The German Shepherd is a unique breed that many doggie lovers find appealing and alluring. This is thanks to his dominant presence, work ethic, loyalty, devotion to family, versatile nature, and more.
But like any other breed, GSDs come in a variety of colors and patterns, some rare and some more common than others. The brindle pattern (combination of colors) is one of the rare and elusive variations.
Though uncommon, Brindle German Shepherds are characterized by alternating, irregular, and variegated stripes of dark and light-colored fur. The dark-colored section can be black, brown, blue, or lilac while the lighter sections can be deep red, tan, yellow, cream to almost white. These stripes are sometimes referred to as tiger or marble stripes but vary in shading and thickness from dog to dog.
The brindle pattern is one of intense confusion and debate among GSD fanciers and breeders. But in this guide, I will try to clear up some of the confusion and give you a better understanding of this pleasing but rare coloration.
But first, the genetics. Scroll on.
Table of Contents
Brindle German Shepherd Genetics
All coat colors are determined by the presence or absence of two melanin pigments: eumelanin and pheomelanin.
Eumelanin is black default and can be altered by other genes to appear blue, brown, or lilac. Pheomelanin is red or yellow by default but can be modified to appear tan, cream, blonde/golden, or ivory white. Sections of the coat where either pigment is absent will appear white.
Several genes interact to determine which pigment is visible on the coat. The interaction can be quite complex and beyond the scope of this guide. But of particular interest with the brindle, Geman Shepherd is the genes on the K-locus.
The K-locus or location is the region where the CBD103 gene (Canine Beta Defensin 103) and its variants are located on chromosome 16.
Three gene variants (alleles) are suggested to exist on the K-locus;
- Kb (Dominant black)– This is the most dominant gene on the K-locus as in a variant of the CBD103 gene. Dominant black promotes the production of eumelanin pigment on the entire coat. Dogs with at least one copy of this gene have a full black, blue, liver, or isabella coat. However, this allele seems non-exist in the German Shepherd breed as none has been found to have it. All black GSDs have been found to have the recessive black gene of the agouti locus.
- Kbr (Brindle)– This seems to be the most dominant allele on the K-locus of German Shepherds since the Kb allele is yet to be found on any GSD. It allows for whatever pattern the dog has on the agouti locus to show but with brindling on any pheomelanin pigment sections. The extent of the brindle stripes depends on the agouti locus. At least one copy of Kbr should be present for the brindle stripes to show. On other breeds such as the Labradoodle, brindle is recessive to dominant black and two copies of it are required for it to be visible.
- Ky (Normal agouti patterns)– This is the least dominant gene in the K series but the wild type or unmodified CBD103 gene. It allows for agouti patterns such as fawn, sable, black and tan, and recessive black to be visible but requires two copies of it to be present.
The brindle gene can be confusing and make your head spin. This is because it cannot be tested for (non-testable). One argument for this is that it is a mosaic allele that causes some pigment cells to adopt dominant black (Kb) while others act as Ky during embryo development.
What this means is that part of the coat express dominant black while other allow for agouti expression.
This causes the pooch to have irregular stripes with unpredictable distances between them in what we call brindling. Brindle stripes alternate between red/yellow and black/brown hair. As such, all brindle GSDs will come out as Kbky on genetic testing.
The specific brindle mutation, if any, is yet to be identified and there is currently no commercial test for it. More research and gene mapping is required to give us better insight and expand our understanding.
- It is also worth noting that brindle can be masked by recessive red (e/e) which as a pair is the most dominant gene combination. Cream, blonde, or off-white German Shepherds which are all recessive reds may carry the brindle gene but it will not be visible.
Typically, brindle dogs appear to have light pheomelanin base coat color with darker eumelanin stripes. The base color can be deep red, tan, cream, yellow, or almost white due to the actions of the intensity gene on pheomelanin pigment. Conversely, the darker stripes can be black, and blue due to dilution, brown/liver due to modification of the eumelanin pigment structure, or lilac due to modification and dilution.
The darker brindle stripes are only visible on lighter pheomelanin sections of the coat. A recessive black German Shepherd may have brindle genes but the stripes will not be visible since black dogs have no pheomelanin pigment sections.
