Bicolor German Shepherd 101 (Saddle tan & Black & tan)

Black and tan Bicolor German Shepherd

The Bi-color German Shepherd is a two-toned German Shepherd color variation. In most instances, this term is used to refer to the black and tan and saddle tan or creeping tan GSD variations. But in essence, black and tan is a hue of the tan point GSD while saddle tan is a saddleback GSD both of which are classified as bicolor.

Tan points are predominantly of a dark color such as black or liver with light markings of another color such as red, tan, or cream appearing as spots above the eyes, the cheeks extending to the muzzle, the chin, below the neck, as two triangles on the chest, the lower and inner legs, the underbelly, and under the tail extending to the anus. The tan points on the face can be hidden if the dog has a melanistic mask caused by another separate gene.

On saddleback German Shepherds (blanket GSDs), these light tan markings extend to cover most of the head, most of the legs, and the ventral surface with the dark color predominantly covering the dog’s back (dorsal surface) from the neck to the tail. These GSDs can also have a melanistic mask covering the face and extending to the ears.

Black and tan and saddle tan are the most common GSD color variations and are both recognized and accepted colorations under the official breed standard by the major kennel clubs.

Bicolor German Shepherds are a result of variations in the agouti gene. For more on the bicolor GSD, scroll on.

Bicolor German Shepherd genetics

As stated above, bicolor GSDs are a result of variations in the Agouti gene. But before I can proceed and explain what kind of beast agouti is, let’s define a couple of terms.

  • Gene– These are the codes that regulate a dog’s traits including color. Genes are inherited as pairs, each from one parent. In the case of bicolors, this is the agouti gene.
  • Allele– This is a variant of a specific gene on a specific locus. In this case, Asa and At and variants of agouti on the A-locus or agouti locus.
  • Locus (pl, loci)- This is a specific gene location on a DNA chain or chromosome. The agouti gene and its variants/alleles are found on the A-locus.
  • Eumelanin- This is one of two color pigments that make up all possible colors on all dogs. Eumelanin is black by default but can be modified by other genes in other loci to appear liver/brown, blue, or lilac/isabella. It makes up the color of all body parts including the coat, the eyes, the ears, the bones, the nails, the paws, the nose, lips, eye rims, etc. On bi-color dogs, this is the pigment that makes up the dark coat parts such as black on tan points or saddle coats.
  • Pheomelanin- This is the other pigment that is red by default. Pheomelanin can be modified by other genes to appear tan, blonde, and creamy to almost white. It only makes up the coat color but is never found on all the other parts apart from the hair shafts. This is the pigment that appears on the light tan markings on tan point and saddleback dogs.

Now would be a wise time to explain agouti and all its intricacies. On a basic level, the agouti or ASIP gene (agouti signaling protein) is a gene that controls pigment type switching on the coat.

In truth, this gene promotes the production of red pheomelanin pigment at the cost of black eumelanin pigment. However, the red pigment synthesis depends on how “strong” the agouti gene is. Weaker versions/alleles of agouti allow for more eumelanin pigment to be produced.

The agouti gene can also undergo mutation where it completely loses its function and allows only eumelanin pigment leading to a GSD that is fully black, liver, blue, or isabella. This is known as a missense, amorphic, or loss of function mutation but more on this in the black German Shepherd guide.

Previously, there were believed to be 4 possible alleles at the A-locus and their interactions led to different agouti patterns from clear sable to fully black. But recent advancements in genetics have revealed that there are 6 possible alleles in the agouti locus that explain the full array of agouti patterns.

Let me explain.

Agouti alleles & patterns

In the new studies, it was discovered that different patterns are a result of region-specific modifiers or promoters of the agouti gene. By region specific, I mean modifiers that promote agouti gene action in specific parts of the coat.

These promoters are; The ventral promoter (VP) and hair cycle promoter (HCP).

