Sable German Shepherd 101 (All questions answered)

Sable-German-Shepherd

The German Shepherd has long been a first-choice working and herding dog for his devotion, trainability, and loyalty. His qualities also make him a great family pet.

German Shepherds come in various colors and patterns such as the sable or agouti coloration which is one of the recognized patterns. Sable or agouti is a pattern characterized by a combination of light and dark color pigments. This could be black on yellow, red, or cream, liver on red, yellow, or cream, blue on red, yellow, or cream, or lilac on red, yellow, or cream.

Sable GSDs also known as Gray GSDs in Germany are purebred dogs and a variation of regular German Shepherds. The first German Shepherd Horand von Grafrath is believed to have a sable coat but this coloration has become less common in the present day. There are also sable variations such as the Silver Sable that are quite rare with the tan sable being fairly common. The only difference between Sable and other German Shepherds is the coat color as sable retains all the qualities of a purebred German Shepherd.

The sable GSD is an interesting dog that many often find confusing and ask a lot of questions on. In this guide, we aim to clear some of the misunderstandings on what is considered a Sable German Shepherd, genetics, variations, price, and much more. Scroll on to learn more.

About the Sable German Shepherd

Sable German Shepherds are wolf-sable, wolf-gray, or agouti German Shepherds. The agouti or ASIP gene responsible for this coloration is one of the oldest in mammals mainly for the camouflage it provides. It can be found on wild rabbits, rodents, deer, wolves, and a handful of dog breeds such as the German Shepherd. Wolves are especially known for this coloration hence the term wolf-gray or wolf sable

Although the agouti pattern is present throughout the whole body of most animals, it mostly affects a dog’s upper body that includes the ears, tail, neck, shoulders, and back where banding is more obvious.

On a basic level, sable means that a dog’s hairs are light-colored with black tips which can make the coat appear mottled or grey. Each hair has banding leading to a variety of shades and colors. The majority of the hairs should have black tips with the rest of the hair being another lighter color such as tan, red, yellow, cream, or off-white. The individual hairs have more than one color ranging from the lightest tan to the darkest black

In reality, the color combination and the extent of both colors vary from one sable dog to another. The individual hairs also vary with some being darker or lighter than others, some being pure black or red

Sable is commonly used in the US but is referred to as grey in Germany. The dog can be a black sable, silver sable, blue sable, liver sable, and so on. Black and tan is the most common sable coloration

This pattern is controlled by the agouti gene which is also responsible for patterns and colors such as;

  • Fawn or clear sable
  • Shaded sable
  • Saddle tan
  • Black and tan
  • Recessive black

Sable German Shepherd genetics

Let’s define a couple of terms before proceeding

  • Gene– This is the coding sequence that controls most traits such as color in a dog. Genes are inherited in pairs- each from one parent
  • Allele– A variant of a gene in a specific gene region or locus.
  • Locus (pl loci)– Is a specific gene location on a DNA chain
  • Eumelanin– Is black by default but can be modified by other genes to brown, blue, or lilac
  • Pheomelanin– Is red or yellow by default but can be modified by the intensity gene which reduces the intensity of the pigment to lighter shades such as light tan, cream, yellow, light cream, or off-white/chalk white depending on the intensity of dilution

In many animals, the diversity of coat colors is determined by the amount, quality, and distribution of the eumelanin and pheomelanin pigments resulting in different color combinations once they are loaded into growing hair. White is caused by a lack of either pigment.

The agouti pattern is controlled by the ASIP gene (agouti signaling protein). This gene prompts the production of pheomelanin over eumelanin pigment. The ASIP gene blocks the MC1R gene the E or extension locus from forming black pigment and regulated where and when pheomelanin is produced at the cost of eumelanin. In absence of ASIP, MC1R promotes the production of eumelanin pigment

In many sable dogs, individual hairs have a middle section of red or yellow pigment with a black base or tips giving the dog a brownish appearance from a distance. This is because ASIP oscillates between eumelanin and pheomelanin production during hair growth resulting in banded hair shafts. For instance, in the beginning, stages of hair growth, the ASIP concentration may be low and eumelanin is predominantly produced. As the ASIP concentration increases, the pigment-producing cells (melanocytes) switch to red or yellow pheomelanin production and as the ASIP concentration decreases, it switches to black pigment production forming a new dark band.

