Your merle Great Dane is one of a very small group of giant purebred dog breeds.
These are the largest dogs in the whole world.
But even more distinctive than your Great Dane dog’s size is the merle coat color pattern.
A Great Dane of any color is eye-catching, a merle Great Dane even more so.
In fact, as of 2019, the merle Great Dane is now eligible to compete in American Kennel Club (AKC) conformation shows.
This is exciting news for owners that have been a long time in coming.
In this article, we dive right in to explore all there is to know about the merle Great Dane coat color pattern.
What Is a Merle Great Dane?
If you are a brand-new Great Dane owner and are still just learning about this magnificent dog breed, you may not realize how many coat colors and color patterns a Great Dane dog can have.
Nevertheless, the merle is one of the most visually striking and memorable.
It is also a genetic building block for the beloved harlequin Great Dane coat pattern.
What does Merle Look Like?
The word “merle” is used to describe a coat color pattern that is separate and distinct from all other Great Dane coat colors and color patterns.
But it can still cause a great deal of confusing variation within the merle color pattern itself.
The Great Dane Illustrated Breed Standard is a great resource for identifying which merle color pattern most closely matches your Great Dane pup.
The merle coat color pattern itself is described as a pale to dark grey throughout that is broken up with black patches.
A merle Great Dane may or may not have a mantle, which is an area of solid white color that rings the neck and chest only.
A merle Great Dane with a mantle is called a mantle/merle.
A mantle/merle Great Dane may also display white elsewhere, although this doesn’t always occur.
If additional white is present on a mantle/merle Great Dane, the most common areas to see white are on the muzzle, chest, belly, legs, paws, tail tip and rump.
Black skin pigment also sometimes shows up in the areas of white, and this is acceptable for show standards.
The sole noted disqualification is a color pattern called “merlequin,” which is an all-white dog that displays patches of merle (grey/black pattern).
The AKC Conformation page for judges shows a helpful example of the merlequin coat color pattern so you can visualize it for yourself.
Merle Great Dane Genetics
The gene that transmits the merle color pattern is called M(Silv).
The “M” stands for merle and the “Silv” references a gene responsible for pigmentation in mammals.
From here, canine color genetics can get complicated quickly.
If you plan to breed your merle Great Dane in the future, you should dive in and learn all the nuts and bolts of how breeding genetics works.
This ensures you breed the healthiest Great Dane puppies.
But maybe you’re not planning to breed your Great Dane.
If so, the most important elements of merle Great Dane genetics to learn about relate to how merle genes can influence Great Dane health.
That is the aspect of canine genetics we focus on in this section.
Your Dog’s Genotype Determines His Phenotype
The first thing to know is that the merle coat color pattern occurs in a number of purebred dog breeds, including the Great Dane.
When the merle coat color gene expresses (shows up) in a dog, this is called a dog’s “phenotype,” or appearance.
The mechanics that cause the merle coat color gene to show up is called the “genotype,” or genes.
In other words, your dog’s inherited genotype, or genes, determines your Great Dane’s phenotype, or what she will look like as an adult dog.
Merle is a coat color pattern that is unique to dogs.
As far as biologists are aware, the merle coat color pattern only occurs in modern domestic dogs.
Dominant Genes for Merle Pattern
The coat pattern is comprised of both normal melanin (pigment) and dilute melanin in a pattern of gene expression called “incomplete dominance.”
What is most interesting about the way the merle gene shows up is that it is mobile.
In other words, it can be cut, copied and pasted from one area of the canine genome to another.
This is not unlike how you might cut out a section of text and then copy it to your clipboard.
Then paste it into a new paragraph somewhere else in your document.
The mobile nature of the merle gene can greatly influence how the merle coat color pattern looks on a Great Dane.
This is why there is so much variability within this coat color pattern.
Differences Between Merle, Dilute Merle, Cryptic Merle, Harlequin
The standard merle coat color pattern is what is described in the illustrated breed standard: a light to dark grey base color with black patches.
What is so interesting here is that the length of the merle gene directly correlates to the color intensity of your dog’s coat.
- A standard merle gene is the length used to analyze the lengths of the merle alternate genes.
- A dilute merle (sometimes called a blue merle) has a subtler base color and subtler patch colors.
- This gene is shorter than that for the standard merle color.
- A cryptic merle has such a subtle merle pattern that the coat appears solid (single or self) color at first glance.
- This is also sometimes called a phantom merle. It is shorter still than the dilute merle gene.
- The prized harlequin Great Dane coat color pattern is an interaction with the merle M(Silv) gene and another gene that produces the harlequin pattern.
- The harlequin merle gene is longer than even the standard merle gene.
A merle coat color pattern bears some health risks—a double merle is much riskier.
This is vitally important to know if you are working with a breeder to choose a healthy puppy or if you plan to breed your merle Great Dane in the future.
Any dog bearing the merle color pattern can potentially develop some known health risks, which we discuss here shortly.
Breeding a merle Great Dane with another merle Great Dane can produce a double merle puppy.
This is a genetic no-no that can create severely life-limiting or fatal health issues for the puppy.
Merle Great Dane Temperament
The Great Dane is often described as the “gentle giant,” which is not to say this dog cannot be a fierce defender and protector when needed.
But there is a reason many owners describe their dog as a “Velcro Dane.”
Modern Great Danes are bred for a gentle disposition and clearly prefer cuddling to growling unless provoked.
To date, no firm research exists linking the merle Great Dane or any other coat color pattern in Great Danes to temperament differences within the breed.
Choosing a puppy from a healthy breeding program provides appropriate early and ongoing socialization and training.
