I am not a geneticist. Instead I’m just a Malamute owner with a particular interest in this topic. I have bred small animals (rats, mice, and Syrian hamsters) for over 20 years, and the practical experience gained through that medium has left me fascinated with coat color genetics. The information I am going to present here is not an in-depth discussion on the mechanics of color genetics in dogs. Instead it is intended as a basic overview, with the goal of de-mystifying the subject for those with little genetics background.
Coat color genetics is not some magical system for predicting the color of animals, nor is it an elaborate mathematical equation which can only be solved by a brilliant scientist. Instead it is a straightforward way of identifying why a dog is a particular color and determining how that color will be passed along to its offspring.
What I am going to be presenting on this website is coat color genetics as it pertains to Alaskan Malamutes (though the information applies equally well to related breeds, including the Siberian Husky). Much of this information is based on theories which "work" when applied to real life breedings. Quite a bit of scientific research is currently going on in this area, thus some of the details presented on this website may change over time to remain current.
Before going into the details of the different coat color loci, I want to make brief mention of the notations you will see me use throughout this article. Each locus (specific color variation) is represented by a letter (or sometimes a couple letters). The dominant allele at a particular locus is always represented with a capital letter. A recessive allele is represented with a lower case letter. For each locus I will give the letters which symbolize both the dominant and recessive form. Every dog has two alleles at each color locus, one inherited from its mother, and one from its father. You will sometimes see me list two of the same letters together. When doing so I’m talking about the effect of the gene on a particular dog when it inherits the various combinations of alleles possible. These combinations include inheriting:
The dominant allele from each parent (homozygous dominant - ie. “BB”)
The recessive allele from each parent (homozygous recessive - ie. “bb”)
Or one dominant allele from one parent, and one recessive allele from the other parent
(heterozygous - ie. “Bb”).
Beyond that, I am not going to go into the mechanics of how genetics work. It has already been done numerous times by people who are much more knowledgeable than I will ever be. Instead, I will be discussing the specific loci involved in determining the colors, markings, and coat types we most commonly recognize in Alaskan Malamutes. For those unfamiliar with the basics of dominant and recessive modes of inheritance or who need a refresher, there are many good articles on the web: http://bowlingsite.mcf.com/Genetics/BasGen.html
Why is coat color genetics important?
The simple answer is – it isn’t. No good sled dog is a bad color, and coat color in Malamutes is purely cosmetic.
That said, the study of coat color does have an important place. Coat color is easily seen and yet not terribly important or controversial, thus it presents and ideal opportunity to learn about genetics and actually see genetic principles at work. These same genetic principles can be applied to issues of much greater concern.
Pigment A dog’s color is caused by the pigment in its hair. There are only two basic pigments, eumelanin which causes black/brown color, and phaeomelanin which causes yellow/red color. The distribution and
density of these two pigments throughout a dog’s coat is what causes it to be a particular color.
The distribution and density of pigment in a dog’s coat is dictated by various genes. The position which these genes occupy on the chromosome is called its locus. Each locus is responsible for a distinctive
effect on the pigment in the coat, and all the loci taken together “spell out” what the dog will look like.
There are six different loci which each play a part in determining what color a Malamute ends up being. Each of these plays a separate and distinct role, and each operates completely independent of the
others. All of these factors, considered together, “spell out" what color the Malamute will be.
Pigment Distribution Loci – Banding
The first two loci we are going to look at control how the two pigments (eumelanin and phaeomelanin) are distributed on each hair. If you pluck a few guard hairs from a malamute’s coat at the shoulders (or just part the coat and take a close look) you will see that each guard hair contains a pattern of bands. The exceptions, of course, are black and whites and solid whites where the guard hairs are all one color. On a typical sable malamute you will see a black tip, a yellow/red band, a second black or gray band, and then light yellow/red down by the base of the hair. What you are seeing is a pattern of first eumelanin at the tip of the hair, then a band of phaeomelanin, then another of eumelanin, and a final band of phaeomelanin down near the skin. As you move down the sides of the body it becomes much more difficult to clearly detect all the various bands in the hair.
Banding in the coat of a Sable Malamute. Note the 4 different bands of color visable.
The rest of the loci in Malamutes deal with the density and appearance of each kind of pigment. They simply change the appearance of the pigment bands that have been determined by the Agouti and Domino loci. These pigment factors are NOT dominant or recessive to each other, or to the Agouti or Domino alleles. Instead each one operates independently and each one is present in every single dog.
In addition to banding on the hair and color of pigment, white spotting is also present in Malamutes. There is often a lot of misunderstanding about what white spotting does and does not do. White spotting does NOT give us the white under-parts that are a trademark of Malamute color. That is instead caused by the Agouti and Domino loci, with some help from the Chinchilla-like locus. White spotting gives us white areas in addition to the typically seen lighter under-parts. These can be difficult to find because they usually are in the same areas where Malamutes are already white (so we don’t see them) or are in areas joining those already white (so folks don’t realize they are being caused by something different).
While it is important to understand each locus and its effect on the pigment present in whichever coat pattern a particular dog happens to be, it is also important to realize that each locus does not exist in
a vacuum. Every dog has every locus, and the alleles at each locus will have their effect regardless of what's happening on the other loci.
Putting it all together, every Malamute is a combination of all these factors. As I said at the beginning of this article, all these factors taken together “spell out” the color we see on a particular dog.
A special thank you to Liisa Sarakontu. Without her willingness to share her knowledge, as well as her valuable comments and suggestions, this site would not be possible.
Also, a HUGE thank you to Suz Richardson for her extensive technical assistance and first hand knowledge. Without her help I would never have been able to complete many parts of this website. All the wonderful coat color sketches were created by Suz Richardson and used here with her permission.
My deepest gratitude to the following individuals who generously allowed me to reproduce photographs of their dogs on this website: Tina Robbins, Suz Richardson, Vicki Daitch, Michelle Frank, Cindy Neely, Mary Jane and Al Holabach, Bilinda Marshall, Lisa Kellar, Kathleen Corkum, Maurine Marcus, Bob and Dolores Sturdivant, Sue Fuller, Phyllis Hamilton, Leesa Rhyde Thomas, Shilon Bedford, Judy Paule, Charlene LaBelle, Josefine Munke, Dorothy Hood, Yumi Shimizu, Yasuko Nojima, Jolene Houghtaling, Tanja Gube, Denise Drummond, Gail Partain.
This site would not be possible without all the wonderful pictures Malamute owners have allowed me to share. I am always looking for additional pictures to use in illustrating this site. If you would like to share your pictures, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Over the years many people have found their way to this website. Some are breeders interested in learning more about the genetics of the dogs they breed. Many are fanciers/rescuers/owners who simply have an interest in why their dogs look the way they do or in understanding how to properly identify coat color in the breed. Others are individuals new to the breed who are just beginning their quest for knowledge about these wonderful dogs. Because of the wide range in individuals who visit this site, I feel it is important to include a few words about the characteristics and personality of our wonderful but sometimes challenging dogs.