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BREEDING MERLES

 
Cockers are one of the few breeds of registered dogs that come in a multitude of colors and marking patterns.  The different colors are split into 3 color "Varieties".    These varieties are:
  •  Black - includes all black and black & tan colored Cocker Spaniels.
  • ASCOB (Any Solid Color Other than Black) - includes buff (blonde, golden, silver buff, red), brown and brown & tan colored Cocker Spaniels.
  • Parti-Color - includes Cocker Spaniels with two or more well-broken colors, one of which must be white - Black/White, Brown/White & Red/White, including those with tan points.

Unfortunately, the above color definitions do not include a number of colors that are known to occur in Cocker Spaniels.  Chief among these is, of course, merles!  This means that merles are not eligible to be shown.  The color is also not recognized as an acceptable color for registration.  This means that most merles are incorrectly registered as roans, sables, buffs or other acceptable colors.  This is, of course, an injustice to merle breeders and owners (as well as the breeders of the other colors that the merles end up being registered as!), but more importantly, this poses a health risk to unborn puppies.

When breeding Merle Cockers, one of the first things to consider is the color of each breeding dog.  Merle dogs should never be bred to each other.   When two merles are bred together, 25% of the litter could inherit two copies of the merle gene.  Those puppies that inherit two copies of the merle gene are considered homozygous merles.  A percentage of these homozygous merle puppies can be deaf and/or may have serious eye and vision defects. 

Please keep in mind that acceptably colored pups from a merle parent are NOT defective and CANNOT produce defective puppies.  Additionally, normal (one gene) merle pups are NOT defective and will NOT produce defective puppies unless bred to another merle.  Let me say that again - when a dog with the merle gene is bred to a normal (non-merle) dog, the resulting puppies will ALL have the same chance of being normal and healthy as any other puppies from any breeding of 2 normally colored dogs.  Defective merle puppies can ONLY occur when a dog inherits two copies of the merle gene (one from each parent). 

For some unknown reason, eye and ear development of a homozygous merle fetus seems to be affected if both of the dog's merle genes happen to overlap and mark the dog in the eye or inner ear area.  Defects can occur in only the eyes or the ears (may affect only one eye or ear) or both eyes and ears may be affected.  Defects can range from minor changes in hearing or sight to complete deafness and, in severe cases, the complete absence of eyes. 

The defects associated with homozygous merles are obviously severe and should be ample incentive for breeders to take all necessary precautions to avoid merle to merle breeding.  Measures to prevent defective merle puppies should include proper color identification of all puppies from a merle parent, correct color registration of puppies from a merle parent and responsible placement of all merle puppies.  Of course, our parent breed club (the American Spaniel Club) and AKC MUST  recognize this color as occurring within the breed and allow for proper registration of the color before breeders will be able to make significant headway in addressing all of the issues that face merle dogs and their owners!!  

On a side note, due to rampant prejudice within the breed community regarding the quality and health of merle cockers, merle breeders should pay particular attention to the quality of the dogs they choose to breed and to health issues in their merle breeding stock.  Merle breeders can help overcome the prejudice that these dogs are subject to by making every effort to produce the best quality, healthiest dogs possible and by being sure their fully registered puppies are placed with other responsible, knowledgeable breeders.   Merle breeders should make every effort to breed only quality representatives of the breed standard that have been health tested and certified free of common genetic defects.  

Choosing to Breed Merle to Merle

Since I don't particularly want to be the recipient of an on-going barrage of hate mail from those that may take the following information as a sign that I'm condoning or encouraging merle to merle breeding, let me stop here and say that the information I am including in this section of my "Breeding Merles" article is being included as an attempt to cover all aspects of breeding merles.  It is not my intention to encourage or endorse merle to merle breeding.  I am also not attempting to address the morality of doing merle to merle breedings.  Nor is it my intention to make a determination of whether this type of breeding is ethical.  The point of including the following information is to provide educational information for merle owners and breeders.  Whether a breeder chooses to do a merle to merle breeding is an individual decision.  Each breeder will have to make their own decisions on whether they feel this type of breeding is acceptable. 

