Sable Merle photographs

The sable merle color is subject to a great deal of controversy. On the one hand, it is a predictable color in the breed, given that both blue merle and sable are acceptable colors in the breed, and it is a natural result of crossing these two colors. On the other hand, it is not addressed at all in the breed Standard, which lists only sable (including sable and white), black with tan and/or white, and blue merle with tan and/or white.

This failure of the breed standard to address sable merle can be considered the root of the problem. On the one hand, It has been traditional in Shelties not to breed sable to blue, and not to show any sable merle offspring if such a mating is made. People who feel this way generally argue that the Standard does not address sable merle because those who wrote the Standard never considered the possibility that they would be deliberately bred, let alone shown. At the other extreme, both merle and sable genes exist in the breed, so they will occasionally come together in the same animal. Some people argue that the Standard does not say that a sable has to be all the same shade of sable, and even argue for accepting blue eyes (a normal effect of the merle gene) in sable merles.

There is occasional talk about changing the Standard to address the problem of sable merles. However, the two extremes are not at all in agreement as to what changes should be made. The "conservatives" would probably opt for making sable merle a faulty color, possibly by severely penalizing blotchy shading on a sable or by explicitly recognizing sable merle as a fault. The "liberals" would probably want sable merle recognized as a fourth color division, with blue eyes acceptable in sable merles. Obviously both sides could not be accommodated in a Standard revision, so the Standard remains unclear.

My own concern is primarily with the identification of sable merles. While sable merles are normally recognizable as puppies by the appearance of a merling pattern, this is not necessarily true in adults, especially pure for sable merles (two genes for sable and one for merle). A/C Ch Laureate Santana is a pure for sable merle, though in his case the merling can be seen on the tips of his ears. If such a dog is registered as a sable, which might be done through ignorance or in order to be sure it could be shown as a sable, there is a real possibility that a person unaware of merle genetics could mate two sable merles thinking that both parents were ordinary sables, and get a litter with one or more defective whites - a normal occurrence when two merles are mated (which is why the recommended mate for a blue merle is a tri or bi) but not expected in a sable to sable mating.

I refuse to argue either side on a web page. However, any controversy is the better for knowledge of what you're talking about! So here is a photograph of a sable merle who has done well in the conformation ring in spite of his color.


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updated March 8, 2010