  • Ventral Promoter (VP)– This promoter predominantly activates ASIP gene activities on the dog’s lower section also known as the ventral surface. On the hairs on these sections, red pheomelanin pigment is predominantly produced. Its activities reduce toward the upper sections of the coat or dorsal surface. There are two known types of ventral promoters: VP1 and VP2. VP1 is more active and causes a high concentration of red to cream hair on the ventral surface. VP2 is a weaker variant that allows some hairs on the ventral surface to have dark tips or to be fully black.
  • Hair Cycle Promoter (HCP)- This promoter is more active on the upper coat surface and allows switching of pheomelanin and eumelanin pigment on individual hairs leading to red and black banded hairs on the dorsal surface. There are 5 known versions of HCP: HCP1, HCP2, HCP3, HCP4, and HCP5. HCP1 is a strong ASIP promoter that causes hair banding on the dorsal surface but with more yellow on the individual hairs, HCP2 is weaker and causes eumelanin and pheomelanin hair banding but with less yellow on the individual hairs. HCP3, HCP4, and HCP5 lose their ability to activate the ASIP gene causing eumelanin to be produced on the dorsal surface hairs

With these ASIP promoters, researchers were able to come up with 6 alleles to explain the different agouti patterns. These alleles are Ay>Ays>Aw>Asa>At>a in their order of dominance. The lower you go on the dominance hierarchy the more eumelanin pigment is produced.

Ay is the most dominant and is responsible for the clear sable/fawn pattern. Ays is the second most dominant but recessive over Ay and causes a shaded sable pattern. Aw is the third most dominant but recessive over Ay and Ays and causes the sable or agouti pattern. Asa is the fourth most dominant but recessive over Ay, Ays, and Aw and causes the saddleback, saddle tan creeping tan, or saddle blanket coloration. At is the fifth most dominant but recessive over Ay, Ays, Aw, and Asa and causes tan points to appear or the black and tan, liver and tan, blue and tan, black and white, black and red, black and cream coloration. The last allele, a, is the least dominant and causes the black German Shepherd coloration.

Of interest to us in this guide is the Asa (saddleback) and At (tan point) alleles.

Saddleback/saddle coat/blanket German Shepherd

This is the coloration caused by the Asa allele which is a combination of VP1 + HCP4.

Saddleback German Shepherds are born with tan points which expand with age until the dark eumelanin color is limited to the dog’s back. The light color creeps up the forelegs to meet the expanding tan markings on the chest and neck.

Eumelanin pigment retreats into the saddle leaving tan markings on the face, legs, and underside. A pup that had tiny tan markings becomes much lighter with a saddle going halfway down the ribs and just barely covering the hip bones.

On saddle coat GSDs, the light-colored red to the cream underside is thus larger than usual with the dog’s back covered by solid dark-colored hairs with no banding. This is due to the activities of the VP1 and HCP4 agouti promoters.

Pups that inherit two copies of the Asa allele for the Asa/Asa gene combination tend to have a full saddle.

Meanwhile, GSDs with one copy of Asa and a copy of at or a for the Asa/At and Asa/a gene combinations tend to have larger saddles that extend to the dog’s neck and head and lower body. This is known as the creeping tan pattern.

Saddle coat GSDs tend to have a facial or melanistic mask if the dog has a copy of the melanistic mask gene denoted as Em. These are what are known as melanistic bicolor German Shepherds.

Tan Point German Shepherd

This bicolor pattern is caused by the At allele which is a combination of VP2 + HCP3, HCP4, or HCP5 agouti promoters.

It causes the light-colored pheomelanin pigment to be restricted to the;

  • Eyebrows above the eyes
  • Sides of the muzzle extending to the cheeks
  • Throat
  • Legs particularly the lower and inner parts of the legs
  • As two triangles on the caudal surface of the chest
  • Underbelly
  • Under the tail extending to the anus

All the other areas are covered by solid-colored hairs with no banding. This is because as mentioned earlier HCP3 to HCP5 lose their ability to activate the agouti gene on the dorsal surface leading to predominant eumelanin pigment production.

GSDs with one copy of the tan point gene (At/a) tend to have smaller tan markings than those with two copies of the gene (At/At). The dogs with fewer tan markings are known as ghost tan and can pass for black, liver, blue, or isabella German Shepherds.

Dark hairs can cover the tan points on the face if the dog has a gene for the melanistic mask (Em).

Bicolor German Shepherd variations

Depending on the actions and interactions with other genes, the eumelanin and pheomelanin pigments can be modified and diluted to other shades.

Black eumelanin can be modified to appear liver/brown, diluted to blue, or modified and diluted to isabella/lilac. Red pheomelanin pigment can be diluted to appear tan, cream, or almost white depending on the extent of dilution.