While you personally may not believe in mating a merle to a merle, some breeders may choose to do this type of breeding.  Why would someone attempt this type of breeding knowing that there is a risk of getting defective puppies?  Breeders who choose to breed merle to merle are trying to produce a non-defective homozygous merle that can be used for breeding.  The reason a breeder would want a homozygous merle is that homozygous merles generally produce 100% merle puppies.   While a normal merle will statistically produce 50% merle puppies, a homozygous merle may produce 100% merle puppies.  Obviously, a healthy homozygous merle is an asset to a merle breeder's breeding program and would be much sought after.   (Merle is actually considered an incomplete dominant gene and, while a dog that inherits 2 merle genes is considered a homozygous merle, it is possible for a  homozygous merle to produce non-merle offspring.)

Of course, there is always a risk that the only homozygous merle puppies produced in a merle to merle breeding will be defective.  However, even a defective merle can often be used for breeding.  Using a defective merle for breeding is not a problem as long as it is never bred to another merle.  The defects that may occur in a homozygous merle are NOT directly hereditary and there is only a risk of getting defective puppies if a homozygous merle is bred to another merle.  (When breeding a homozygous merle to another normal merle, the risk for defective puppies is double that of breeding a normal merle to a normal merle - 50% chance of defective puppies when one parent is homozygous instead of a 25% chance.)  A homozygous merle, defective or healthy, will NOT produce defective puppies if breed to a non-merle.   

 The risk of getting defective homozygous merle puppies is a risk that a breeder must be prepared to face if they choose to breed two merles to each other.  If a breeder chooses to do a merle to merle breeding, they must ask themselves two questions:

  1. Am I willing to keep any homozygous merle puppies long enough to fully evaluate them for possible defects?  
  2. If defects are present,  am I willing to cull these defective puppies or provide them with a permanent, lifetime home?

If you are unprepared to do either of the above, then do not breed two merles to each other!  YOU are responsible for any puppies that you bring into this world (healthy or not) and if you are not willing to deal with the negative consequences of your decisions, then you are not a responsible breeder and should not be breeding dogs!!

Some homozygous merle puppies may have characteristics that will make identifying possible defective pups simpler.  For example, in a homozygous merle solid colored dog (black, brown or buff/red base coat with or without tan points and with NO parti factor), you may see white markings where the dog's two merle genes have overlapped.  If these white areas appear around the eyes or the base of the ear, then there is a chance that the puppy in question COULD be defective.  The white markings described above are not indicative of parti factoring like normal white markings.  These areas of white are the result of two overlapping merle genes lightening the coat color to white.  For example, on a solid black puppy, let's say the dog's first merle gene lightens 2 areas of a particular puppy's coat to blue - the left ear and the tail.  Now let's say that the dog's second merle gene lightens the right ear AND the tail.   We now have a black dog with lightened areas of blue coat on both ears and with a WHITE tail.  The second merle gene overlapped the first merle gene on the tail and this results in white coat.  This solid colored homozygous merle dog with white markings is still a genetically solid colored dog!   These white markings are NOT the same as those seen on chest/throat/toes/etc. of a mis-marked, parti-factored solid dog. 

Breeders must keep in mind that since it is impossible to see the inner ear and eye structures in newborn puppies, surface markings on the dog may be misleading.  Since it is abnormal fetal development in the inner ear and eye that causes defective merle puppies, visible white markings on the eyes or ears may not always indicate a defective dog, even if the dog is genetically a solid.   The reverse is also true - a defective homozygous merle puppy could have “normal” merle coloring on the surface, but could have defects due to overlapping merle genes marking the inner ear or eye area. 

Since Cockers have a parti-color variety, this further complicates identification of possible defective puppies.  Parti-colors, especially in certain bloodlines, may routinely be very open-marked (mostly white) and/or may have white on or around the ears and white around one eye.  So, if there is any chance that a dog could carry parti factoring, white markings in the eye and ear area are not an automatic indicator of possible defects. 

When breeding parti-color merles, defective homozygous merle puppies are often primarily white with small areas of color.  These dogs will often have a lot of white on the head.  (Even genetically solid homozygous merles may have predominantly white coats.)  Parti-colored merle puppies with colored coat surrounding the eyes, over the ears and with a lot of color on the body should be sound.  

Obviously, identifying defective merle puppies is not simple.  Of course, suddenly realizing that that cute 4-6 week old puppy you have raised is blind or deaf (or both) can be a heart-breaking revelation.  Making the decision to put down this otherwise healthy 4-6 week old puppy can be devastating if you will be unable to provide ongoing care for the dog.  Remember, if you are not willing to provide for this defective dog for its lifetime, you cannot foist it onto an unsuspecting buyer or expect a rescue or shelter to be responsible for your mistake.  Even giving a defective merle puppy away is not always a simple solution as you must always be prepared to take this dog back at any time in the future should the owners become unable or unwilling to care for the dog.  A lifetime commitment to your puppies is your responsibility as a breeder.  Before you decide to breed merle to merle, please think long and hard of the possible consequences of such a breeding. 

