Understanding dog coat color genetics might be daunting at first, but often becomes second nature with experience. With the help of DNA testing, you can accurately pinpoint what genes make up your dog’s coat color.
DNA & Coat Color
To address coat color genetics in dogs, it pays to start from the beginning. Your dog’s body consists of trillions of cells. Most of these cells have a nucleus inside them, each of which contains 78 chromosomes. These chromosomes are made with deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). DNA is then made up of nucleotides. In each cell, your dog will have about three billion base pairs of nucleotides. The unique pattern that these nucleotides form is what makes a gene special! So, while one gene might encode hair color into a hair shaft, another gene might be responsible for producing enzymes to digest food. For every gene, the code behind it is incredibly precise. One single mistake in the gene’s DNA sequence can have disastrous effects.
In short, your dog’s DNA determines their coat color. Also, each hair follicle at the base of your pup’s hairs contains cellular material that’s rich in DNA. Along with this, melanocytes surround each hair follicle. There are two types of melanin that melanocytes are responsible for: eumelanin (brown-black), and phaeomelanin (red-yellow). Depending on the underlying genetic influence, a melanocyte produces either type of melanin.
Alleles and Loci
In genetics, a locus is a fixed position on a chromosome where a specific gene resides. Each gene resides at a locus on a chromosome in two copies, one copy for each gene inherited from each parent. These copies, however, aren’t necessarily identical. When the copies of a gene are different from one another, they’re known as alleles. To understand dog coat color genetics, it’s important to get to know each locus, first.
A (agouti) locus
The A-locus is governed by the agouti signaling protein (ASIP) gene. This gene interacts with another gene known as MC1R to control red and black pigment switching in dogs. The ASIP gene governs four different alleles. These are ay = Fawn/sable, aw = Wild sable, t = Black-and-tan, and a = Recessive black. These four alleles work in a hierarchy and ay is the most dominant of them all.
E (extension) locus
The E locus is governed by the MC1R gene. It has three possible forms: black (E), melanistic mask (Em), and yellow/red (ee). The “E” allele allows a dog to produce eumelanin or black pigment. If a dog carries two copies of the E allele (E/E), it can produce black pigment. However, a mutation of the MC1R gene can cause a dog’s cells to only produce phaeomelanin in place of eumelanin. This mutation is represented as the “e” allele.
If a dog carries one copy of “E” and one copy of “e”, they can produce black pigment. The “E/e” dog passes on E to half of its offspring, and e to the other half, the latter of which can produce a yellow/red coat if inherited with another copy of e from the other parent. Because the “e” allele is recessive, a dog must have two copies of it to express the yellow or red coat color. A dog with e/e expression will have a coat that is white, cream, yellow, apricot, or red in color.
K (dominant black) locus
The K locus consists of three alleles. The first K locus allele is KB, or dominant black. This allele reduces or eliminates the expression of the A locus. This mutation is dominant, so your dog only needs one copy of KB to affect the expression of the A locus. A KB/KB or KB/n dog is solid black in color. The next allele is the “brindling” allele, written as “Kbr“. The Kbr allele allows the A locus to come through but causes brindling of the agouti patterns. However, this allele is recessive to the dominant black allele.
So, if your dog’s genotype is KB/Kbr, they will only be solid black and not brindle. The last allele is ky, or recessive non-black. This allele allows the agouti gene to come through without any brindling. So, a dog with two copies of ky will show whatever it has on the A locus, but will still have black nose pigment and may have some black markings, too. In contrast, a dog with both KB and ky will not be able to show any colors from the A locus.
B (brown) locus
The B locus is the home of the liver coat color. This gene affects eumelanin (black pigment). If a dog has a liver coat, their nose is typically brown or pink, and the eyes amber or light brown. The liver gene itself is recessive, so “b” represents liver, and “B” is non-liver, or black. A genotype of B/B or B/b would create a black dog. So, in order for a dog to have a liver coat, it must have the genotype b/b. If your dog has this genotype, it’s genetically impossible for them to have black or gray hair in their coat. The D locus commonly influences the B locus, leading to dilute versions of the liver coat.
D (dilute) locus
The D locus is responsible for lightening the coat. This gene is recessive, so “d” represents dilute, and “D” represents non-dilute. In order for your dog to have a dilute coat, it must have the “d/d” genotype. A dog that is “D/d” or “DD” will have a normal coat. The dilution gene mostly affects eumelanin (black and liver pigment), but phaeomelanin (red) can lighten, too. So, when a dog has “d/d” alleles, a black dog becomes blue or slate. A liver dog becomes isabella or lilac. The eyes will also lighten to amber, which is typically paler than the amber eyes seen in liver dogs.
M (merle) locus
The merle gene is responsible for diluting random sections of the coat to a lighter color, especially in black, liver, blue, or isabella dogs. There is a large number of different merle alleles that affect the coat in different ways. In the merle gene, there is an extra portion of DNA in the dog’s genome. This is its SINE insertion. The longer the insertion, the greater the effect on the dog’s coat.
So, for example, the harlequin merle gene (Mh) has a length of 269-280. In contrast, the standard merle gene (M) is 265-268, the atypical merle is 247-254, and the cryptic merle is 200-230. So, while the cryptic merle insertion isn’t long enough to affect the coat, harlequin merle dilutes gray areas to white or light gray. Because this is the longest insertion, the risk of serious eye and ear defects is highest with this form of merle. It is not safe to breed two merle dogs together for this reason.