The A locus is only visible if the dog is not Kb (dominant black) at the K-locus and not ee (recessive red) at the E-locus. If the dog has Em (melanistic mask) at the E-locus, the ASIP pattern is visible but with a black on the face. Kbr (brindle) also allows agouti to show but will add black eumelanin brindle stripes on the pheomelanin pigment. If the dog is KyKy and EE on the E-locus, Agouti will show no additional eumelanin pigment.

More pheomelanin is dominant over less pheomelanin in the agouti series.

Two genetic systems explain agouti patterns after several attempts to map the A-locus. The old system has 4 alleles on the A-locus in the dominance hierarchy of Ay>Aw>At>a while the newer system has 6 alleles mapped on the Agouti locus in the order of Ay>Ays>Aw>Asa>At>a.

The old system

The conventional understanding is of 4 alleles in the A-locus that explain the different agouti patterns;

  • Ay (clear sable, fawn)– Leads to solid red to yellow color with little to almost no banded hair or dark overlay. Fawn dogs have variable amounts of dark overlay that includes shaded sable with a heavy overlay similar to wolf sable. The depth or intensity of the pheomelanin pigment also varies ranging from a deep red to a light cream which is regulated by the intensity gene. This is the most dominant allele and the pattern it causes is visible regardless of the second allele in the gene.
  • Aw (agouti, wolf sable, wolf grey)– Has variable amounts of banded hair predominantly on the upper/dorsal surface of the dog’s body from the head to tail. These dogs have predominantly pheomelanin pigment. Short-haired German shepherds with this gene may be misclassified as a fawn. Wolf sable is dominant over tan point and recessive black and recessive over fawn.
  • At (tan point, black, and tan)– Produces black and tan and saddle tan patterns. Tan point GSDs have restricted tan markings restricted as dots on top of the eyes, lower and inner portions of the legs, sides of the muzzle, two triangles on the chest, and the underside all way to the tail. The saddle tan pattern was said to be caused by the RALY gene that causes the black hairs to recede to the dog’s back from the tail with the pheomelanin points expanding up the legs onto the shoulders and hips, entire face, and head, and the entire underside (ventral surface). The individual hairs do not alternate between the two pigment types and have solid black or red hairs. It is dominant over recessive black but recessive over fawn, and wolf sable.
  • a (recessive black)- It is the most recessive allele responsible for the solid black color. 2 copies of this allele should be present for recessive black to show.

This system works well to explain patterns in most breeds but could not explain all agouti patterns. It could not explain the differing amounts of shading in sable dogs or why some shaded fawns look similar to wolf sables. Recent studies suggest codominant modifiers that add pigment to specific parts of the dog do better at explaining the various agouti patterns

New agouti genes

In this new system, it is suggested that there are modifiers of the ASIP gene that add pigment to specific parts of the dog’s body. These modifiers are known as ASIP gene promoters. There are 2 known promoters: The Ventral Promoter (VP) and the Hair Cycle Promoter (HCP) which are different regions in the ASIP gene but not different genes.

Ventral Promoter (VP)Predominantly activated the ASIP gene in the dog’s underside (ventral section) promoting pheomelanin production (red, tan, golden, light cream, off-white)
Its effect gradually decreases towards the upper side (dorsal surface)
There are two suggested VP variants: VP1 and VP2
– VP1 is a more active ASIP promoter that causes high pheomelanin concentration
– VP2 is a weaker promoter that allows some darker eumelanin hairs to show on the red, tan, and yellow… surface
Hair Cycle Promoter (HCP)Regulates ASIP gene activity on the dog’s upper surface (dorsal surface)
HCP activities oscillate switching between the two pigments leading to individual banded hairs. Causes banding on the upper side.
There are five suggested HCP variants: 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 a weaker ASIP promoter that causes eumelanin and pheomelanin hair banding but with less yellow on the individual hairs. Causes normal hair banding.
– HCP3, HCP4, and HCP5 lose their ability to activate the ASIP gene causing eumelanin to be produced on the dorsal surface hairs

These promoters are inherited as pairs: one ventral promoter and an HCP promoter which represent different alleles on the Agouti locus and determine the different patterns.

