Your red merle Australian Shepherd has inherited a particularly unique and beautiful color pattern.
In fact, once you learn about the incredible amount of genetic diversity that can go into dictating your dog’s adult colors, you will understand why it is quite unlikely any two red merle Australian Shepherd dogs will ever look exactly the same!
If hearing this makes you feel curious to learn more about your precious pup’s unusual red merle coat color, you are in the right place.
This in-depth article investigates the basics of what creates the beautiful red merle Australian Shepherd pattern.
Here, we will take a closer look at dog breeding and color genetics, grooming needs of long double-coated dogs like the Aussie, possible genetic color links to temperament and health and more!
What is a Red Merle Australian Shepherd?
So what exactly is a red merle Australian Shepherd? How can you tell this coat color pattern apart from other common coat colors and patterns within the Aussie breed?
Especially if you are new to the breed, the first thing you need to know is that the use of the word “red” to describe a red merle Australian Shepherd can be confusing and misleading.
For example, when you think of the color “red,” you probably automatically picture in your mind a “fire engine red”. This is totally normal to do!
However, in dogs, the color red can mean a few things. It can refer to anything from a very light champagne or cinnamon color to a strawberry blonde shade. It can even refer to what appears to be rust, copper, sienna, or other shades of brown-red or brown-black.
This is why breeders sometimes refer to the red color in Australian Shepherds as the “red spectrum” of colors instead of just saying “red.” This can also be helpful to remember as your puppy grows up, since Australian Shepherd coats often darken naturally as dogs grow older.
Phenotype Versus Genotype
Another area of canine coat color and coat pattern that can be confusing to newcomers is when breeders talk about the way a puppy looks now versus what coat colors and patterns you can expect to see as your puppy grows up.
For example, you may look at your adorable red merle Australian Shepherd puppy and not see what the breeder is talking about when they tell you your adult dog will probably have a darker base coat color, more colors in the coat, less white overall and even a different colored nose!
The reason knowledgeable Australian Shepherd dog breeders can predict these types of changes in advance boils down to the difference between your dog’s phenotype (appearance) and genotype (genetics).
Here are some known genetic changes many (but not all) Aussie puppies go through when the puppy coat blows out and the adult coat starts to grow in:
- Bi-color or merle-appearing puppies become tri-color.
- Light puppy coat colors get darker and richer.
- Markings and ticking begins to appear throughout the coat.
- White markings in puppyhood shrink in size on the adult coat.
- Puppy face mask colors and markings change in adulthood.
- Eye color changes, lightens or darkens in adulthood.
- Nose, lip, eyelid and paw pad colors change in adulthood.
It can take up to a year or longer for coat, nose, eye and other key colors to transition from puppy colors to adult dog colors.
If you are still researching red merle Australian Shepherd puppies and have your heart set on choosing a dog with a certain look, the best approach is to find a breeder that specializes in the red merle coat color pattern to help you choose your pup based on parent genetics (genotype).
Base Coat Colors
The official Australian Shepherd dog breed standard specifies that Aussies can have one of four different base coat colors.
These colors are solid black, solid red (also called liver), blue merle and red merle. All four colors may also include white or tan (copper) markings (ticking or points). Black ticking is also possible.
Blue merle and black colored dogs typically have black lips, noses, and eye rims. Red and red merle colored dogs have liver (red) lips, noses, and eye rims.
So as your red merle Australian Shepherd puppy grows up, you may see red (liver) spectrum, copper (tan) spectrum and white spectrum markings develop in the coat, as well as black markings on occasion. And your puppy will most likely also have a liver (red) spectrum nose, lips and eye rims.
Coat Color Patterns
Australian Shepherds can inherit two possible coat patterns: solid (self) or merle.
A self or solid coat color pattern will express (show up) as one single coat color throughout.
A merle color pattern, on the other hand, can show up with incredible variety from puppy to puppy. This is even true within a single litter!
There are three solid eye colors and two possible patterns. Eye color is where dog color genetics can really get interesting!
The solid black and red Australian Shepherd coat colors are typically paired with brown, amber or blue eyes.
The eyes of dogs displaying the blue and red merle coat colors will often take on a flecked or “marbled” color pattern. A merle Aussie’s eyes may even be two completely different colors or color patterns (called “Heterochromia”).
A red merle Australian Shepherd, for example, could inherit any of these eye color pairings:
- Two solid brown eyes.
- Two solid blue eyes.
- One solid blue and one solid brown eye.
- Two solid brown eyes marbled with blue.
- Two solid blue eyes marbled with brown.
- Two eyes each displaying a different brown/blue marbled pattern.
Let’s take a closer look at the genetics behind this fascinating diversity of colors and patterns within the greater red merle spectrum.
Red Merle Australian Shepherd Genetics
Modern canine genetics is based on principles developed by an Austrian monk named Gregor Mendel. He actually primarily worked with pea plants. However, the same concepts Mendel discovered in pea plants also translate to animals and people!
All purebred Australian Shepherd dogs will inherit one of two possible base coat color genes: black or red. Similarly, all purebred Australian Shepherd dogs will inherit one of two possible pattern genes: solid (self) color, or the merle pattern.
What is important to remember here is that two different genes are responsible for your red merle Australian Shepherd’s dominant coat color (red) and coat pattern (merle). The merle gene also acts as an influencer for paw pads color, eye color, nose color and lips color.
The gene that contributes the recessive red coat color is the B locus and is expressed as bb. This is because both parent dogs must contribute the recessive red coat color gene in order for your puppy to pop out with a red coat.