With this, we can have the following bi-color German Shepherd variations;

  • Black and Red German Shepherd
  • Blue and Red German Shepherd
  • Liver and Red German Shepherd
  • Isabella and Red German Shepherd
  • Black and Tan German Shepherd
  • Blue and Tan German Shepherd
  • Liver and Tan German Shepherd
  • Isabella and Tan German Shepherd
  • Black and Cream German Shepherd
  • Black and White German Shepherd

Black and Red German Shepherd

Black and red German Shepherds have rich non-diluted black and red mahogany shades. The pigment on these bicolor GSDs is not altered by the action of other genes that modify the color pigment to another shade.

They are referred to as red German Shepherds by some.

These dogs have dark brown eyes, black noses, black skin, black eye rims, black lips, black nails, and black paw pads.

Blue and Red German Shepherd

Blue and red bicolor German Shepherds have diluted black eumelanin pigment due to the actions of the dilution gene. The dilution gene causes the dog to produce less eumelanin pigment hence the bluish appearance on areas that should have been black. All the eumelanistic coats section will appear steel blue to a paler blue-gray shade.

These GSDs have hazel blue eyes, bluish skin, bluish noses, bluish eye rims, bluish lips, bluish paw pads, and light-colored nails.

Liver and Red German Shepherd

Liver and red German Shepherds have a mix of modified brown and rich red hairs. This is due to the actions of the brown gene that changes the structure of the black eumelanin pigment to appear brownish. All sections of the coat that should have been black will appear brown also known as liver.

These GSDs have amber or hazel-green eyes, brown skin, brown nose, brown eye rims, brown lips, brown paw pads, and lighter-colored nails.

Isabella and Red German Shepherd

Isabella and red German Shepherds are a combination of lilac and rich red hairs making up the coat. Lilac or isabella is a shade that is caused by the action of the brown plus dilution genes. The brown gene modifies all black pigment to liver while the dilution gene reduces the intensity of the brown pigment to appear lilac or pale brown.

These dogs have bluish eyes, pinkish noses, pinkish skin, pinkish eye rims, pinkish noses, pinkish lips, pinkish paw pads, and very light nails.

Black and Tan German Shepherd

Black and tan German Shepherds are bicolor GSDs consisting of rich black and diluted tan hairs making up the coat. The tan shade is caused by dilution by the intensity gene which slightly lowers the concentration of the red pigment to appear tan.

These dogs are sometimes referred to as tan German Shepherds.

They have dark brown eyes, black noses, black skin, black eye rims, black lips, black nails, and black paw pads.

Blue and Tan German Shepherd

Blue and tan German Shepherds consist of diluted blue and tan pigments. This is due to the action of the dilution and intensity genes which reduce the concentration of both pigments.

These bicolors have hazel blue eyes, bluish skin, bluish noses, bluish eye rims, bluish lips, bluish paw pads, and light-colored nails.

Liver and Tan German Shepherd

Liver and tan bicolor German Shepherds are characterized by modified brown and diluted tan hairs. This is caused by the action of the brown gene which causes all black pigment to appear brown while the intensity gene slightly diluted the red pigment to tan.

These GSDs have amber or hazel-green eyes, brown skin, brown nose, brown eye rims, brown lips, brown paw pads, and lighter-colored nails.

Isabella and Tan German Shepherd

Isabella and tan German Shepherds consist of modified and diluted lilac and diluted tan hairs. This is caused by the action of the brown and dilution genes on the black pigment to appear light brown and the intensity gene which reduced the concentration of the red pigment to tan.

They have bluish eyes, pinkish noses, pinkish skin, pinkish eye rims, pinkish noses, pinkish lips, pinkish paw pads and very light nails.

Black and Cream German Shepherd

Black and cream German Shepherds are characterized by rich black and diluted cream hairs. The cream shade is a result of moderate dilution of the red pigment which reduces its concentration to appear creamish yellow.

These dogs are sometimes called grey German Shepherds due to the lightened cream shade.

They have dark brown eyes, black noses, black skin, black eye rims, black lips, black nails, and black paw pads.

Black and White German Shepherd

Black and white German Shepherds consist of unmodified black and diluted ivory white hairs. The ivory white shade is due to extensive dilution of the red pigment by the intensity gene which reduces its concentration to a high degree to appear cream white or ivory white.

