The Basics on Canine Coat Colors


There are only four genes for coat colors. They are, in descending order of dominance: Dominant Black, Red, Bicolor (black and tan), and Tortoise-shell. 

  1. Dominant Black is black with no other color such as brindle, cream, or tan. It is the strongest and most dominant in the series and can carry any of the three others in the series. It is very rare.

  2. Red is defined as red or any of its diluted shades such as gold, fawn, and champagne. All those cream Löwchen with black overlay or the clear golds are all actually reds.

  3. Bicolor refers to black coats with colored ‘points’. These points can be any shade of red so the dog looks black and tan, black and cream, black and rust red, or black and brindle. The Bicolor can only carry the Tortoise-shell gene.

  4. Tortoise-shell is also referred to as Agouti, sable, or ‘blue’. The Tortoise-shell coat is a complex two-toned coat color with great variability of expression in the adult coat. The usual pattern consists of a beige face mask with a skull cap of black tipped hairs which extends all the way down the back to the tail. This blanket of black-banded coat hairs may extend down the sides only a quarter of the way from the back or almost to the brisket. Puppies have a metallic blue coat until five to six months when their second puppy coat comes in.

To make things more complicated, there are also four alleles; that is, genes in a series that occupy the same spot on a chromosome and influence the same color, adding some amount or pattern of white spotting. These four alleles include

  1. Self color which is the total or near total absence of white in the coat. Usually present are white feet or toes and a white chest spot. The ‘self’ dog can carry the other three patterns.

  2. Irish-spotted is the pattern of white that is as ‘self with white trim’: white blaze, white collar, white chest and brisket, white feet and tail tip. This Irish-spotted dog can carry the last two patterns. 

  3. Spotted or piebald. In Löwchen, we have been calling this pattern a Parti-color dog. It is a pattern of color patches interspersed on a white background. This pattern can carry the extreme white spotting or be 'white factored’.

  4. Extreme white spotting is the most recessive of the series. The dog may be all white or have patches in specific areas such as the ears and tail. This spotting pattern is ‘pure’ in that it only occurs when there is a double recessive.

In addition to affecting coat colors, genes also control pigmentation of the total body including the eyes and skin as well as coat color. (The skin color includes the color of the nose, eye rims, lips and skin epidermis.) There are two dilution genes that completely inhibit the formation of black pigment anywhere in the body: coat, eyes, and skin:

  1. The B locus (liver pigment) is where the dominant partner of the pair allows the development of black pigment. The simple recessive of the pair inhibits black pigments anywhere in the body and allows only liver pigment color phase. The expression of the double recessive liver pigment explains all the ‘chocolate’ or browns we find in the Löwchen. The expression of this gene is unacceptable under the F.C.I. standard that only allows black nosed dogs to be shown. The browns are acceptable in Canada (and Australia)

  2. The D locus (the Maltese blue dilution) is where the dominant gene allows the development of black pigment and the recessive partner allows only the blue color phase to appear.

There are also four alleles in the Extension series which influence the distribution of black (or black’s dilutions of blue or liver) pigment over those areas of tan. The expression of these alleles gives us 

  1. black masks

  2. black hairs mixed throughout the coat color (this is most easily seen when expressed in combination with a cream color Löwchen and is usually called a 'cream sable')

  3. brindles

  4. pure yellows with no black pigment in the coat at all.

The Chinchilla gene series consists of three alleles that affect the intensity of red pigment in the coat and the intensity of the liver and blue pigments in another important series.

  1. The most dominant gene in the Chinchilla series allows the full intensity of red.

  2. The second gene governs the medium range of intensity of red (or liver or blue).

  3. The third allele allows for extreme dilution resulting in extremely pale red coat color,  diluted to near white.  The cream or champagne color Löwchen is relatively common suggesting that this allele is expressed in our breed.

The last buts not least of the genes affecting color are three gene pairs including

  1. Graying

  2. Merle and

  3. Ticking.

As far as I know, there are no Merle Löwchen. However, the Graying gene and the Ticking gene may be most prevalent in our breed. The dominant partner of the Graying gene resembles the tortoise-shell gene in that the color develops as the puppy grows. For example, all the black in the coat gradually fades to gray (or the liver color to taupe-gray) while all the other pigment in the skin stays black (or liver) such as on the nose and eye rims. Ticking is the presence of color in the white areas with the flecks of color being the same as the basic color of the dog. We see this ticking in the parti-colored dogs. 

How do these categories apply to my Löwchen?  
For example, officially, Jasmine was registered with the AKC as a 'Black irish pied'.  To describe her, she was a black with tan points and white trim (a white blaze on her chest, a collar of white, four white socks and white on the tip of her tail) who grew up to be a dark charcoal gray color on her body and her head silvered out. In genetic terms, she was a bicolor (black and tan) with an Irish-spotted white patterning. The fading would be the result of the expression of a dominant Graying dilution gene. 
In a litter of white and black pups, they all had a blush of cream on the cheeks and ears so I would wager that they were also bicolor with a white piebald or parti-color pattern. They had flecks of black in the white color so the dominant Ticking gene was expressed. The black faded so the dominant Graying gene was also present. Interestingly, however, the black color returned in the adult coat so that I do not completely understand the graying factor if it can come and then go! 
I have had a few liver pigmented, self-color, dominant graying Löwchen while I have had many black or liver pigmented, bicolor, dominant graying Löwchen.   
On rare occasions, I have  black, self color, double recessive graying (that is, they do not gray out as they age) Löwchen.

The more dominant genes carry or hide the recessive genes; therefore, it is a challenge to wrap your mind around planning the breeding for a specific color. However, if you think about the information, considering which genes are expressed as recessive or dominant genes, you can start to understand the ‘rules-of-thumb’ handed down from the old time breeders. “You don’t breed browns to browns” (double recessives). “Don’t breed parti-colors together because you may lose color” (increases chances to express ‘extreme white spotting’  that is the only other gene carried by the parti-color). ‘To maintain color, breed dark to dark” (allows for the expression of the Dominant black genes). 
Good luck and enjoy your Löwchen regardless of its color!

Nancy Inlow - Volare Löwchen - Canada
Web Site:

Janet Vandenburgh - Lowdown On Colour
Clarence C. Little, Sc. D. - The Inheritance of Coat Color in Dogs, (Howell House, N.Y. 1967)
Burns and Fraser - Genetics of the Dog (Lippincott, Philadelphia, 1972)

Our sincere thanks to Nancy for permission to use this article on our site.




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