Life isn't always black and white!
Since getting my first red Border Collie 12 years ago, I’ve become used to people asking what breed my dogs are, or worse still, what they are crossed with! Some people think that Border Collies are black and white, or maybe tricolour at a push, but in fact they can come in a vast array of colours. Under the UK breed standard, any colour is permissible, but white should not predominate.
This page is to give visitors a bit more information on the colours that BCs come in, but its not meant to be a definitive resource. Remember – temperament, health and good construction should always come way above colour in terms of breeding choices, and indeed why you are selecting your puppy. Having an unusual colour is no consolation if your dog runs up expensive vet bills or has an unpredictable temperament.
Black and white
The most common colour you will find, largely because the gene that makes a coat black is dominant to most others that influence colour or coat pattern.
Pictured is the very handsome Sniper, the first black and white dog bred by Dreamwork.
Merle is actually a coat pattern rather than a colour. The merle gene works on the base colour, in this case black, to break it up into the distinctive mottled and patched effect.
Merle is in fact a dominant gene, that is, it is normally expressed if it is present. There are a couple of colours that mask it however, just to make matters complicated! When two dominant merle genes come together (a homozygous merle), it can have a devastating effect, producing puppies with hearing and sight defects and deformities. They are commonly known as “lethal whites”, which is actually a term from American Paint Horses for white foals with blue eyes, born with an hereditary condition that kills them within days.
While homozygous merles collies are not born with a predisposition for early death, they are normally put to sleep, as their disabilities will require an extremely specialised upbringing. For this reason, merle to merle matings should never be allowed to happen.
Blue and White
Blue, not to be confused with blue merle, collies are produced when a dilute gene acts on the black base colour, producing a dog that is a silvery-grey. Well-pigmented dogs will stay this colour throughout their life, although some blue dogs darken to an almost black. The dilute is recessive, so the puppy must inherit a dilute gene from each parent.
The dilute can also act on a merle coat, which makes the dog Slate Merle.
Red and White or chocolate
Most black breeds of dog also have a (sometimes rare) brown variant, which may be known as liver, chocolate or red, depending on the breeds.
Traditionally, the brown BC has been referred to as red in the UK, although with more 'true' (ee) reds being bred, this is starting to change. Red is genetically recessive to black, so the parents must both carry the gene to produce red puppies.
The depth of colour can vary from a deep chestnut through to a golden red.
Like blue merle, when the merle gene acts on a red base colour, you get the magnificent red merle, a truly eye-catching colour.
Dreamwork has produced a number of superb red merles, but pictured here is the Daddy of them all, Dj.
When the dilute gene acts on a red coat colour, you get one of the most beautiful and unusual BC colours, the lilac.
Because there are two sets of recessive genes, the lilac is an uncommon colour, although the prevalence of a few good dogs that carry the right genetics is making it more common.
Our beautiful Dali is an excellent example of the lilac.
Again, you can get a dilute red merle, or lilac merle.
Tricolour is a recessive gene that puts tan points onto the dog. It can be combined with all of the above colours.
Typically, a well marked tri will have tan eyebrows, cheeks and tan markings on the legs, although these may vary, as can the intensity of the tan itself.
The dog pictured, Mac, is not a Dreamwork, but belongs to a friend.
This is where it starts to get complicated! Hair follicles have two pigments in them, which produce all the different colours depending on what the genes tell them to do. Eumelanin makes the hair black or chocolate, and phaeomelanin produces a “true red” colour. Some Border Collies are “true red”, rather than the chocolate/black recessive colour described above, so genetically the phaeomelanin dominates. Like with other colours, the shade can vary immensely, from a blonde or champagne coloured dog through to one that is a rich red, almost Irish Setter shade.
This colour is often called Australian or ee Red in the UK, as for many years the colour was not as well known as the traditional red above. It was reasonably rare in the UK, although numbers are growing.
The ee gene can also mask other colours, even black. For this reason it is unwise to mate merles to ee reds.
Sable again is a pattern rather than a colour, with individual hairs having both a colour and black on them, to varying extents. It is an uncommon colour in BCs, although well known in Shelties and Rough or Smooth collies. Genes that produce this patterning are closely related to tri, and hence you cannot have a tri sable.
Also in this family of colours are the less common saddle-back tri colours, typified by the magnificent Sealight dogs bred by the late Bing Bellamy.
Brindle is an extremely rare colour in Border Collies, although we have trained a brindle collie, Taz, at our agility club. It is more commonly seen in some hounds and terriers, and in Boxer dogs. Instead of an even covering of black tipping seen in sable, a brindle dog has a red brown body colour with black striping.