Poodle Colors & Patterns
People are often surprised to find out that poodles don't only come in solid white or solid black. Though these are the colors most often seen in the AKC show ring, nearly every color and pattern is naturally occurring in the poodle breed. I will use this page to give an overview on poodle colors and patterns, and the genetics behind them. As is the case with so many things surrounding the poodle, there is far more than meets the eye! This page is a work in progress and more information and photos will be added over time.
Poodles come in a variety of solid base colors. They can be black, blue, silver, brown, cafe au lait, silver beige, cream, apricot, or red.
Blue and silver, and their brown versions cafe au lait and silver beige, are not caused by a dilute gene like in most other breeds, but instead by a greying gene that causes the color of the coat to clear over time. These puppies are born black or brown. Silvers and silver beige puppies can usually be identified by 6 weeks of age as their muzzle will show significant lightening when shaved. Blue and cafe puppies can be much harder to identify, and can sometimes take 3 or more years to clear to their final color. Unfortunately, this gene has not yet been identified, and as such is not currently testable, so it is much more difficult to predict the likelihood of these colors showing up in a litter.
Cream, apricot, and red are all caused by the same gene, recessive red. For a dog to display any of these colors, they must be homozygous for recessive red on the E locus, giving them the genotype e/e. This doesn't, however, tell us what shade of red they will be. This is yet another gene that hasn't been identified, but has been theorized as the "I" locus for intensity. In poodles, this can also be combined with the previously mentioned greying gene. The result could be ice white, a deep red, a puppy born dark red that fades to light apricot, and everything in between.
This image demonstrates the wide color range that recessive red can produce.
Poodles can have a variety of white markings ranging from a few white hairs on the chest, to a nearly solid white dog. This white is generally caused by the piebald gene, which we call parti in poodles. A dog can carry no copies of this gene (S/S), one copy (S/s), or two copies (s/s). A dog that does not carry parti will generally not have any white hair in its coat. (This is different than the "white" caused by recessive red previously discussed.) Sometimes these dogs will be born with a small amount of white on the chest, or on a toe, but we call this "residual white" and it's not caused by the piebald gene, it's just a fluke where the pigment didn't fully fill in. A dog that carries one copy of parti can have a variety of appearances. These dogs could be solid with no white, or have a decent amount of white which could include a head blaze, a white chest, a white stomach, white on the legs, and white on the end of the tail. My male Charlie is a good example of this. Most commonly, these dogs will just have a bit of white on their chest. A dog that carries two copies of parti will have significantly more white, typically over 50%, but not always. Some parti's we refer to as tuxedos. They tend to have a specific pattern where the white falls giving the illusion of them wearing a tuxedo. What causes this pattern hasn't been identified, and it may or may not be separate from the parti gene.
Agouti, Sable, Phantom, & Recessive Black
Patterns have existed in the breed from the beginning. In the past, these dogs were culled as an attempt to remove them from the gene pool. This did not work, and as simple recessives they pop up often even in seemingly all solid bloodlines. For a dog to express these patterns, they must have the genotype ky/ky on the K locus. Just one copy of dominant black (KB) will cause a dog to be black or brown. (Seal and ghost tan are potential exceptions, but we're not getting into that just yet.) You can see how you could breed two solid black dogs together who both happen to carry a copy of ky (KB/ky), and end up with a litter full of unexpected patterns! The pattern produced will depend on what the dog has on the A locus. The 4 genotypes on the A locus in order of dominance are; agouti (aw), sable (ay), phantom (at), and recessive black (a).
Agouti, though the most dominant in the series, is not terribly common in the breed, especially in standards. Agouti poodles are breathtakingly beautiful. Certain poodles are sometimes mistakenly referred to as "phantom sables". This isn't genetically possible, and oftentimes these dogs are in fact agouti, and may have characteristics of both a phantom and sable dog. A dog needs only one copy of agouti to express the pattern; aw/aw, aw/ay, aw/at, or aw/a
Sable is relatively common, and produces a wide range of colors and patterns in poodles. A sable dog can be nearly solid cream, or appear agouti. Often, they will be mostly solid cream or apricot with black ears and tail, along with black hairs mixed in on the back. Sable puppies change significantly as they grow. The only thing you can guarantee is they won't be the same color as an adult as they are as a puppy, and that they will be gorgeous no matter the final pattern! A dog needs only one copy of sable to express the pattern, along with either a second copy, or a copy of phantom or recessive black; ay/ay, ay/at, or ay/a.
Phantom is also fairly common in the breed. It produces the pattern most commonly associated with breeds such as the doberman or rottweiler. Phantom poodles will usually have tan "eyebrows", cheeks, chest spots, lower legs, and under the tail. It is striking and beautiful! There are also modifiers that can cause what we call creeping tan or saddle tan which can cause the tan areas to grow and spread, much like what is seen in some German shepherds. This modifier is still being studied and isn't fully understood. A dog needs one or more copies of phantom, or a copy of recessive black to express the pattern; at/at, or at/a.
Recessive black is the least dominant in the series. It is unique as it doesn't produce a pattern, but actually causes the dog to be just black or brown. This is one reason color testing is important. A solid black dog could produce patterns very unexpectedly in a breeding program. A dog needs two copies of recessive black to express the pattern; a/a.
Brindle causes the gorgeous striped pattern seen on some dogs. In order for a dog to express brindle it must have either two copies of brindle (Kbr/Kbr) or one copy of brindle and one copy of non dominant black (Kbr/ky). It must also either be agouti, sable, or phantom on the A locus. A brindle dog that is also agouti or sable will have the striped pattern wherever there is color in the coat. A brindle dog that is also phantom will only be striped on the tan points, and the body will still be the solid base color.
Patterns can be produced on a dog at the same time. You can have a dog that is both parti and sable. The dog would have the white areas to the coat, and the colored areas would be sable. The same goes for brindle. That would cause the colored areas of the coat to be brindled. You can have a dog that is parti, phantom, and brindle. This would be a parti colored dog that also had tan points, and within those tan points there would be striping. There are many possibilities and combinations. It all depends on what the parent dogs both express and carry. I find it’s important to test every dog for color, along with all the other genetic health testing we do, so we don’t have any big surprises as far as color and patterns go when pairing two individuals.
There are some patterns that pop up in the breed from time to time that we just don’t know much about, and are currently untestable. Two such patterns are seal and ghost tan. Both of these patterns will express occasionally in dogs that are genetically dominant black. Being so, they shouldn’t be able to express patterns at all. For some reason in these dogs the pattern from the A locus leaks through and expresses in a unique way. If a dog is sable or agouti on the A locus, this pattern will show up slightly. If they are phantom, you will be able to see faint tan markings. It does seem to be inheritable as some poodle breeders are breeding these dogs and getting consistent results. It’s not common, and I’ve never personally seen it occur in one of my litters.