The gene that causes the merle coat color pattern is called M(Silv) or M locus. Single merle is expressed as Mm and double merle is expressed as MM, or homozygous merle.
The Cryptic or “Phantom” Merle Gene
Why is this so important to know when you are selecting an Australian Shepherd puppy?
Along with full solid (self) coat colors and full merle coat color patterns, there is a phenomenon in dog breeding known as the cryptic or “phantom” merle coat pattern. This occurs when an Australian Shepherd dog has very faint merle markings that can easily be interpreted as a solid coat color.
A true cryptic merle Australian Shepherd has a different type of merle gene. They can safely be bred to a regular merle Aussie without risk of breeding double merle puppies.
But if a faint (phantom) regular merle dog that looks solid-colored is bred to a regular merle Aussie, this may result in double merle puppies.
Knowledgeable, health-focused dog breeders who carefully study canine genetics will be aware of potential heritable health issues and will carefully pair parent dogs to sidestep problems such as potentially breeding double merle puppies.
Red Merle Australian Shepherd Temperament
There is a reason the Australian Shepherd is so popular. It is the 16th most popular purebred pet dog in the United States (out of 193 purebred dog breeds). These dogs are smart, athletic, fun-loving, energetic and very hard-working.
Owners often describe the Aussie as a “Velcro” dog. They are reserved towards strangers but incredibly loving and affectionate towards “their” people.
In fact, the “Australian” part of the Aussie’s name is not precisely accurate. The dogs can actually trace their modern lineage all the way back to Europe. Over time, their European owners migrated to Australia and then on to America, making strategic breed crosses along the way.
Today’s Australian Shepherd’s coat colors still show traces of these influences inherited from the Pyrenean Shepherd and various Collie breeds. This includes the beloved Border Collie.
One common question many prospective or new red merle Australian Shepherd owners have is whether coat can influence temperament.
The most accurate answer researchers have found to date is “probably not.” Researchers studying mouse genetics discovered a match between a gene for red hair in mice and a gene for red hair in people that seems to predict what they call a “scrappy” temperament.
But the gene that causes the red coat color in Australian Shepherds is a different gene altogether and, thus far at least, has not been similarly associated with any temperament problems.
Rather, breeders and researchers point to the critical importance of selecting good breeding stock (parent dogs). These dogs will exhibit desirable temperament traits as well as appearance traits.
If you are still searching for your new red merle Australian Shepherd puppy, make sure the breeder you select permits you to meet and spend time with both parent dogs before you make a final commitment to a puppy.
The parent dog’s temperament is still the best determinant of your puppy’s temperament when fully grown.
Red Merle Australian Shepherd Health
The merle color gene can be problematic for an Australian Shepherd when both parents contribute the gene to a puppy. This is called a “double-merle” and it is associated with a variety of potential health issues.
One common issue that results from a double-merle breeding is eye defects. These defects may include abnormal eye development, missing eyes and/or blindness in one or both eyes.
Another potential health issue that can arise from a double-merle breeding is deafness. Deafness is more likely if your dog’s head color is predominantly white.
Red or double red merle Australian Shepherd dogs who inherit blue eyes and/or a predominantly white spectrum color coat can also be more sensitive to sunlight and more at risk for eye and skin damage, sunburn and sun exposure-related cancer.
Red Merle Australian Shepherd Grooming
The Australian Shepherd as a breed grows a thick, long, wavy, double layer coat in adulthood. True working Aussies really need this coat. It has a water-resistant outer layer and inner insulating layer, for protection against the elements.
The Australian Shepherd also needs this coat to be protective year-round. This means that when the seasons change twice a year, you can expect your dog to start shedding….and shedding….and shedding. These shed cycles replenish the coat layers so they can do their job well.
Otherwise, there is no real difference between black, blue merle, red or red merle Australian Shepherd grooming and coat care needs.
The one exception may be in Aussies with predominantly white coats. These may have more sensitive skin due to exposure to the elements. For these pups, you will want to be sure to use lots of de-tangling spray and be quite gentle when brushing out any tangles and mats.
Your Red Merle Australian Shepherd
We hope this in-depth article focusing on the origins behind the red merle Australian Shepherd dog coat color pattern has given you new insight into the Aussie’s lovely and unique colors.
Studying and learning about canine genetics is a discipline that can easily last a lifetime. No matter how much you learn, there is always still more to learn and discover!
Unless you aspire to breed Australian Shepherds yourself, the best way to shorten your personal genetic learning curve while searching for a puppy is to work with a knowledgeable breeder who keeps excellent genetic breeding records and performs genetic pre-testing on parent dogs.
With this approach, you have the best chance of choosing a healthy puppy with beautiful colors and a delightful personality to enjoy for years to come.
References and Resources
Jones, L., et al, “The Australian Shepherd Breed History,” The United States Australian Shepherd Association, 2018.
Johnson, G.P., “Basic Genetics: Inheritance of Color and Pattern,” The Australian Shepherd Club of America, 2018.
Whipps, H., “Gregor Mendel, A Monk and His Peas,” Live Science, 2008.
Kirby, S., “About the Australian Shepherd,” Skyquake Aussies Kennel,” 2018.
Hedan, B., et al, “Coat color in dogs: identification of the Merle locus in the Australian Shepherd breed,” MBC Journal of Veterinary Research, 2006.
Johnson, L., “Grooming Your Australian Shepherd,” Australian Shepherds Furever Rescue, 2016.