Agouti promoter combinations

The VP and HCP promoters combine to give 6 different alleles that include;

  • Ay (VP1 + HCP1)– Is almost solid red to yellow (fawn or clear sable) with broad areas of yellow pigment with little to almost no dark hair banding interspersed on the back, head, ears, and tail. This is because pheomelanin concentration is high in all parts of the dog’s skin leading to uniform red-pigmented hairs. Puppies may have some amount of dark shading while adults have minimal dark shading. Clear sables can be almost impossible to distinguish from recessive red but may have a black mask on the face (melanistic mask) depending on the Em gene which recessive reds don’t. Fawn dogs have dark-colored whiskers while it is genetically impossible for a recessive red dog to have any black pigment. This is the most dominant gene in the agouti series. A dog only needs one copy of the sable to show the pattern but those with two copies of the allele have more red-to-yellow uniform coats.
  • Ays (VP2 + HCP1)– Is shaded sable or shaded fawn or a shaded version of Ay. is predominantly red to yellow showing moderate to heavy dark shading as dark hair tips concentrated on the dorsal surface: top of the head, ears, saddle and back of the tail due to eumelanin produced in the beginning stages of hair growth. Dark shading can extend in dogs with melanistic masks. Shading can be more pronounced in puppy coats with the dogs going through a lighter coat phase in adolescence with dark shading returning in adulthood. GSDs with 2 copies of this allele (AysAys) show less dark shading than a dog with one copy of shaded sable and a copy of wolf sable (AysAw). Some shaded sable dogs appear similar to wolf sable dogs. Shaded sables also display a widow’s peak where the tan and dark markings meet above the eyes. Shaded sables in most notable on long-haired dogs but can have an interesting pattern on short-haired German Shepherds.
  • Aw (VP2 + HCP2)– Is wild sable, Wolf grey, or Agouti. W stands for wild type. This allele causes hair banding on the dog’s upper/dorsal surface, head, ears, and top of the legs while the underside/ventral surface, legs, and chest remain yellow or red with a few dark-colored hairs. Banding is caused by the hair shaft producing more than one pigment as the hair grows with black tips followed by a lighter midpiece and a lighter or darker base. Dogs with two copies of this allele (AwAw) tend to be lighter than those with one copy of wolf sable and a copy of saddle tan, black, and tan, and recessive black (AwAsa, AwAt, Awa). The more dark hairs and dark tips, the darker the dog will be. This is the pattern that most people refer to when talking about sable dogs including the Sable German Shepherd. Wild sable dogs look similar to shaded sables with differences in hair banding as most shaded sables show banding due to black tips. Agoutis tend to have spectacles appearance around the eyes instead of a widow’s peak. The so-called Sable German Shepherds are indeed agoutis and may lighten significantly as the dog ages.
  • Asa (VP1 + HCP4)– Is saddle tan or creeping tan. German Shepherds with this allele are born with tan point patterns but the tan markings expand while the eumelanin retreats to the dog’s back as he ages. The tan creeps up the forelegs to meet the expanding tan markings on the chest and neck. On these dogs, the pheomelanin underside is larger than usual and the upper side has mostly solid black hairs with no banding since HCP4 loses its ability to activate the ASIP gene. Sometimes the black sable may be intermingled with pheomelanin hairs. Dogs with two copies of this allele (AsaAsa) show a full saddle pattern while dogs with one copy of saddle tan and a copy of tan point or recessive black (Asa/at, Asa/a) show a creeping tan pattern with large tan markings on the face (intermediate between saddle tan and tan point). Previously the saddle tan pattern was believed to be caused by the modifying activities of the RALY gene that was believed to cause the eumelanin pigment to retreat to the back
  • At (VP2 + HCP3, HCP4 or HCP5)– Is black and tan/black back/tan point. Has solid black dorsal hairs with tan markings showing on restricted areas on the sides of the muzzle, eyebrows, throat, chest, belly, under the tail, and the lower and inner legs. The tan point on the face may be covered if the dog carries a gene for the melanistic mask. GSDs with one copy of black and tan and a copy of recessive black (At/a) have smaller tan points (ghost tan) than those with two copies of the allele (AtAt).
  • a– This is a mutant version of the ASIP gene that causes it to lose its ability to produce eumelanin pigment causing the GSD to have a solid black coat with no pheomelanin markings. Is the most recessive gene in the Agouti series

German Shepherds have all agouti alleles that display incomplete dominance. Incomplete dominance means that the dog has 2 different alleles such as AwAt, and they both affect the dog’s appearance. For instance, AwAt will appear sable while appearing similar to a washed-out black and tan.

