The Genetics Behind Lacy Coat Colors
A Note on "Lacy Dog" vs. "Blue Lacy"
The correct name for the breed is the Lacy Dog. All of the old historical documents we have, including articles written in the 1940s and 50s, call them Lacy Dogs or Lacys. In letters and interviews, Lacy descendants refer to them as Lacy Dogs, Lacy Hog Dogs or Lacys, never Blue Lacys. All of the ranchers in the Hill Country that have been breeding for decades call the breed Lacys or Lacy Dogs. They may say, "I have a Blue Lacy," but they will also say, "And I have a Red Lacy." They never call their red dogs Blue Lacys. The breed name, encompassing all three acceptable colors, is simply Lacy or Lacy Dog.
The best example of a similar naming convention is the Labrador Retriever. People will call a black colored Labrador a Black Lab, but they call a yellow dog a Yellow Lab, even if it came out of two Black Labs. There is no difference between Labs and Lacys when it comes to naming conventions. All Lacys carry the same dilute gene which causes all three color varieties to have blue pigment (never black).
According to the documentation, the term Blue Lacy was never used until the 1990s. Though he orginally called them Lacy Cow Dogs in the 1970s, H.C. Wilkes began referring to his dogs as Blue Lacys in the 90s. It is unclear why the term Blue Lacy caught on for a breed that also includes red and tricolor varieties, but it can be misleading and disproportionately emphasizes their appearance. Despite the marketing value in the Blue Lacy name, the NLDA will continue to follow the original naming convention and use Lacy Dog. Lacy Dogs come in three main colors: Blue, Red & Tri.
Coat Color Genetics
First things first. Genes always come in pairs, and dogs get one gene from mom and another from dad. Likewise, mom and dad each get one from grandma and grandpa. It takes more than one gene to make any of the 3 coat colors, and it is possible for recessive genes to be passed down for several generations unseen. So, without color testing, there is no way to be sure what to expect in any given litter, and even color testing won’t guarantee color results. Also, keep in mind that genetic diversity is healthy, especially for dilute dogs. Don't breed to get a certain color; put the health and performance of the dogs first.
The following is an overview of basic coat color genetics for Lacy Dog owners and breeders. Technical language is kept to a minimum and geared towards a practical approach to breeding and assessing various coat colors.
All black, blue or liver dogs express a pigment called eumelanin. Blue Lacy dogs are the result of a dilution gene, formally referred to as the melanophilin (MLPH) mutation, also called the recessive gene at the D locus. The color blue is also called slate or gray, as well as Maltese blue and just plain blue.
Dogs with two copies of the recessive dilution gene will be born with blue (vs. black) pigment, and not only will their coat color be affected, the blue dilution also affects their skin, nose color and eye color. Blue dogs will have a dusky black, slate or gray colored nose and lips, and they will have a lighter, brighter eye typically than a dog with a black or liver coat. Actually ALL Lacy Dogs, regardless of coat color, have two copies of the dilution recessive: no Lacy dog has the dominant D gene, so no Lacy dog will ever be a genetic black. For this reason the breed is said to be “fixed” at this gene.
Most Blue Lacys are dominant blues because they carry at least one copy of the so-called “Dominant Black” gene, which makes a dog solid and allows it to be black, blue or liver colored (depending on other genes carried). Dominant Black is called the K locus or Beta-defensin CBD103 by geneticists. Dogs with one or two copies of the dominant K gene will be solid or “self” colored (like our Blue Lacys.) Lacys with two copies of the recessive gene here, the
Tri Lacys are blue with tan points. This pattern is a result of a recessive agouti gene (a^t) and is generally referred to in other breeds as tan point or bi-color. The dog has the blue color over the entire body, with tan legs and tan markings on the belly, chest, cheeks and muzzle. This pattern is seen in several other working breeds such as the Doberman Pinscher and Rottweiler, as well as in many hound breeds (where it’s often called tri-colored, but these tri’s have large areas of white, which the Tri Lacy does not). Tan-pointed dogs can have a black, blue, or liver back but will always have points that are some shade of tan. There is a variation on tan-point, called saddle or saddle-back, occasionally seen in the Lacy breed. Saddle-backs have less of the blue color and more of the tan: it’s a creeping tan pattern where the tan extends up onto the torso and head. A lot of hound breeders feel that that the saddle pattern is from a different gene than tan-point, but at this point there isn’t any genetic proof this is true. Since tan-point is a simple recessive, Tri Lacys cannot produce Blues unless bred to a Blue or a clear Red. And for the same reason, if you wanted to, you could produce whole lines of just tan-pointed dogs; just like happens in Dobermans.
Red, yellow and cream dogs in all breeds result from the expression of a pigment called pheomelanin. There are two ways red coat color can occur in dogs. In Lacy Dogs, both forms exist. The first is a dominant form of red caused by the A locus: the agouti dominant allele. (A locus is the genetic term for the location of a gene on the DNA. Loci is the plural. An allele is just the name geneticist give to each gene when there is more than one gene at a locus.) The color that results from the dominant at agouti goes by several names, depending on the breed: red sable or shaded red, sable or fawn. Many working breeds have this color; Boxers & Great Danes being two examples. Agouti red is also common in many herding breeds, such as the Collie and the Malinois. The second way to get a red dog is caused by the recessive at the E Locus and produces a color generally referred to as clear red or recessive red. Recessive red is sometimes also called “gun dog red” because it’s the gene that causes breeds like the Irish Setter, Golden and Labrador retrievers to be red/yellow in color. There are other breeds that have both forms of red present: the Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever is an example of another breed like our Lacy Dogs where it’s been proven by genetic testing that both forms of red exist, but both reds occur in many breeds where testing hasn’t been done.