These dogs are also known as black and silver GSDs.

They have dark brown eyes, black noses, black skin, black eye rims, black lips, black nails, and black paw pads.

Bi-color Vs black and tan German Shepherd

Black and tan German Shepherds are essentially bicolor German Shepherds.

Sable Vs black and tan German Shepherd

Sable or agouti GSDs are characterized by banded individual hairs of light and dark color pigments. This could be black on yellow, red, or cream, liver on red, yellow, or cream, blue on red, etc. Meanwhile, black and tan German Shepherds are two-toned with black and tan markings in specific areas. The individual hairs on black and tans are mostly solid colored and not banded.

Saddle coat Vs sable German Shepherd

Saddle coat GSDs are characterized by dark-colored hairs concentrated on the dog’s back or saddle with light-colored hairs on the rest of the dog’s body. Sable German Shepherds consist of mostly banded hairs on most of the body. Unlike sables, the individual hairs on saddle coats are mostly solid-colored and not banded.

Bicolor German Shepherd price

The price of a bicolor German Shepherd ranges from $800 to $2500. This cost depends on the specific shade, the breeder, the line of puppies, the location, the pedigree, and so on.

Less common variations such as black and silver may be costlier than their more common black and tan counterparts.

How to get a bicolor German Shepherd

To get a bicolor German Shepherd puppy, the parents need to be either Asa (saddleback) or At (tan point) on the agouti locus.

Asa or At should be the most dominant alleles the dogs inherit for either coloration to show. If the dog has a more dominant gene the bicolor colorations will not be visible and will be masked.

If the parent dogs are either Asa/Asa or At/At on the Agouti-locus all the puppies will be saddleback or tan points respectively.

Genetics is complex and different gene combinations can lead to a wide variety of possibilities depending on the dog’s genes. Other dogs such as sable or fawn dogs can be carriers of the bicolor alleles and possibly produce bicolor puppies.

This is why genetic testing is useful before breeding to have an idea of what you can expect depending on the hidden or expressed genes.

FAQ

Why are German Shepherds black and tan?

German Shepherds are black and tan because of variants of the agouti gene. These variants promote the production of tan pigment on some sections of the coat. In areas where the agouti gene is turned off or inactive, black pigment is produced instead and loaded into the hair shafts hence the black and tan coloration.

Are bicolor German Shepherds rare?

Bicolor is the most common German Shepherd coloration or pattern and is not rare. However, some specific variations of bicolor GSDs such as black and silver, isabella and tan are less common and can be considered rare.

Black and tan and black and red are the most common variations of bicolor GSDs and form the classic German Shepherd look.

What breed is a black and tan German Shepherd?

Black and tan GSDs are purebred dogs that fall under the bicolor German Shepherd category.

How big do black and tan German Shepherds get?

Colors, patterns, and genes that cause them to not affect how big a dog gets. As such, black and tan German Shepherds can be as big or small as any other. They weigh between 50 and 90 pounds and stand 22 to 26 inches tall as any other variation.

What does a Saddleback German Shepherd look like?

Saddleback German Shepherds have the classic black, liver, blue, or isabella saddles or blankets on their backs and sides with red, tan, cream, or ivory white heads, faces, undersides, and legs. The lighter red-to-white markings make up most of the dog’s coat. Some may have dark-colored masks on their faces known as melanistic masks.

Saddleback GSDs are born with minimal light markings which extend as the dog ages with the dark-colored hairs receding to the dog’s dorsal surface.

Do all German Shepherds have a black saddle?

While black saddles are fairly common on German Shepherds, not all of them have black saddles. Some may have liver or brown saddles, bluish saddles, or isabella-colored saddles.

In addition, not all GSDs have saddle at all, to begin with.

To Sum Up

Bicolor is a fairly common German Shepherd color variation. This is a pattern or combination of colors with dark-colored and light-colored hairs making up the dog’s coat.

These dogs are no different from any other and are recognized and accepted under the official breed standard.

Like any other GSDs, they are devoted, smart, sociable, and very trainable working and pet dogs.

Did you find this guide useful? Let us know in the comment section below.

There you go, WOOF!

GG

As a dog lover, George understands how they behave and how to best take care of them. He is also well versed with various dog breeds and loves writing about them.

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