a registered purebred.

A dedicated breeder will make sure the parents of every litter, regardless of color, are of correct breed type and have had all their health clearances before being bred.

The bottom line? Do your research before you buy! Buyers need to know exactly what they are getting before they pay a lot of money for a “rare” colored dog of any breed.

Breaking News!

The Kennel Club (England)  announced on April 18, 2013, that merle Bulldogs will not be accepted for registration.

"Unfortunately, the effects of the merle allele (M) are not confined to coat patterning and it is known that there can be an increased risk of impaired hearing and sight associated with it, particularly in dogs that are homozygous for M (dogs that carry two copies of the M allele)," the Kennel Club stated.

"As the merle colour is not a naturally occurring colour in this breed, and in view of the health concerns relating to the merle gene, the Kennel Club General Committee has agreed that it will not accept the registration of any merle Bulldog puppies with immediate effect."

Some Common Breeds With Unrecognized Colours

There are unethical breeders who are deliberately breeding incorrect colours that are not now, and never have been, recognized by a specific breed's official Standard. Some have been found in the breed for a long time, but have always been very undesirable (such as black and tan Labrador Retrievers), while other colours come from a cross with another breed or an unwanted mutation. Merle is unknown in most breeds, so unless it is a breed known for merle (like the Australian Shepherd), check the breed standard before you buy.

Remember, don't pay extra for a dog just because of it's "rare" colour unless you have done your research, know exactly what you are buying and have made sure the breeder has done all the normal health checks for that breed on the parents of the litter.

Here are a few of the undesirable colours in some of the better-known breeds.

Labrador Retriever — black and tan, brindle and tan, silver. Fox red, which is perfectly acceptable, is no longer rare. "White" Labs are simply very light yellows and not rare or different.

American Cocker Spaniels — sable, merle, clown-faced (white covering most of the head), solid white, or mostly dark with white on face, paws and/or chest but no other white.

English Springer Spaniel — tan and white.

Boxer — black with no brindling at all, mostly or all white, white patches on the back.

Doberman Pinscher — golden and tan, solid white, lack of tan markings.

Great Dane — blue merle, fawn merle, solid white, black-brindle (very dark brindle), harlequin in any colour other than black and white; white on face, chest, neck and legs on any colour except black or harlequin.

Chihuahua — merle. Brindle is unknown in the breed.

Pug — brindle is unknown in the breed.

Dalmatian — tan spotting, tricolour spotting, blue spotting. Patches (which are present at birth) and blue eyes are a disqualification for showing.

French Bulldog — black and white, black and tan, liver, mouse (a greyish-tan) or solid black without any trace of brindle.

Poodles (all sizes) — spotted, or having any white markings. Black or grey with tan markings (tan may be any shade from rust to nearly white), often called phantom. Note that these colours are recognized in some registries. They are not rare.

Australian Shepherd — white spotting on the body, mostly white, double merle.

Border Collie — mostly white, double merle.

Collie — double merle.

German Shepherd Dog — white is registered as a separate breed in some registries, and is not recognized in others. The white-marked tricolour "Panda" Shepherd is a new spontaneous mutation in one bloodline, and is not a recognized colour in most registries. Undesirable: any washed-out or dilute colours such as blue, fawn and liver, or any of these with tan markings.

The White Shepherd is recognized as a separate breed in many European countries.
White German Shepherd in Spring Flowers, Illinois

Additional Reading

Want to learn more? Check out these books about the breeds mentioned. You can also contact the main breed club for any breed of dog for more information.

A Kennel Club Book Boston Terrier

A comprehensive quide to owning and caring for your pet.

View on Amazon

The Doberman Pinscher (Book & DVD)

The Doberman Pinscher is a graceful, strong, and steadfast friend and guardian. In addition to general care and health advice, this comprehensive and breed-specific guide provid...

View on Amazon

Genetics: An Introduction for Dog Breeders

A comprehensive yet easy-to-understand guide covering: the nature of heredity, evolutionary and behavioral genetics, the application of genetics to specific breeds, the art of b...

View on Amazon

The Inheritance of Coat Color in Dogs

Contents are divided into three major sections: 1/ Introduction and Genetic Background 2/ Basic Coat Color Genes of the Dog and 3/ Genetic Analysis by Breed (broken down into se...

View on Amazon

Updated: 05/02/2013, TerryMcNamee
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?


Verna on 04/27/2013

Very good, I am especially grateful for the info on Silver labs, I am not a breeder but have been owned by labs for the last 14 yrs... and people do ask, my labs are just plain black!!

Ann on 04/27/2013

Very interesting!

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