H (harlequin) locus
The harlequin gene occurs on the H Locus of the Great Dane. This gene is a modifier. This means that, when inherited alongside another gene, it affects the way that the gene appears. If a dog inherits the modifier but not the gene that it modifies, there is no obvious change to the gene. So, when a Great Dane inherits both the harlequin gene and the merle gene, the areas between their dark patches become pure white. Sometimes, gray ticking or patches will develop, too. This means that a blue (black) merle becomes white with black patches, as the gray in its coat turns to white.
The modifier also affects phaeomelanin (red), so even if a dog is sable, their coat will become “fawnequin” with tan and black patches on a white base. Unfortunately, the harlequin gene may be a dominant embryonic lethal gene. This means that all “H/H” puppies die before birth, leaving only “H/h” puppies to be born.
S (spotting) locus
Most white spots on dogs are the result of genes on the S locus. White spotting can occur with any coat color and will take over both eumelanin (brown/black) and phaeomelanin (yellow/red). The white spotting gene stops the cells from producing skin pigment, causing white areas in the coat. So far, only two alleles are known to exist on the S locus. These are S, which produces no or very little white, and sp, which produces piebald patterns. A third allele might exist on the S locus, but it has not yet been proven. This allele is “extreme white” sw.
Eumelanin and Pheomelanin
There are two types of pigment that influence the color of your pup’s coat. These pigments are eumelanin and phaeomelanin. Most dogs’ coats contain both eumelanin and phaeomelanin. In these cases, the A locus determines how the two pigments mix in the coat. But what exactly are these pigments?
Eumelanin is responsible for black pigment. However, other genes can turn eumelanin into other colors. These colors include liver (brown), blue (gray), and isabella. If a dog has a gene that turns its eumelanin into another color, the entire coat color changes. This is because the gene changes the production of the eumelanin, meaning that none of the dog’s cells can produce the original pigment.
Phaeomelanin is responsible for red pigment. However, the name “red” applies to every pigment from deep red to cream, encompassing colors like yellow and orange, too. Unlike eumelanin, phaeomelanin does not occur in the nose or eyes. So, any gene affecting the phaeomelanin in the coat will not affect the eyes or nose.
The Punnet Square
A Punnett square is a simple way to predict coat color genetics in dogs. To begin, simply draw a square and divide it in half both ways to make four compartments. Each compartment represents a puppy. Above each column, write the genotype of the father, making sure to use the upper cases and lower cases correctly. Then, on the left side, label the rows with the mother’s genotype.
For example, both parents might be B/b for dominant black. According to their Punnett Square, the top left puppy is B/B (black), the bottom left is B/b (black), the top right is b/B (black), and the bottom right is b/b (brown). However, some breeds operate on different rules. For example, if this Punnett Square was for a Labrador Retriever, it neglects to take into account the E locus, which introduces the yellow Labrador to the mix. Every non-yellow Labrador is E/e (yellow-carrier) or EE (non-yellow carrier).
Instead of placing one parent at the top and one at the side, it’s important to incorporate the E locus in these boxes. Your Punnett Square needs to be 4×4, giving 16 potential results. At the top, the parents’ genomes are written twice. At the side, the parents’ E locus genomes are written twice. So, your new Punnett Square would thus read “B/b”, “B/b”, “b/b”, “b/b” across the top, and “E/e”, “E/e”, “e/e”, “e/e” down the side. According to this square, each puppy has a 1 in 4 chance of being each color.
Dog Coat Color Genetics: FAQ
Have any more questions about coat color genetics in dogs? Feel free to refer to our FAQ for more information. If in doubt about your dog’s health or ability to breed, always ask your vet for advice.
Several dog breeds have coats that change color over time. One of the most famous examples of this is seen in the Dalmatian. To the surprise of many, Dalmatian puppies are born without spots. Their spots become the most obvious between five and six months old. Also, some dog breeds carry what is known as the “graying gene”. This gene causes the coat to progressively become lighter. Such breeds include the Old English Sheepdog, Bearded Collie, Bedlington Terriers, Poodle, and Glen of Imaal Terrier. Interestingly, the gene seems to miss black masks (Em) in dogs. The gene that causes graying has not yet been found in dogs. If your dog’s coat color change comes with skin irritation, speak to your vet about coat dilution alopecia.
Your pup gets the same amount of genes from their mother and father. In dogs, there are 78 chromosomes, 39 of which come from the mother, and 39 from the father.
It is possible to breed a dog for a specific color with genetic testing. DNA testing can accurately identify any hidden genes that will affect the coat color of puppies, such as yellow genes in Labradors and cryptic merle in breeds that carry the merle gene. However, breeding involves random chances, too, and there is no guarantee that you will get the specific number of and coat color of puppies you’re hoping for.
Do not breed your dogs solely to produce certain colors. This includes producing new coat colors. Breeding dogs should involve consideration of your dogs’ temperament, health, and working ability.
To simplify, a dominant gene has a higher probability of being seen in the puppies. Dominance is the relationship between two versions of one gene. A dog gets two versions of each gene, known as alleles, from each parent. If alleles of the gene are different, one is expressed. The one that is expressed is the dominant allele. The effect of the other allele, which is recessive, is masked. To be shown, a recessive gene typically needs both alleles to be the same.
In summary, your dog’s genes affect their coat color. Some genes are recessive, while others are dominant and come through easily. Only DNA testing can provide an accurate insight into the hidden genes that your dog carries.