Merle and black pigment


As I mentioned in a previous post, I was fortunate enough to get some wonderful comparison shots while I was in Kentucky. It seems a good time to share this one since I touched on the topic of merle in dogs in the last few posts. This is Lily, a sable merle Collie. Here she is with her ordinary sable companion.


As I had mentioned in a previous post about merle in dogs, the merle gene effects black pigment. This is why the sabled areas on head are muted on Lily compared to her friend. With only a small amount of black pigment present, the effect is pretty subtle. From a distance Lily looks a little washed out and pale. Her blue eye is quite a giveaway for the merle gene, since those happen even with merles that are completely red pigmented. Her ears, which are often the blackest area on a sable Collie, are the other giveaway.


Her other ear and the colored area along her back skull are all visibly merled.

I should also clarify that she is what Collie breeders call a color-headed white with a single merle gene. She is extensively white because she is homozygous for the color-headed gene, and not because she has two copies of the merle gene.

Here is a typical (non-merle) color-headed Collie. (Photo from Wikimedia.)


Unlike double merles – and the white Boxers in the previous post – the gene responsible for this pattern usually leaves the head, nose and ears dark.

Here is my friend Andrea Caudill’s merle Cocker Spaniel, Domino. (Thank you, Andrea, for letting me use pictures of your sweet boy!)


Domino is probably a double merle. Although many double merles are very white, especially on the face, some carry enough color that they could be mistaken for a dog that had a single merle gene and one of the more extensive piebald patterns.

Since posting about the fact that merle acts on black pigment, several people contacted me about red dogs that were merle. In some breeds, red is used to describe liver, which is a form of black pigment. The people writing were not talking about liver red. In these cases, what was meant was truly red (or yellow) pigment. Some of the dogs did in fact look red, or had what looked like merling in their red-pigmented areas as well as their black. It was often less extensive, but still it was enough to make me wonder how absolute the connection was to black pigment.

If you look closely at Lily (the images link to larger pictures), the area at the corner of her blue eye, running towards the blaze, is roaned. Here is a sable Dachshund with an even more merling in the red areas of his face. (For comparison, here is a sable Dachshund puppy with the merling mostly confined to his sable areas.)

It is also true that merle, when paired with the harlequin (Harl), will effect red pigment. In Danes these dogs are called fawnequins. (Image from Wikimedia.)


The harlequin gene has much the same effect on brindles that inherit the merle gene, which are known as brindlequins. Compare that to a more typical brindle merle here, where the red/yellow pigment is not especially altered.

So it appears that the link between merle and black is not absolute. I know I’ll be looking at merles with red pigment more closely in the future. I am curious to see how common this is, and why it happens in some red dogs but not most.

(I promise to return to horse colors with the next post, which will have the Dominant White stallion Sato!)

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15 Responses to Merle and black pigment

  1. Rebecca Turner July 25, 2011 at 1:28 pm #

    I just love this blog Leslie.. its so darn interesting and m learning so much! I love it.. when i see a post in my email I just kind of go.. yippee!!! keep em coming! and than you for doing this.. IM sure everyone appreciates it very much.I know I do!

    • The Equine Tapestry July 25, 2011 at 2:16 pm #

      Thank you so much, Becky! I have gotten so many nice notes and comments about the blog. It is a lot of fun to do, and I am glad people are enjoying it. I certainly am learning a lot as it goes along, which is one of the reasons I love comments. 🙂

  2. Cindy Dalton July 25, 2011 at 1:44 pm #

    There’s a red merle Aussie on my flyball club. I will have to send you pics of him. He’s definitely red, not liver. Pretty guy. Also have seen red merle border collies.

    • The Equine Tapestry July 25, 2011 at 2:24 pm #

      That would be so awesome! I would love to post it to the blog so others can see, if you have a good picture. I also wondered if Border Collies might be a good place to look, since they have the clear red (“yellow”) color that the Rough Collies and Shelties lack.