Another fact to keep in mind when considering doing a merle to merle breeding is that if you are unwilling to cull defective puppies or you cannot keep any defective puppies, those dogs that go out into other homes will be representatives of the Cocker Spaniel breed and of  YOUR breeding program and ethics!  This color is already under fire and facing severe prejudice within the breed community.  If merle breeders hope to make any headway in getting this color to be more widely accepted, we cannot afford for breeders to behave irresponsibly or to breed indiscriminately.   PLEASE, if you have any interest in merle Cockers and choose to engage in breeding the color, do not engage in breeding practices that will negatively affect the way merle dogs are perceived.  The best way to do this is to:

  • Avoid merle to merle breedings (eliminating the possibility of defective homozygous merle puppies).
  • Educate all puppy buyers regarding the risk in breeding merle to merle.
  • Above all, place your puppies responsibly!

Preventing Accidental Merle to Merle Breedings:

The first step in preventing accidental merle to merle breeding is to correctly identify the color of each of your breeding dogs.  To be sure that each dog's color is correctly identified, breeders should find out the colors of their breeding dogs' parents and littermates.   If you see a dog's parents and littermates, then you should be able to make a reasonable determination of whether or not there is a chance that the dog in question is or could be a merle.  Since merle cannot hide within the gene pool and merle puppies must have a merle parent, it's reasonably simple to calculate the chance of your dog being a merle by seeing the dog's parents and littermates.  If there are 6 pups in your dog's litter and none of them are merle, then you have a 98%+ probability that your dog is not a merle.  If you visually inspect this dog's parents and neither of them appears to be merle, then there is even less chance that your dog is carrying the merle gene.  If your dog is a merle, you should be able to identify this color pattern in one parent and in approximately 50% your dog's littermates. 

In the above paragraph it should be noted that I said "if you see" your dog's parents and littermates.  When I say you should identify the color of your dog's immediate relatives, this does not mean that you should simply ask the breeder what color your dog's relatives are.  Breeders may not know themselves what color every dog in a litter is, so insist on seeing the dogs parents and littermates in person or in clear photographs.  If you must settle for pictures, you would like to see pictures of each side of each dog and another picture showing each dog's head with the eye color plainly visible.  By seeing your dog's immediate relatives you will be able to make your own determination of your dog's color genetics and this will allow you some measure of confidence when it comes time to choose a mate for your dog. 

Unfortunately, being absolutely certain that your dog is not a merle may be more difficult than it sounds above.  This is because there are cryptic merles and sable merles and the merle pattern of these dogs may not be readily visible.   Luckily, there are a couple of other simple steps that breeders can take to further assure themselves that their dog is not a merle.   One of these steps is to thoroughly research your dog's pedigree.  The reason it's important to research your dog's pedigree is that as of this time, ALL of the merle pedigrees that have been researched have traced to one particular dog.  Therefore, if you were to trace your dog's pedigree and you found this dog in your dog's background, then you would know that there is a chance your dog could be a merle.  The dog that all breeders should be on the lookout for in their pedigrees is "Rusty Butch", a buff  male (AKC registration  #SC914708) whelped 10-20-1979.

Another option for determining if your dog is a merle is to do a test breeding.  As stated above, a merle dog will statistically produce 50% merle puppies in each litter.  Therefore, if you breed a dog that you think could be a merle to a dog that you are absolutely sure is NOT a merle, then you can "test" to see if the dog in question will produce merle puppies.  For your test breeding, be sure to avoid breeding to a sable since sable can mask (hide) the merle pattern and this would be counter-productive.  (It would be best to avoid breeding to a buff or red and white as well since sable and merle markings/patterns are difficult if not impossible to see on dogs with these colors.)  If you do a test breeding and you get merle puppies, then you will know that your dog is, in fact, a merle and must be bred with caution.  

Again, if you choose to breed merle Cockers, PLEASE breed and place your merle dogs responsibly!

If you have any questions or would like more information about our Cocker Spaniels,
please
E-MAIL ME.    Thanks,

Cindy

Copyright © Sandcastle Kennels 2004

Last revised: January 10, 2006