(photo by Ted Van Pelt)
Most people have probably seen a merle Australian shepherd but not know what it really is. It’s an Australian shepherd. While other breeds may not be known for having merle dogs, the Australian shepherd standard is merle. It’s the array of colors admirers of this fluffy herding dog know by sight, if not by name.
1. Merle is a genetic mutation.
It exists in some dog breeds more than others. The Australian shepherd is known for this specific mutation. The gene effects the pigmentation of the dog’s fur and skin, rendering its coat spotty and dotty. A more poetic way of describing it is marbling – spots of various sizes on a solid background. Every merle dog’s coat is unique.
The skin around their eyes, on their noses, and on their toe pads can also be affected. Australian shepherds have black, brown, or mottled-with-pink coloring on these patches of skin. Their eyes are just as unusual. They can be brown or blue or one of each! Sometimes the pigmentation of their irises is mottled just like their skin and coats.
2. There are two types of merle known for Australian shepherds: blue and red.
Within these two categories there can be variations. Blue can be solid merle (if that makes sense), blue merle with white, and blue merle with white and copper. Sometimes the solid blue merle can have white markings on the fact, chest, or underbelly … but still be “solid.” (We’re still working that one out.) Red merles have the same sub-categories.
When first learning about merle dogs of any breed, many curious potential owners worry if the fantastic pattern will ever fade. It will not – it’s the pigment of the dog’s fur, after all, not hair dye! However, it is noted that merle Australian shepherds can grow darker as they age, an uncommon occurrence with other merle breeds.
3. A ghost merle, also called cryptic merle, is an Australian shepherd who doesn’t show any visible signs of being merle, but carries the merle gene.
This means that looking at the dog wouldn’t be enough to tell its merle. Sometimes there are small patches of evidence, but they could be hidden in white swaths of fur and be indistinguishable. The dog would need to be genetically tested to be certain. It’s important to do so when breeding Australian shepherds, especially when breeding a confirmed or visible merle Australian shepherd.
4. The rarest color of Australian shepherd is white.
This is because almost the only way to have a white puppy is by breeding two merle parents. The resulting white puppy would be a double merle, carrying twice the mutation. It is very, very rare that a white Australian shepherd would be born with absolutely no merle genes.
5. To make merle puppies, an Australian shepherd with the merle gene is mated with an Australian shepherd without the merle gene.
The resulting litter is 100% Australian shepherd. Purebred. Merle is a semi-dominant trait, meaning that the odds of it taking over in the offspring are very high but not guaranteed. The resulting litter would be almost certain to have merle puppies. In theory, merle offspring are guaranteed by mating two merle Australian shepherds, but this practice is not actively done due to the hazards of double merles.
(photo by Ted Van Pelt)
6. The Australian shepherd is one of the few dogs immediately accepted as merle by the AKC.
In fact, on its Breed Standard merle is the first color listed whereas, with other breeds carrying the merle mutation, it is usually added as a begrudging caveat.
7. The mating of merles of any breed comes down to genetics. When mapping it out, any dog who does not carry the merle gene is noted as mm. A dog that does carry it is noted as Mm.
When breeding the two together, the M will take over and make the odds likely that half the litter of puppies will be merle. It is possible to have a double merle which is noted as MM. In this case, even if bred with a non-merle (mm), the large Ms tend to take over (hence the gene being semi-dominant), and can create an all merle litter. Ghost merles are noted differently. They can be CR or Mc. Either way, they are as likely to pass on the gene as a regular merle. This why genetic testing is so important. If a ghost merle isn’t identified, breeding it with a regular merle can end up with CRM which would be a ghost double merle: a dog at risk itself and posing a risk to future generations.
8. A double merle is a dog whose parents both carried the merle gene (be it Mm or CR).
Though they can be any of the Australian shepherd merle color variations, they include all of the rare white Australian shepherds. Non-merle whites are possible but improbable. Why is it such a big deal? Double merles are almost guaranteed to have health problems due to this double dose of mutation. They often go blind or deaf if they’re not already born that way. A dog with such debilitating diseases needs constant care and attention for its own wellbeing as well as those around them. It is unlikely to lead a normal life. Double merles should not be bred because their health risks will be passed on, inflicting its offspring with guaranteed problems.
9. Australian shepherds are surprisingly one of the healthier merles.
Many other breeds risk severe health problems with their ears and eyes. Even single merles. Australian shepherds seem to only risk these more severe problems when they’re double. While merle Australian shepherds are still prone to hip dysplasia, cataracts, and epilepsy, they’re relatively healthy. Other big ones to look out for with Australian shepherds are hypothyroidism, Collie nose, and cancer.
Australian shepherds are anything but rare. As of 2020, the AKC has them listed as the 12th most popular dog. Out of 195 recognized breeds, we’d say that’s the opposite of rare.
10. They go from $1,200 and seem to top out around $2,500 depending on the breeder.
Because Australian shepherds are pretty much always merle, the price you pay for one is the standard for Australian shepherds as a breed. \It’s unlikely you’d pay more for a merle Australian shepherd than you would for a black or tan Australian shepherd.
11. Merle Australian shepherds are ethical if the breeders are responsible.
Because merle makes up two of the total four color coats accepted by the AKC, it may seem like the breeding pool is small. As long as a breeder gets his or her dogs genetically tested before pairing them off for puppies, avoiding double merles, then we don’t see why its an issue. Every breed of dog in every color will always have health problems. As long as a merle Australian shepherd is taken good care of in a loving home, there’s no reason not to get one. We also suspect its popularity speaks for its acceptance in society.
12. Australian shepherds don’t actually originate from Australia.
In the beginning of colonization Down Under, Basque famers from the Pyrenees mountain range that divides France and Spain brought their faithful shepherds with across them to Oceania. Once there, the continental European shepherds were interbred with collies brought over from the British Isles. These Basque farmers then relocated once more, with their interbred pups, to the Wild West of America. It was there that California ranchers mistakenly thought this was a pure breed from Australia. The name stuck. Funnily enough, the Australian shepherd is not registered as a native breed in Australia.
An iconic dog whose popularity has soared in recent years, the Australian shepherd has quite the alternative story to other merle breeds. Rather than being frowned upon, shunned, or even banned ethically, merle Australian shepherds manage to be happily embraced.