Agouti and Clear reds are going to essentially look alike as adults: red is red because they both have the basic same pigment. However, as puppies, you may notice some subtle differences. Agouti Reds tend to start out darker, look a bit muddy in color when young puppies, but their color clears as they age. Clear Reds can start out a shade or two paler than their adult color but by the time they are adults, it’s hard to tell one red from another. Sometimes you will see a shading of darker hairs still along the spine on an agouti Red. And only the agouti Reds can express mask; however clear Reds (& Blues!) can carry the Mask genes hidden. (See more on mask and shading below.)
The two reds WILL breed differently. When a dog has two copies of the
Red Dilution: Cream
A pale red or cream colored dog is the result of a gene that dilutes the red pigment (pheomelanin). This gene hasn’t been identified and was for a long time called “chinchilla,” but the gene that dilutes pheomelanin isn’t the same as chinchilla in other species, so for now should just be referred to as red dilution or the pheomelanin diluter. What we do know is this dilution gene doesn’t act like blue or liver dilultion; red dilution is a co-dominant. A co-dominant is a gene where there is a change in the looks of the dog where only one recessive gene is present. So a dog with no red dilution genes will be a rich red color, a dog with one red dilution gene will be a bit washed out in color, and a dog with two red dilution genes is going to be a pale cream-to-white color.Red dilute puppies can have one or both parents who are carriers. Red dilution dogs get called cream, straw, pearl, buff, white and Isabella, depending on the breed and how pale the coat is. On Tri Lacys the tan color will be paler than normal when the dog carries red dilution. On Blue Lacys there will be little to no effect seen. The nose and lips will remain dark in all cases.
Shading and Masking on Red and Tri Dogs
The shaded areas seen in agouti reds results from the tip of the hair having dark (eumelanin) pigment. It is most evident on the ears, over the spine, and at the tip of the tail in the adult, and agouti red puppies often look a bit “dusky” or “muddy” colored when first born. Recessive reds cannot produces anything but red pigment, so they will never have dark pigment in their coats. This means that only agouti reds can have masks. The dark or “melanistic” mask is a result of a “super” dominant gene at the E locus (called Extension or MC1R). In Lacys, there is the normal E dominant gene that doesn’t produce a mask, the E^M “super” dominant which does, and the recessive
Only Tri and agouti Red Lacys can have a mask. Clear Red Lacys can never have the mask gene and Blue Lacys cannot have a mask, but they can carry the mask gene and produce puppies with a mask. On a Tri Lacy, tan normally occurs on the sides of the muzzle and above the eyebrows, but a dog with a mask may have all or part of these areas be dark instead. On a Red Lacy, some or all of the muzzle will be dark instead of red. A dog can have one or two genes for mask, and you cannot tell by looking, as the mask on both can look the same. Masks are dominant and, therefore, a puppy needs only to inherit one copy of the mask from one parent to express it. Masks can vary greatly, covering anything from just the end of the muzzle to the whole of the muzzle, up to the eyebrows and ears. There is a test now for the mask gene, so if you want to avoid it, or get rid of it, you can test for it and then breed away from it.
Lacy Dogs can and do have small areas of white on their toes and chest, but should not have large areas of white. The small white markings typically seen in breeds like the Lacy are not the result of a white spotting gene, so are not directly heritable. These small white markings on the chest and toes are the result of incomplete pigmentation or other non-heritable factors and can safely be ignored. If more extensive white markings appear on a dog (white socks, white on head and neck, etc.) then it’s likely that recessive white spotting genes are involved. Breeding dogs with such white markings will tend to spread white spotting genes in the breed's gene pool. To prevent improper white markings on the head and above the topline, carefully research your Lacy's pedigree. Litters expressing excessive white may come from properly marked parents, but it is extremely likely their grandparents, uncles or aunts had disqualifying white markings.
The Liver Gene & Dilute Liver (Silver) Lacys
Although relatively rare, liver does occur in the Lacy breed. Liver is a recessive dilute gene, much like our blue dilution, so a liver puppy can only be born if both parents are carriers of the liver gene. Like dilution, liver only affects eumelanin, so all of the blue in the coat of a liver Lacy is turned to a silvery-brown color like you see in the Weimaraner, but only the “top” portion of a Tri is affected & you won’t see the effect on the coat in the Reds. However liver, like blue, affect also the skin. So the nose and lips on a liver dilute will be some form or red. This dilute liver or “double dilute” color is also referred to as Isabella, silver, lilac and lavender.
Color Breedings Results
Blue x Blue: can produce both Reds and Tris as well as Blues. Depends on which colors the parents are carrying.
Blue x Tri: can produce Blue, Tri and clear Red. Tri’s result if the Blue carries tan-point, and Reds result if both parents are carrying the
Blue x agouti Red: can produce Blue, both Reds & Tri, depending on recessives carried.
Blue x clear Red: can produce Blue, both Reds & Tri, depending on recessives carried.
Tri x agouti Red: only Red and Tri puppies.*
Tri x clear Red: can produce Blue, Red & Tri puppies.
Tri x Tri: produces only Tri puppies.*
Agouti Red x Agouti Red: only Red and Tri puppies (Tri only if both parents carry tan-point).*
Agouti Red x Clear Red: can produce Blue, Red & Tri puppies.
Clear Red x Clear Red: only clear Red puppies are possible.
*Note the exception here is Blue puppies can be produced where both parents carry the rare agouti recessive gene that creates a solid blue dog.
Recessive Blue breedings can only produce recessive Blue pups.
Interested in color testing your Lacy? UC Davis offers genetic testing. These tests will not only tell you what color your lacy is on a genetic level, you will be able to use the results to predict the colors of the offspring.
For information on color testing, and to request a test kit, contact Betty Leek at firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about the science of coat color, visit the canine color genetics sites by Jess and the University of California, Davis.