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Of Sable And Black

What Is A Tricolor?

A tricolor Sheltie has a specific pattern of tan points in a predominantly black coat.  The identical pattern of tan points is found in many breeds, whether or not white is superimposed on the color. 

But not all Shelties who have black, tan and white hair are tricolors!  A sable, although usually predominantly tan,  often has black and black-tipped hair in a predominantly tan and white coat.  A sable dog is not a tricolor, even if there are so many black-tipped hairs that the body color appears at first glance to be black. 

A Sheltie is correctly called tricolor only when
(1) the predominant color is black,
(2) it has the typical black and tan pattern of points (except where they are hidden by white), and
(3) in the black portions of the coat, the entire hair shaft is solid black. 

What Is The Black And Tan Pattern?

The tan points of a tricolor Sheltie include tan spots above the eyes, and on the cheeks, with tan on the lower muzzle, lower legs, paws, and underside of tail. This is the same pattern of black and tan also seen in Rottweilers, Doberman Pinschers, Bernese Mountain Dogs, Gordon Setters, Australian Kelpies, and Black and Tan Coonhounds (of course!).

When white is superimposed on the black and tan pattern, the dog is called a tricolor.  This is the same tricolor pattern found in Rough and Smooth Collies, Australian Shepherds, and sometimes Border Collies.

In some other breeds, including many hounds and terriers, the black is restricted to a saddle pattern across the back.  The rest of the coat is tan, with or without white.  I have never seen this pattern in the Sheltie, and it is very rare in the Collie.

What About Black And White?

A bicolor black and white Sheltie, without tan markings, has a perfectly acceptable color, although it is less common than sable or tricolor.  Like the tricolor, the entire shaft of the black hair is black.  Unlike the tricolor, there is no tan anywhere on the dog's body.  At the present time, a bicolor black and white is usually called bi-black, to distinguish the color from the bicolor blue merle, called bi-blue.


Tricolor and Bicolor Shelties

Raven and Pippin are both tricolors.  The black hair of the coat is solid black,
and the pattern of tan points is near identical in both dogs.
Bret is a bi-black.  The black hair of the coat is solid black, and no tan is present in the coat.

Raven, a tricolor
Pippin, a tricolor
Bret, a bi-black
Bret (bi-black)


What Is A Sable?

A sable is not a tricolor, no matter how much black is in its coat, and sometimes there's a lot of black.  The word "sable" itself means "the color black" according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary.  The animal called a sable is a Eurasian martin, a weasel relative with a coat that varies from dark brown to almost black.  And in medieval heraldry, the word sable refers to a black tincture.  No wonder we can't figure it out!

Sable in the Sheltie refers to a predominantly fawn or tan coat with varying amounts of black, banded or black-tipped hairs.  This is the same sable commonly seen in Rough and Smooth Collies, and in Pembroke and Cardigan Welsh Corgis.  One characteristic of sable in these breeds is the presence of a pattern of black-tipped hair on the back skull, called a widow’s peak in Corgis, but a mask in Collies and Shelties. 

In many sable Shelties, some of the hairs are banded with alternating black, tan and black color.  Where black-tipped or banded hair is present in the body coat, it gives the impression of a black overlay on a tan coat. 

A sable Sheltie with a very large number of black and black-tipped hairs can look superficially like a saddle pattern tricolor.  But unlike the solid colored hairs of the tricolor, the sable hair coat consists of tan hairs, black hairs and banded hairs all mixed together.  Saddle pattern tricolors, if they exist at all in Shelties, are very, very uncommon.


Sable Shelties

The amount of black or black banding in a sable coat is highly variable.  Some Shelties are clear sables, with minimum amounts of black-tipping, except on the facial mask.  Others have very heavy black tipping on the body hair, and are commonly called “shaded sables” by Sheltie fanciers.  Shaded sables are NOT tricolors, no matter how much black is in their coats.  Compare the difference in facial markings of the dogs below with those of the tricolors above.

