Black and Red

The last few posts about silver in horses, and merle in dogs, dealt with mutations that alter black pigment without changing red pigment. Those two pigments – red and black – are pretty straightforward in horses. In dogs, though, the term “red” can lead to confusion.

That is because red is used in some breeds, like Australian Shepherds and Dobermans, to refer to what is really an alternate form of black pigment. The same color is sometimes called chocolate (Labradors, Cocker Spaniels), liver (English Setters, Pointers), or brown (Newfoundlands). Although they can appear red-brown in color, the pigment involved is a form of black rather than red. That is why a brown-and-tan dog will have two different shades of red-brown on their body. The brown-and-tan Kelpie pictured above is a good example of this. The darker areas of his coat correspond with the areas you would expect to be black on a black-and-tan dog, while the brighter, copper areas are the places you would expect to be tan. That’s because he carries the mutation that changes the black pigment (called eumelanin) to brown. Because red pigment (called pheomelanin) is not changed by the brown (b) mutation, his copper markings stay the same color. Were this dog not carrying two recessive brown genes (bb), he would be the more familiar black-and-tan.

Red merle are the same kind of color as the Kelpie, only with the merle gene added. Here is a red merle Catahoula Leopard.


Like the Kelpie, genetically he is a black-and-tan dog with the recessive brown (bb) mutation. He also has the merle mutation, which has merled the brown areas (which have a black pigment, or eumelanin, base) but left the tan (which have red pigment, or pheomelanin) alone.

The brown mutation also alters the pigment in the nose, paw pads, lips and eyes, so that the dog takes on a fairly monochromatic brown appearance. Here is a darker brown German Wirehaired Pointer showing how the nose leather is changed. The dog behind him, although somewhat out of focus, shows that the lips are changed as well.


Brown dogs can vary a good bit when it comes to shade. Some are redder than others, while some are a lot closer to black. With darker brown dogs, like this Dalmation and this German Shorthair, it is perhaps easier to imagine that the brown color is really an alteration of black.



So far, all the dogs posted have been genetically black (or black-and-tan) with the brown mutation. Brown, unlike the silver dilution in horses, does change genetically red dogs, too. It doesn’t change their fur, which is red, but it does change their noses, paw pads, lips and eyes. The extreme piebald Ibizan Hound posted a few days ago is a red dog with the brown dilution.


See how his patches are more similar in color to the tan markings on the brown-and-tan dogs? That is red pigmented fur. His nose, lips and area around his eyes are pinkish because the brown (bb) changed what would normally be black to brown. Nova Scotia Duck Tollers are another breed that is genetically red with the brown mutation. They also have pinkish-brown leathers and paler eyes.


Contrast the nose and eyes with the typical Golden Retriever, and that is how brown changes a red-pigmented dog.


And finally, one more bit that tends to cause confusion with the term red in dogs. The Golden Retriever pictured above is a genetically red dog, but most people would not readily call that color red, either. Most genetically red dogs are actually yellow in appearance. That is why, when speaking of dogs, pheomelanin is sometimes called “red/yellow” pigment. In horses, that is not typically used. There diluted red often does look yellow, but that is not common enough that the term needs to be added. In dogs it can help to clarify what it meant by red – especially given the confusion with brown.

(The Kelpie, Catahoula and Golden Retriever pictures are all courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

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15 Responses to Black and Red

  1. Dorothy Robertson February 21, 2012 at 10:40 am #

    Thankd you so much…..I did a couple hours reading various papers yesterday and it got somewhat complicated on some of them. THIS makes sense and is easier by far to understand. Instead of “red” as in horses (which is recessive) we are actually looking at “brown” which is recessive, correct? Which would explain the need to breed “red” to “red” or “red” to “red carrier” or “red carrier to red carrier” to get “red pups” AND why red merles even happen (more accurately called “brown merle”?…not that that would change the nomenclature of the rest of the world but it makes more sense to me in my little head). Thanks again.

