The 5 Sheltie Colors in Pictures
Shetland Sheepdogs are known for five official coat colors. Unlike most dog breeds, their black fur comes from a recessive gene, which is why you're less likely to meet a black Sheltie! Instead, the dominant color gene produces Sable. Let's take a look at the coat types now.
#1. Sable Shelties
Sable is the classic Shetland Sheepdog look, the one that summons cries of "Look Mom, a mini Lassie!"
The predominant color can range from light gold...
...to deep mahogany, overlaid with flashes of black.
Oftentimes, the main tan color is contrasted by patches of white around the neck, chest, legs and toes in what's called an Irish pattern.
In terms of genetics, the Sable color comes from a dominant allele in Shelties, which makes it the most common coat type you'll see. However, it takes time to develop. Sable puppies are actually born with grayish fur, which slowly intensifies to tan as they mature.
The color, thickness and quality of the coat continue to develop beyond the first year. Piper was chestnut colored when we met him, but over the years he's developed much more black fur. This shows how much a coat can change over time—although the reason for his extra black will become clear when we look at Tri-Factoring.
When it comes to dog Conformation (the contests that determine champions), Sables can range through all shades of golden through mahogany, but washed-out colors or brindle (striped) markings are considered faults.
Conspicuous white body spots (other than the normal distribution of white on the chest and legs) also lose points. And Shelties with more than 50 percent white fur are disqualified.
Yep, dog standards are pretty strict—and they need to be, lest the unique breed appearance die out.
#2. Tri-Color Shelties
Tri-Colors are a combination of black, white and tan. There's often an Irish pattern of white fur on the chest and legs. Tan fur appears around the cheeks, throat, ears, eyes, legs and under the tail.
You'll see a few more Tri-Colors around thanks to their genetics: Tri-Color is recessive to Sable, but dominant to Bi-Black (later on our list).
Shelties with both the Sable and Tri-Color alleles are known as "Tri-Factored". They're carrying the gene variant (but not always expressing it) and can pass on either coat color to their puppies.
The inheritance patterns of Tri-Color Shelties gives a better understanding of how parent genes are passed onto offspring. Take a look:
To explore this concept further, have a play around with this Coat Color Inheritance Calculator. This also explains the different coloring of Howard and Piper. While they're both Sable Shelties, Piper's abundance of black fur suggests Tri-Factoring at play. Either his mom was a Tri-Color or a Tri-Factored Sable.
#3. Blue Merle Shelties
Look at this handsome devil.
Blue Merle Shelties are essentially Tri-Color Shelties with color modifications. The merle gene dilutes the black fur into shades of gray or light blue. Blue Merles also have the typical white and tan distribution of Tri-Colors.
Unlike the coat colors seen so far, Blue Merles are not produced by color genes. Instead, they are created by a color modifier gene which affects the base color of the dog. The same modifier gene can also give the dog either one or two blue eyes.
Breeding two Blue Merles creates a 1 in 4 chance of producing a Double Merle puppy, which has serious health consequences. While it results in a stunning all-white coat, the lack of melanin impacts the development of the eyes in the womb. Many Double Merles are born blind, deaf, or both.
In Conformation, judges deduct points for rustiness in a Blue Merle coat, as well as faded or washed-out colors. Self-color (without any merling or mottling, appearing as a faded or diluted Tri-Color) is also a fault.
#4. Bi-Blue Shelties
Bi-Blues are mainly blue and white. The common Irish distribution makes for a white chest and legs. They also have varying degrees of mottling and the eye color can be blue or merled.
A Bi-Blue arises when a Bi-Black gene (below) meets a merle modifier. It's fairly unusual to see, although careful breeders can manipulate the odds of producing Bi-Blues by having a handle on the underlying genetics. Bi-Blues are healthy dogs, possessing only one merle gene, as opposed to two merle genes which creates the blind or deaf Double Merle.
Judges look for clear, silvery blue colors which are marbled with black. There's no penalty for the absence of tan markings in Bi-Blues; it's an official coat type of its own. The general look should be blue, while heavy black markings or rusty effects are considered faults.
#5. Bi-Black Shelties
Bi-Black Shelties have solid black hairs which make up most of the color. They're named for their distinct black-and-white combination, with bi being Latin for two.
The Bi-Black allele is recessive, which makes it the least common Sheltie color. Interestingly, the opposite is true in many other dog breeds, where black is the dominant allele.
To produce Bi-Black puppies, breeders either need one or both parents to be Bi-Black too. That said, breeding two Tri-Colors can also produce Bi-Black puppies if both parents are carriers of the recessive black allele.
In Conformation, solid black-and-white fur is expected, while rustiness or fading in black fur is seen as a fault. Bi-Black Shelties with more than 50 percent white fur are disqualified.
What is White Factoring?
If a dog is white factored, it means they have an abundance of pure white fur, usually on their collar, chest and legs. More often than not, they have a strong white stifle running up the back leg.
White factored Shelties can be any of the Sheltie colors seen above. The extra white fur comes from a modifying gene, as opposed to a base color gene. And, like the merle gene, it can also produce blue eyes.
White factored Shelties can be valuable to breeders in producing sufficient white markings in puppies. They're prized in dog Conformation, as long as the white fur doesn't exceed 50 percent, nor show up as conspicuous body spots.
Most curiously, when two white factored dogs are bred together, you get the remarkable result of a Color Headed White...
The Rare Color Headed White
The Color Headed White (or CHW) is quite unusual. The coat is virtually all-white, except for head markings which follow standard Sheltie colors. CHWs look like regular Shelties who've been dipped in white paint from the neck down.
Unlike Double Merles, Color Headed Whites have no hearing or vision defects. They're perfectly healthy dogs, often with no merle genes at all. They arise 1 in 4 times when two white factored Shelties are bred together.
Alas, Color Headed White Shelties were excluded from the breed standard in 1952. Nowadays, when a Sheltie has more than 50 percent white markings, they're automatically disqualified from Conformation.