The stripes on a black and tan GSD are only visible on the tan sections or points as the dog is predominantly black. On a clear sable/fawn dog the stripes will be visible on the entire coat since clear sable are predominantly pheomelanin.
Stripes on shaded sable or agouti German Shepherds are less visible but visible nonetheless, especially on the lighter pheomelanin ventral sections of the coat. The brindle stripes are also less visible on German Shepherds with longer coats.
Some GSDs are also known as reverse brindles or black brindles. This is because the black stripes are wider and more pronounced with smaller light stripes.
Let’s look at some of the common examples of brindle German Shepherd variations for a finer understanding.
Black Brindle German Shepherd;
Black Brindle German Shepherds are also known as reverse brindles. These GSDs have thick and pronounced black stripes with smaller lighter red to almost white stripes that cause the dog to appear almost black. Black brindle thus appears to have light stripes on a dark base coat.
Brindle Sable German Shepherd;
A brindle sable German Shepherd has a clear sable/fawn, shaded sable, or sable/agouti coat with brindle stripes.
The alternating stripes are more visible on fawns than on shaded sables or agoutis. This is because fawn GSDs tend to have little to no visible dark shading on their predominant light-colored pheomelanin coats. Shaded sables and agoutis/actual sables have more shading, especially on the dorsal surface (back surface) due to banded hairs that somewhat mask the brindling.
Without the brindle gene, these dogs would have the typical clear sable, shaded sable, or agouti sable colorations.
Blue Brindle German Shepherd;
A blue brindle German Shepherd has blue stripes instead of the usual black stripes. This is due to dilution that reduces the concentration of the black pigment causing the dark stripes to appear steel blue to pale blue/blue-gray.
Silver Brindle German Shepherd;
Silver or grey Brindle German Shepherds have light cream to almost white pheomelanin base coats. When mixed with the darker stripes, these dogs appear to have a faded silver-gray appearance.
Brindle Point German Shepherd;
A brindle-point German Shepherd is a tan point dog with brindle stripes on the lighter tan areas with the rest of the dog having a solid dark coat. This is on the eyebrows, the cheeks, the chest, the underbelly, the feet, and under the tail. These dogs can be black, blue, liver, or isabella with brindle points depending on the dog.
Brindle German Shepherd with a mask
In addition to the variations described above, some brindle GSDs have a melanistic mask covering the muzzle, and face and sometimes extending to the ears. These dogs have at least one copy of the melanistic mask on the E-locus denoted as Em.
While Brindle German Shepherd puppies are rare, it is possible to find one but at a high cost. The price can range between $1500 to upward of $4500 from an intentional and reputable breeder. Cost depends on the breeder, location, demand, pedigree, and other price factors.
However, this is a hard find that is best found among specialized breeders. The chances of finding this coloration in a shelter are pretty low if not zero.
Are Brindle German Shepherds rare?
Brindle German Shepherds are very rare. However, this would not be the case if some of the brindle puppies in the early German Shepherd litters were not slated.
You see, during the standardization of the GSD breed, brindle was seen as unworthy for showing, and it was decided that the coloration would be bred out.
According to the breed’s history books, at least two of the 32 pups from the first recorded German Shepherd, Horand von Grafrath were brindle. For cosmetic reasons and conformation, it was decided that the pattern was not pleasing enough and was slated for eradication.
To this day the brindle coloration is deemed as non-standard and is not recognized by any of the major kennel clubs.
Can German Shepherds carry brindle?
Yes, recessive red German Shepherds can carry brindle and not show it. This is because recessive red (cream, golden, off-whites…) is the most dominant gene of all color genes and masks any color or pattern that is not a shade of red.
To Sum up
The brindle German Shepherd is the most distinct and rare coloration. This pattern is not known to affect a dog’s traits, temperament, or health and there is no reason for it not to be recognized and bred.
These dogs, the existing ones at least, are no different from any other GSD variation. They are as active, hardworking, smart, and family-friendly as any other.
As the German Shepherd breed founding father, Max Von Stephanitz, said: “No good dog is a bad color.”
Have you set your eyes on a brindle GSD before? If so, let us know in the comment section below. Also, share any questions or feedback you may have.
There you go, WOOF!