Disqualify That Color of Dog!
By Tracie Karsjens, Atlas Kennels

It's no secret that we at Atlas Kennels are fanciers of the white coated German Shepherd (in addition to German Shepherds of other colors). The color white is currently a disqualifying fault in the AKC standard for German Shepherds. This article examines why acceptable colors are typically defined in a standard and how this applies to the German Shepherd.

In almost all dog breeds, there is a color or pattern that is considered unacceptable according to the breed standard for that breed. For example, the AKC breed standard for the Labrador Retriever says "The Labrador Retriever coat colors are black, yellow and chocolate. Any other color or a combination of colors is a disqualification." To those not familiar with a particular breed or with the world of purebred dogs, it might seem odd to disqualify a dog based on color. However, there are some legitimate reasons why breed standards disqualify colors. Here are some of the valid reasons and how they apply to the German Shepherd.

1) A color is disqualified because it carries health issues that should not be bred.
For example, consider the Boxer - the AKC standard reads "Disqualifications: Boxers that are any color other than fawn or brindle. Boxers with a total of white markings exceeding one-third of the entire coat." In this breed, white Boxers are created by doubling up on the extreme white spotting gene. As a result, white boxers can be deaf and sometimes blind. Clearly, this is a health issue that you would not want to breed for or pass on. This is a legitmate reason to disqualify a color.

How does this apply to the German Shepherd? In the GSD, the gene for white is a masking gene that causes the production of phaeomelanin pigment and turns the coat cream or white. This is a different kind of pigment but it is not the absence of pigment. Since the pigment is not reduced, there are no associated health issues such as blindness or deafness. These issues are usually caused by lack of pigment in white dogs which is a different type of white than found in GSDs. Since the gene for white in GSDs in not linked to health issues, this is not a valid reason for disqualifying white.

2) The color of a dog is so closely tied to the dog's type that deviation loses breed type.
Breed type refers to the qualities that define a breed and separate it from all other dog breeds. If a particular color is a defining quality, then banning other colors would be appropriate. For example, when we think of a Dalmation, the spots are probably one of the first things that come to mind. The AKC standard for the Dalmation says "Color and markings and their overall appearance are very important points to be evaluated. The ground color is pure white. In black-spotted dogs the spots are dense black. In liver-spotted dogs the spots are liver brown. Any color markings other than black or liver are disqualified." and it goes on to describe in details how the spots should look. The spots are such an important breed characteristic, it's reasonable to disqualify a dog without them. Likewise, a Golden Retriever should be golden, a West Highland White Terrier should be white and an Irish Red and White Setter should be red and white. When color is a key part of the breed definition, disqualifying other colors is reasonable.

How does this apply to the German Shepherd? The German Shepherd is acceptable in a wide range of colors. Although the standard black and tan saddle is what most people think of, it is equally acceptable to have a GSD in sable (with or without a saddle), bi-color and other variations on saddle size, or solid black. In addition to the different patterns there is a wide range of colors from light cream and black all the way to dark red and black. Although richer colors are preferred there is still a very wide range of acceptable colors/patterns in the GSD. This variation shows clearly that color is not a key part of the breed type and thus this is not a valid reason for disqualifying the white GSD.

3) The color doesn't exist within the breed so it should be disqualified.
When dog breeds are well established, certain colors or patterns have been bred out and don't exist within the gene pool for that breed. For example, the Labrador Retriever has the genes in the gene pool to be black or yellow or chocolate, but the genes that in other breeds can create other colors don't exist in the Labrador Retriever gene pool. If someone suddenly came up with a brindle Labrador Retriever, for example, chances are very good that somewhere there was another breed involved. When a color pops out of nowhere there is a legitimate reason to suspect that the dogs are not purebred and that is a legitimate reason to disqualify a color.

How does this apply to the German Shepherd? The grandsire of the first registered German Shepherd Dog was a white. This clearly demonstrates that the white coat was part of the foundation of the breed and any concerns about it being from cross breeding are unfounded. In addition, since the coat color was acceptable in AKC until the late 1950s, it's clearly not a new trend. Thus, this is not an acceptable reason for disqualifying the white GSD.

4) A particular color hinders the dog's ability to do the job they were bred for.
This is a difficult area to come up with examples for since this is so often based on preferences rather than on hard facts. When humans use dogs for a particular job (hunting, herding, ratting, etc) it is possible they may find that a particular coat color works better than another. That doesn't mean that a dog of a different color can't do the job, just that it's easier with a certain color.

The issue of herding certainly comes up here. Many people believe that a darker dog is better used for herding while a lighter colored dog is better for guarding the flock. For example, a Australian Cattle Dog is a colored dog used to move stock while a Kuvasz is a large white dog used to guard sheep. That idea that dark is for herding and light is for guarding doesn't always remain consistent however. Consider these examples:
  • As the ancient sheepdog of Hungary, the Puli has been herding flocks for Hungarian Shepherds for more than 1,000 years. Puli's are solid black, grey or white and all are equally permissable.
  • The Icelandic Sheepdog came to Iceland with the Vikings in AD 874-930 and was used to work sheep, cattle, and horses. While they should not be predominately white, they can be tan and white which is a very light colored dog.
  • The Samoyed was developed by the Samoyedic peoples of Siberis to herd reindeer and pull sleds. They are always white in spite of their origin as a herding dog.
Clearly there is room for debate on whether a dog being white makes it less desirable as a herding dog. This doesn't even begin to address the question of what happens when someone has sheep that are brown or black. There is no clear answer on whether a white herding dog is a detriment.

Regardless of the debate on white herding dogs, it is clear that if a particular color is a detriment to the intended job of the breed, then it is a legitimate reason to disqualify the color.

How does this apply to the German Shepherd? The GSD was developed from early German herding dogs and as stated previously the grandsire of the first GSD was white. This means that at least one and probably more of the early German herding dogs were white. Also as was discussed above, there is a legitimate reason to doubt that white is not an acceptable color for herding. Clearly a white dog can herd as white GSDs have earned herding titles and have worked on farms. The issue is if the color is preferred for herding and the answer is unclear.

Let's assume for a minute though that white is not a preferred color for herding. If that were the case, that would be a legitimate reason to disqualify white, but only if the GSD was primarily a herding dog. The GSD, while retaining the name shepherd, was not developed as primarily a herding dog but rather as a dog with versatility, intelligence, courage and the ability to adapt to various jobs as needed. The sport of Schutzund (now IPO) was developed in Germany by the early breed founders as a way to evaluate breeding stock. It requires obedience, tracking and protection - and notably not herding. Although there is a different test available for evaluating herding dogs, Schutzund remains one of the standards for evaluation of the German Shepherd.

If there is one thing the GSD breed was developed for it is versatility. Von Stephanitz, the founder of the breed, used the motto "Utility and intelligence" to describe what is required of the GSD. GSDs work in the military, police work, search and rescue and a whole host of other jobs and have since the founding of the breed. Certainly it would be ridiculous to disqualify a color based on one particular job in a breed that was created to do many different jobs. In all the different jobs the GSD was created for, there is a need for a wide variety of colors to do the jobs as efficiently as possible. Thus, there is no reason to disqualify white based on the original job of the breed.

These are the main reasons why it is acceptable to disqualify a color or pattern within a breed and none of them apply to the color white in the German Shepherd. It is unfortunate that there is so much misunderstanding and confusion regarding this disqualification.

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