How well do you think you know the possible Australian Shepherd colors and markings?
Whether you’re an Aussie novice or a seasoned Aussie spotter, this article is bound to contain something which makes you say “well I didn’t know that!”
There are currently four recognized Australian Shepherd colors and three markings. The colors are
- blue merle
- red merle.
The markings are tan points, white markings, and white markings with tan points.
But there are more colors available that are not recognised by the AKC. We’re going to take a look at each of these colors, and just why those unrecognised colors are not necessarily a good thin,
First let’s briefly get to know the Australian Shepherd breed before exploring Australian Shepherd colors and their potential to affect behavior and health.
The Australian Shepherd at a Glance
As their name suggests, Australian Shepherds were once used to herd sheep and thus still have a strong herding instinct.
These dogs are loyal, intelligent, and are driven to work.
This means they need proper mental and physical stimulation or they may get bored and make their own fun (which may not be so fun for you!).
Though many are friendly, affectionate dogs, some Aussies can be aloof toward strangers or even territorial. It’s important to socialize your Aussie to avoid potential behavioral issues.
If you’ve ever seen an Australian Shepherd, you might have noticed that they have short tails.
Some of them are actually born like this, whereas others have their tails bobbed.
Australian Shepherd Colors
As already mentioned, there are four Australian Shepherd colors and three markings that are allowed by the AKC’s breed standard.
However, just because a color isn’t standard doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. A good example of this would be the colors sable and yellow.
There are some Australian Shepherds who are considered to be yellow, though rather than being the light yellow of a yellow Lab, the yellow on their bodies tends to be a bit deeper, similar to a Golden Retriever. However, it can of course vary depending on the dog.
There is currently no research to suggest that any of these Australian Shepherd colors have a direct affect on behavior, and we’ll talk more in depth about this later.
However, there are some concerns surrounding the yellow coloring and how it interacts with the genes for merle. Furthermore, there are some serious health issues related to merle.
Australian Shepherd Colors: The Dangers of Double Merle
Unfortunately, the merle gene can be pretty dangerous and cause some serious health issues such as eye deformities and deafness.
The Genetics of Merle
The color merle is a dominant trait, which means that it if the merle gene is present in a dog’s genome, it will always be expressed (aside from some rare cases, which we will talk about in a moment).
Genes are the areas of DNA that give an organism its specific characteristics. They always come in pairs.
Aussies with one copy of the merle gene are called heterozygous merles. (This name tells scientists that the Merle gene is paired with a non-merle gene.)
These dogs are usually healthy, though they are sometimes born with merle-related deformities.
Aussies with two copies of the merle gene (a matching pair) are called homozygous merles, or double merles.
These dogs have a high risk of eye deformities or deafness because of the way the merle gene also affects development of the eyes and ears.
What Do Double Merles Look Like?
Before we go into detail about the defects caused by double merle, let’s talk about what a double merle Australian Shepherd might look like.
Many double merle Australian Shepherds appear depigmented, meaning their coats have large areas of white, and areas that are typically dark, such as noses and eye rims, will either be completely pink or spotted with pink.
Double merles frequently have pale blue eyes, but it is possible for Aussies to have this eye color and not have any genes for merle at all.
It is also possible for double merles to look just like a healthy, heterozygous merle.
A Merle Quiz
On her website all about the genetics of color in dogs, Dr. Sheila Shmutz has put together a little quiz about merles.
Can you guess which dog out of all the pictures is heterozygous instead of homozygous? Me neither.
In other cases, it is extremely easy to tell a homozygous merle from a heterozygous one.
This is because of the health defects we mentioned briefly before. Some of these defects, especially those of the eye, are quite visible.
Health Defects Caused by Double Merle
Unfortunately, double merles often suffer from defects of the eye and ear.
The eye can be deformed in many different ways, and just about any part of it may be affected. The iris may look deformed, the pupil could be off center, or the lens of the eye could be out of place.
There is also a potential for the retina to be abnormal and for the optic nerve to be developed improperly.
Some double merles may also suffer from microphthalmia, which is when the entire globe of the eye is abnormally small.
Some dogs with this condition have even had to have one or both of their eyeballs removed.
Often times, double merles will have a combination of the aforementioned defects in each eye, and because of these defects, many of them are blind.
Aussies that are homozygous for merle are also frequently deaf. It is believed that this deafness is caused by a lack of pigment cells in the inner ear.
The inner ear pigment cells are very important because they help translate sounds into electrical impulses that are then sent to and read by the brain. Without these cells, the translation cannot be done properly, and thus the dog is deaf.
Preventing Merle Defects
Needless to say, none of these conditions are pleasant for an Aussie to live with, and all of them compromise quality of life.
To protect new generations of Aussies, responsible breeders do not mate two dogs who both have merle coloring.
This means that their puppies cannot inherit two copies of the merle gene.
Yellow and Sable Aussies and the Merle Gene
Remember those sable and yellow Australian Shepherds we mentioned?
These are pretty colors, but the AKC does not recognize them in its breed standard.
And there’s a prudent animal welfare reason for that.
The genes which give Aussies yellow or sable coats also mask the presence of the merle gene.
Which is to say, a yellow or sable Aussie can carry the merle gene without expressing merle coloring in their coat.
That makes it impossible to make accurate judgements about which two yellow Aussies can safely mate together.
The risk of accidentally breeding from two dogs who both carry the merle gene and producing sick puppies is very high.
Do Australian Shepherd Colors Affect Behavior?
So we know that some expressions of Australian Shepherd colors can be downright dangerous, but does color have anything to do with behavior?
As of now, we don’t really know for sure.
There has been a lot of research done in the past 20 or so years about how a dog’s color might be linked to other traits, such as health and behavior, but scientists still have a lot of questions and a lot more research to do.
However, there are studies about depigmentation and how it affects animals. As we explained earlier, the genes for double merle often result in large portions of depigmentation in Australian Shepherds.
According to Temple Grandin, a woman famous in the world of animal science, depigmentation can be linked to nervousness in a number of animals.
Does this mean that double merle Aussies are also more likely to be nervous because of their depigmentation? It’s hard to say.
Some double merle Aussies are prone to nervousness and fear. But whether that is directly due to their coloring is unknown.
In many cases, these dogs are nervous because of their vision and hearing issues (which is caused by their coloring, so we might say the behavior is an indirect result or domino effect of the double merle pattern).
Imagine being both deaf and blind and thus having greatly inhibited perception of the outside world. It makes sense that you might be a little (or a lot) nervous in that situation.
Though most Australian Shepherd colors have no observed effect on temperament or behavior, these colors can quickly become dangerous when Aussies are bred irresponsibly.
Mainly, when merles are bred to other merles. When this happens, some of their offspring will receive two copies of the dominant merle gene.
Almost all double merles have vision and hearing defects. The double merle genes cause the eyes to develop abnormally and often strip pigment from the dog’s inner ear, which causes deafness.
If you are interested in breeding Australian Shepherds, make sure you never breed merle to merle.
If you are interested in adopting an Australian Shepherd puppy, make sure you are purchasing from a responsible breeder who knows the dangers of double merle.
References and Further Reading
“Australian Shepherd.” American Kennel Club.
Grandin, Temple. “The Way I See It: The Dangers of Trait Over-Selection.” Western Horseman, Aug. 1998, pp. 120-124.
Johnson, George P. “Basic Genetics: Inheritance of Color and Pattern.” Australian Shepherd Club of America.
Strain, G.M., et al. “Prevalence of Deafness in Dogs Heterozygous or Homozygous for the Merle Allele.” Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine, 2009.