Molly, a shaded sable
Kerry, a shaded sable


Variable Banding In A Sable Coat

The amount of banding in the individual hairs of a sable Sheltie's coat is highly variable, as is the number of solid black hairs in the coat.  These photos show the color variation over the rump of several sable dogs.  The amount of banding does not appear to be related to whether or not the dog is tri-factored or bi-factored.  That is, the banding is not related to whether a given sable dog can produce tricolor or bi-color offspring.

Ceili (pure-for-sable)
Kerry (tri-factored)
Janelle (bi-factored)
Dustin (pure-for-sable)
Cody (tri-factored)
May (bi-factored)


When confusion reigns!

The conventions for naming coat colors in dog breeds were developed long before anyone had studied color genetics, and the same word can have totally different meanings in different breeds.  The genetic mutation that produces sable in Shelties and Collies produces, in many other breeds, tan dogs with no significant black-tipping and therefore no black mask or widow’s peak.  In these breeds the color is typically, but not always, called fawn. 

The color called sable in the German Shepherd dog is not the same genetically as the sable of Shelties and collies. 

The color-pointed pattern in a black and tan or tricolor dog was called the bicolor pattern in older dog literature.  Today in Shelties, the term bicolor is used to refer to a black and white dog with no tan on its body.

And in some breeds, the color-pointed pattern may be not black and tan, but brown and tan with or without white.  The brown color may be called liver, chocolate, red or brown.  So we have red tricolor Australian Shepherds, red and tan Doberman Pinschers, and liver and tan Bloodhounds.

Brindle is not tricolor.  Brindle is a pattern of black stripes alternating with tan.  This is a completely different pattern that occurs rarely, if at all, in the Sheltie or Collie.  Even if it has white markings, a whole-body brindle dog is not a tricolor.  If a tricolor with the typical pattern of points carries the brindle gene, the body coat will be solid black and the points will be brindle instead of clear tan.  


Read More About Coat Color:


Web Sites:

  • The Colors Of The Sheltie
    My pages on the web site of the Shetland Sheepdog Club of Northern California.
  • Genetics of Coat Color and Type in Dogs, Sheila M. Schmutz, Ph.D., Professor, Department of Animal and Poultry Science, College of Agriculture and Bioresources, University of Saskatchewan. 
    A comprehensive current web site by a major researcher of dog coat color, with a page devoted to Sheltie colors
    .  It is the most accurate and up-to-date site I am aware of that discusses the inheritance of dog coat color.
  • Sheltie Coat Color Calculator, Sparkshire Shetland Sheepdogs.
    For those who want to keep it simple, this site has some basic information about the major Sheltie colors.


  • Burns Marca and Frazer Margaret. 1966. Genetics of the Dog The Basis of Successful Breeding (2nd Ed). Great Britain, Oliver & Boyd Ltd. U.S., J.P Lippincott Company. This long out of print book is a treasure if you can get hold of it.
  • Little Clarence C. 1957. The inheritance of coat color in dogs (Ithaca, N.Y.: Comstock) (reprinted by Howell Book House, New York, NY).  The classic book on dog color inheritance.
  • Schmutz SM, Berryere TG. 2007. Genes affecting coat colour and pattern in domestic dogs. Anim Genet. 38:539-549.  A journal article that reviews the genes that have been identified as affecting coat color and pattern.
  • Willis, Malcolm B. 1989.  Genetics of the Dog. N.Y. Howell Book House.  A more recent and very thorough book on dog genetics, but still one that predates DNA research.

Expected Coat Color Charts:

  • Color Inheritance Charts, Jan & Peggy Haderlie, 1983, Los Osos, CA: Sheltie International.
  • Sheltie Talk, 2nd edition, Betty Jo McKinney & Barbara Rieseberg, 1985, Loveland, CO: Alpine Publications.


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