  2. Kristin Berkery February 21, 2012 at 11:54 am #

    I have a red dog with a brown mutation — I enjoyed seeing photos of other dogs with this coloring in your post.

    My dog is part Chihuahua and part terrier of some sort and has a solid red coat with light brown eyes, purple skin, and brown claws. I knew she had some kind of dilution gene but I wasn’t sure what her basecoat color was because it didn’t seem to be black. This article helped me understand that her base color is actually red.

  3. Kristina Pry February 21, 2012 at 12:34 pm #

    Okay so now a follow up to the previous posts you gave me links to. Am I correct in guessing that the extreme piebald Ibizan above has one form of the recessive piebald and CHW Shelties/Collies have the other recessive gene? A friend, with piebald border collies who had some hearing loss, and I were trying to figure out the difference between a CHW Sheltie and her piebald BC’s. CHW Shelties show no hearing loss, but many piebald BC’s do. So I am thinking BC’s have extreme piebald and Shelties have “regular” piebald. Is that correct?

  4. Lisa Shepard February 21, 2012 at 12:50 pm #

    So can we also expect a dog color book? I sure hope so, it is much more difficult to find dog information on color, anatomy, and mechanics (although they are out there) than it is with horses. And your way of explanation is just right, and clear. thanks for including dogs! (As if you weren’t busy enough already!)

    • The Equine Tapestry February 21, 2012 at 2:00 pm #

      Did you hear that :thud:? That was my husband when I mentioned doing another book. 😀

      Actually, I would love to do one. There are so many resources for horse color, but very few things published about dog color. I would have to greatly expand my library of dog photos, though. With the horses, I’ve been taking pictures to illustrate articles about color for so long that I had a lot of material already, and could add specific things when I needed them. With dogs I’d need to start taking a lot of photos, or find a lot of people willing to share!

  5. Celeste Plitz February 21, 2012 at 3:41 pm #

    Even if you never do get a book done…I do adore reading this blog. So much information, and you have a gift of making it easy to understand. Thanks for writing it!! (in case nobody has thanked you for doing so, before.)

  6. Shelbi Forgey February 21, 2012 at 4:59 pm #

    I have a red Chiweenie(ChihuahuaXDachshund.) I’ve noticed a lot of red dogs have red noses, but not all of them.

  7. Shannon Bridwell March 25, 2012 at 12:12 am #

    After some random google image searching I stumbled upon this blog. The Ibizan Hound is my dog, Nova. That is a lovely head shot of him. I would love to have a copy.

    • The Equine Tapestry March 26, 2012 at 2:34 pm #

      Hello Shannon, and welcome to the blog! I would love to send you a shot, and am glad to have a name to match to his images. I believe I have several of him, though that particular face shot was my favorite. If you hit the contact button on the right hand side of the page, and send me an email, I’d be happy to send you good copies of all that I have.

  8. Shannon Bridwell April 2, 2012 at 11:15 pm #

    I have e-mailed you a couple times but I keep getting a spam message back. Is there another way to contact you? Thanks! 🙂

    • The Equine Tapestry April 4, 2012 at 3:59 pm #

      The problem should be fixed now. If not, posting here will flag it for me.

  9. Sarah Beaupre April 3, 2012 at 2:19 am #

    Lesli, if you’re interested in doing a book about dog colors, please shoot me an e-mail! I’ve been entertaining the notion on doing one and already have some spread sheets done, like every single color the AKC accepts and what breeds apply to each. I have the knowledge and information, but not the know-how on going about finding a publisher or anything on that end. My e-mail is

    • The Equine Tapestry April 4, 2012 at 4:03 pm #

      Hi Sarah and welcome to the blog. I’ve been approached a couple of times since starting the blog about doing a book on dog color. Of course, when I mention the idea of another project, my husband laughs and asks when exactly I plan to finish the current set of books! 😀

      The set of books that make up Equine Tapestry grew out of almost 30 years of accumulating information. I suspect to tackle dogs, I’d need to find a way to work much, much faster! 🙂


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