No other combination of VP1 with non-functional variants of HCP has been reported

This new system renders the old one somewhat irrelevant but it would be wise to understand both

Types of Sable German Shepherds

Sable or agouti German Shepherds may have black, blue, liver, or lilac eumelanin pigment depending on the presence of other modifying genes. The red/yellow pheomelanin pigments can also be modified by the intensity gene to give a variety of shades.

Some of the color variations to expect are;

  • Tan Sable
  • Red Sable
  • Golden Sable
  • Silver sable
  • Black sable
  • Blue sable
  • Brown Sable
  • Lilac or isabella sable

Tan Sable German Shepherds

When combined with black eumelanin pigment, red sable is the most common sable GSD variation. These dogs have lighter red pheomelanin parts that appear almost golden

Red Sable German Shepherds

Red sables are also fairly common. These GSDs have rich red coats since the pheomelanin pigment has been lightly or not affected by dilution. Tan is a result of moderate dilution of the red color pigment to appear pale brownish.

Tan sable German Shepherds are the most common variation of sable GSDs.

Tan is rich color if not affected by pheomelanin dilution

Silver Sable German Shepherds

Silver Sables have much lighter creamish pheomelanin areas due to the dilution of the red pigment by the intensity gene. The silver coloration is due to the intense dilution of the red color pigment. They can be combined with black, blue, brown, or lilac eumelanin areas.

These dogs have a similar coat appearance to that of wolves.

Some experts regard silver and grey sables as one due to how much overlap they have in the pheomelanin pigment areas.

Golden Sable German Shepherds

Golden Sables have yellow/golden/pale tan pheomelanin areas which can be combined with black, blue, brown, or isabella-shaded areas. This is due to pheomelanin dilution by the intensity gene.

Note: The intensity gene does not affect eumelanin pigment.

Black Sable German Shepherd

Black sables are those with black eumelanin pigmentation on the shaded areas that have not been affected by eumelanin dilution. These Shepherds can come in any pheomelanin color combination.

Black sables have black noses, skin, lips, eye rims, and dark brown eyes.

Blue sable German Shepherd

Blue sables are a result of the dilution of all-black eumelanin pigment on the dog including the coat, skin, and eyes. This is caused by the presence of two copies of the dilution gene that causes the dog to have less eumelanin pigmentation causing parts that should have been black to appear bluish. The blue shade can range from deep blue to a washed-out blue-gray appearance.

Blue Sables have bluish noses, skin, lips, eye rims, and lightened hazel blue eyes. If the dog has a melanistic mask, it will be diluted and appear bluish too.

Blue Sable GSDs can be quite rare as two copies of dilution should be present for this color shade as dilution is recessive to non-dilution. These dogs are not recognized by any major kennel club including but not limited to AKC.

Dilution has little to no effect on the pheomelanin pigment on the coat only eumelanin.

Brown Sable German Shepherds

Similar to blue sables, brown sables are also a result of a recessive gene. But in this case, a brown or chocolate gene changes the structure of the eumelanin pigments changing how they reflect light and thus appear brown/liver/chocolate.

Brown or Liver Sable GSDs will not have any black pigment on them including on the coat, skin, nose, lips, and eye rim which will all appear brownish. The color of the eyes is also lighted to appear hazel-green or amber.

The brown gene does not affect red/yellow pheomelanin pigment.

Dark Sable vs Black sable German Shepherd

A dark sable German Shepherd has heavy eumelanin shading on the entire coat. The shading can be black, brown, blue, or lilac. Meanwhile, black sables have moderate to heavy black eumelanin shading. The eumelanin pigment on black sables remains black since the pigments are not affected by either dilution or brown modifiers.

Black is a specific color while dark is the level of shading on a Sable GSD.