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This is along with a proper puppy diet and enrichment, which is vital to producing an even-tempered and gentle dog.
In other words, a healthy puppy is much more likely to be a happy puppy.
Socializing a Merle Great Dane
A well-socialized puppy who forms a close bond with her people is much more likely to adjust well to life in a family and community.
If you haven’t yet picked out your Great Dane puppy, be sure to select a responsible breeder that pre-screens parent dogs for all known health issues.
This includes the potential for a double-merle breeding.
Also ask to meet both parent dogs and spend time assessing their temperament to get a good sense of what your puppy might be like as an adult.
Finally, be sure to walk around and view all aspects of the breeder’s operation before making a final commitment to a new puppy.
This is the best way to be sure your new puppy comes from a healthy environment that is enriching and conducive to a happy new life with you.
Merle Great Dane Health
The merle coat color pattern occurs exclusively in domestic dogs (in horses, there is a similar pattern called “dapple”).
Dogs that carry the M(Silv) gene for the merle coat color pattern can be more prone to develop certain concerning health issues.
One research study evaluated dogs from a number of different purebred breeds to determine whether a link exists between the merle gene and deafness.
Reportedly 2.7 percent of dogs with a single merle gene were deaf in one ear (unilaterally deaf).
Also, 0.9 percent were deaf in both ears (bilaterally deaf).
Ten percent of dogs with a double merle gene were deaf in one ear, and 15 percent were deaf in both ears.
Eye Defects or Blindness
The merle gene is not just responsible for determining coat color pattern in carrier dogs (dogs that possess the gene).
The merle gene also contributes to eye color.
Outcomes can range from mottled eye colors (two or more colors in a single eye), two different colored eyes, or one or both eyes being blue.
Eye defects or blindness is possible in dogs that test positive for the single (heterozygous) merle gene.
But for double merle (homozygous) dogs, both eye defects and potential blindness become far more likely.
A number of different eye defects have been seen in single and double merle dogs, including these:
- Smaller than normal eyes (microphthalmia)
- Improper iris development (iris coloboma)
- Optic nerve defects
- Fetal eye membrane does not dissolve (persistent pupillary membrane)
- Retinal pigment irregularities (retinal pigment epithelium)
- Abnormal retinal development (retinal dysplasia)
- Displaced pupils (corectopia)
- Lens displacement (lens luxation)
- Missing tapetum (reflective rear eye layer)
When a merle or double merle Great Dane suffers from more than one of these ocular conditions, the condition is called merle ocular dysgenesis.
This can result in vision impairments, limited vision or blindness.
Other Health Concerns Linked to Merle Gene
In addition to eye and ear issues, the merle gene is also linked to sun sensitivity and potentially greater incidence of skin cancer.
This risk increases if your merle Great Dane happens to have more white in the coat.
Genetic Testing for Merle Great Dane Dogs
What is important to remember here is that these scary-sounding health issues are far more likely to occur in a double merle dog than in a single merle dog.
However, they can and do occur in both single and double merle dogs.
This is why it is so vital to only work with a Great Dane breeder that is health-focused.
Genetic testing should be done with all breeding stock (parent dogs) prior to planning a new litter.
This is the only way to safeguard against breeding puppies that will not survive or will suffer all their lives from preventable life-limiting health issues.
Merle Great Dane Grooming
The Great Dane coat is short and single-layer.
It lays flat naturally, which makes it easy to run a brush over your dog’s body to remove shed hair and any debris.
However, Great Danes do shed seasonally. Even though your dog’s coat is quite short, there is quite a lot of dog and thus quite a lot of hair.
During these times, extra grooming sessions can help catch dead hair before it begins to redecorate your furniture, floors and person.
Additionally, the extra grooming feels really good to your pup.
If your merle Great Dane has a lot of white in her coat, her skin may be a bit more sensitive, especially after she has been out playing in the sun.
So just be very gentle when brushing her coat to avoid causing any skin irritation.
Your Merle Great Dane
We hope you have enjoyed learning more about your merle Great Dane dog’s unique and beautiful coat color pattern.
If you have not yet chosen your merle Great Dane puppy, remember to carefully research any breeder you want to work with.
Be sure that the breeder pre-tests parent dogs for the merle gene and other possible heritable health issues.
This greatly increases your chances of selecting a healthy, happy puppy.
Rescuing a merle Great Dane adult dog is also a great way to give a relinquished pup a new forever home.
It can alleviate some concerns about possible heritable health issues.
Are you caring for a merle Great Dane or thinking of adding this pup to your family?
Please share your story in the comment section below. We love to learn from our readers.
References and Further Reading:
Clark, L.A., et al., 2006, “Retrotransposon Insertion in Silv Is Responsible for Merle Patterning of the Domestic Dog,” PNAS Journal
“Great Dane Coat Color Genetics,” Gator Danes
“The Great Dane—Gentle Giant,” Rocky Mountain Great Dane Rescue
“Grooming Your Great Dane,” Anubis Great Danes Kennel
Hoke, J., 2018, “Judging the Merle Great Dane,” American Kennel Club Conformation
“The Illustrated Standard of the Great Dane,” The Great Dane Club of America
Murphy, S. and Clark, L.A., 2018, “The Genetics of Merle Coat Pattern in Dogs,” BioMed Central
Strain, G.M., et al., 2009, “Prevalence of Deafness in Dogs Heterozygous or Homozygous for the Merle Allele,” Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine
O’Dea, C., 2014, “The Prevalence of Ocular and Auditory Abnormalities in Merle Dogs (A Review of the Literature),” Szent Ist’van University Department for Veterinary Genetics and Animal Breeding