      And is it me or are the dog sports the place to look for odd colors? I always though that with horses the place to find odd stuff were the trail rental barns. It seems they are the place the colors that don’t quite fit end up, at least here in the States. Maybe agility and flyball are the same way for odd dog colors …

      • Cindy Dalton July 25, 2011 at 2:38 pm #

        Here’s my theory…performance/sport dogs are often from working bloodlines, where color doesn’t matter. So I think you could be more likely to find the more unusual colors there, rather than conformation and pet breeders, which would be breeding for the more “acceptable” colors.

        Be sure to check out Contact Point Border Collies, whose website I posted below…they have a lot of unusual colored border collies!

        • Lisa McDonald March 6, 2013 at 5:15 pm #

          Yes, this is very much the case. In BCs and Aussies the show bred dogs tend to have less intense drive and and are more tightly regulated in terms of color. Dogs from working bloodlines tend to be higher drive and there is less concern about color. The cows are not impressed by a full white collar and perfectly placed tan points. DQ’d colors in both breeds can compete in performance events but not the conformation breed ring. So it’s in the sports, including agility and flyball, where you’ll see the yellow Aussies, the sable merle Aussies, the dilutes, etc. In BCs this doesn’t actually apply, since any color is allowed.

  3. Cindy Dalton July 25, 2011 at 2:35 pm #

    Another red merle border collie:

  4. Laura Brown July 25, 2011 at 11:31 pm #

    I own a blue merle Great Dane if you ever want/need photos for anything. 🙂 He also has the white mantle color & markings on him. Very lovely! His father was a Harlequin, and his mother was a black mantle. In the litter there were 14 puppies: 5 merles, 4 Harlequines, 3 mantles, and 2 predominately white puppies, 1 of which was deaf. Genetics are incredible things, and have always fascinated me. Thank you for your blog!! I love reading it every day. 🙂

  5. D Davis July 26, 2011 at 1:50 am #

    If you are interested in pics of brightly colored danes, we have two: a female merle (with white spots on chest/foot) and a male merlequin (with one blue eye & one black eye). I think it is interesting that the male has typical harlequin patches (large and flea bitten) but also has merle spots/patches (the solid leg is merle, half the face too, & large part of his neck) as well as white on 3 feet/face stripe/chest – so does the harlequin gene work on black AND merle? As far as I know his father was solid blue/grey and his mother was mostly patched (red/black/white).

    • Lisa McDonald March 6, 2013 at 5:11 pm #

      Harlequin is an interesting gene in Danes. In the homozygous state it is lethal. A dog can have a copy but it only is expressed in the presence of merle. So while a black Dane may have Hh, there is no visual evidence of it. A black Dane with a copy of the merle gene and a copy of the Harlequin gene (BB Mm Hh) is the typical Harlequin Dane with irregular black patches on white. It is fairly common for Harlequin Danes to have a small spot or two of blue merle here and there; perhaps H doesn’t always completely dilute blue to white.

  6. Lisa McDonald March 6, 2013 at 1:19 pm #

    I run a color site for the Australian shepherd. In our breed we have both blue merles (merle of black B) and red merles (merle of red b). Merle is difficult to impossible to discern on yellows (ee).

  7. Theresa Zuro November 23, 2013 at 9:41 pm #

    What a pleasant surprise while google searching images of sable Merles and up pops photos of my Lili and Buehrle! I remember meeting you at Kentucky Horse Park. Enjoyed reading your blog and especially enjoyed the photos. Thank you!

    • equinetapestry December 6, 2013 at 12:10 am #

      Theresa, I am so glad that you found them! If you’d like larger images of your lovely Collies, just let me know. I think I may even have more images of both of them, but I’d have to look through my files.

  8. Theresa Zuro July 27, 2014 at 1:27 am #

    Yes! I would love larger images of Lili and Buehrle, assuming you still have them — I just now saw your reply to my post so I apologize for getting back to you seven months later.