Sable Vs Black and Tan German Shepherd

Sable GSDs have dark shading on most of the dog’s posterior/dorsal surface with lighter ventral surface or underside. Black and tan German Shepherds are predominantly black with lighter tan marking on restricted areas: on the side of the muzzle extending to cheeks, as spots above the eyes, as two triangles on the chest, the lower and inner parts of the legs, the underbelly and under the tail extending to the anus.

Sable German shepherd vs German shepherd

A sable German Shepherd is a purebred German Shepherd with a particular agouti pattern. There is no difference between Sable GSDs and others apart from the coat coloration.

Sable German Shepherd Price

Due to demand and lower supply, Sable German Shepherds are on average more expensive than other GSD color variations. The price for a Sable German Shepherd puppy ranges between $1000 and $2500 depending on the location, breeder, line of puppies, and pedigree. Some sable pedigrees may cost upwards of $5000.

How to get a sable German Shepherd

The surest way to get a sable GSD puppy is by mating a sable to a sable. Even then not the entire litter may be sable as some dogs carry a hidden gene for other agouti colors lower on the dominance hierarchy such as saddle tan, black and tan, and recessive black.

You can also carry out a PCR test to determine the genes the dog carries before breeding. If one or both parents carry two copies of sable (AwAw) most if not all puppies in the litter will have a sable pattern.

It is also possible for sable puppies to be produced by non-sable but clear sable/fawn or shaded sable parents as long as both parents carry a hidden recessive sable gene.

Recognition

Sable German Shepherds are recognized by most major kennel clubs including AKC and UKC. Richer hues such as black and red sable are preferred but any sable shade is accepted.

However, rare and washed-out variations of sable such as blue, lilac, or silver sables are considered a fault.

With that said, most sable GSDs are working lines other than show line dogs since most do not participate in dog shows by are widely used as working or herding dogs.

FAQ

Are sable German Shepherds rare?

Sable German Shepherds are not as common as black and tan or saddle tan German Shepherds but are not quite as rare.

How do I know if my German Shepherd is sable?

The best way to know if a German Shepherd is sable is by looking at the individual hairs on the dog’s upper dorsal surface. Most hairs have banding with dark tips, a lighter midpiece, and a dark base. Another unique sable GSD feature is the spectacle-like appearance around the dog’s eyes.

Shaded sables that may pass for actual sables have a widow’s peak above the eyes instead of light-colored spectacles.

Do sable German Shepherds get lighter or darker?

Most sable German Shepherds start with a dark coloration then go through a lightening phase during adolescence as the coat grows then get dark into adulthood as the coat matures. The change occurs from a few weeks after birth and takes up to 3 years.

Once the sable GSD coat has fully matured it will no longer go through a lightening or darkening phase.

Is sable dominant in German Shepherds?

Although sable is not the most dominant gene on the agouti series it is the most dominant on sable German Shepherds. If there is a more dominant gene paired with a recessive sable gene, that dominant coloration will be visible instead of sable.

Why do police use sable German Shepherds?

While I could not find specifics on why police use Sable GSDs, I would theorize that it is because of their coats that offer natural camouflage that may be useful for security operations.

Are sable German Shepherds wolves?

Although sable GSDs may have wolf-like coats, they are purebred German Shepherds and not wolves. This unique appearance is due to a gene inherited from the wolf ancestors and was the original coloration of the first German Shepherds.

Can sable German Shepherds have black puppies?

A sable German Shepherd can have black puppies if both parents carry a hidden gene for recessive black. Recessive black is the least dominant gene in the agouti series and is found at the bottom of the hierarchy. As such both sable parents should carry a hidden recessive black to produce black puppies.

Is a sable German Shepherd a good dog?

A German Shepherd’s color has nothing to do with how good a companion or worker he will be. The gene responsible for the sable coloration does not affect the dog’s behavioral traits, aggressiveness, ease of training, or health.

Everything comes down to how well the pup is raised, socialized, and trained from a young age. The surrounding can also influence the dog’s temperament, not color.

All in all, the sable GSD coat is appealing to look at and will garner a lot of admiration from German Shepherd enthusiasts.

With any questions or concerns, feel free to leave your feedback 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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