Not every German shepherd has the very stereotypical tan with a black saddle coloration. In fact, depending on the specific type of German shepherd that you find, their coat, colors, and coloration pattern will vary significantly.
Two pure bred German shepherds with excellent lineage can have wildly different colors, ranging from completely white, to entirely black and every combination of colors in between. The founder of the German shepherd breed, Max von Stephanitz, once said, “No good dog can be a bad color.”
While some breed purists today might disagree, there are German shepherd dogs of every color and pattern that have the right temperament, personality, and body style. In general, it is best to look for a dog with the right temperament first.
If you can then find a dog with the right colors (or your favorite German shepherd coat color), this is usually better than purchasing a puppy just because he has the “right” coloration. Here is a general overview of the most common German shepherd coat colors, which types of GSDs are likely to have these colors, and the different types of coats these dogs can have:
Black and Tan German Shepherd Hair Colors
When most people think of a German shepherd, these are the colors they think of. The most famous German shepherds, including Rin Tin Tin and most GSDs that work in Hollywood, as well as most dogs that are shown at competitive dog shows, have this coloration pattern.
These dogs usually have tan or cream legs, underbelly, and necks, with a black “saddle” on their backs that often stretches up the neck and down the tail. Many of these dogs will also have a prominent black “mask” on the face.
Both the American show lines and the Canadian show lines prefer these colors in their show dogs. You will see many breeders talking about what colors and patterns are acceptable. Some dogs will have some “silver” (very light cream) on their stomachs, which some breeders find acceptable and others find unacceptable.
Black and Red German Shepherd Hair Colors
German shepherds in the West German show line often have this coloration. They will generally have the same pattern as the black and tan dogs, but their color is more of a red or sometimes even a strawberry blonde. Dogs bred in Germany for shows will most typically have these colors.
In some instances, instead of black and red, dogs of this line will be black and silver, meaning that all of their fur that is not black will be such a light shade of cream that it almost appears silver. While these dogs are by no means rare, they are not as commonly shown as dogs with the black and red coloration.
Bicolor German Shepherds
Despite the name “bicolor,” these dogs are actually one solid color: black. The head, legs, back, and tail should all be completely black. Sometimes, they have brown on their feet, but in order to be considered a bicolor German shepherd, they must be black on their heels.
You may hear these dogs called “tarheel” due to their black heels. They may also have some dark brown on their faces and around their ears, instead of being entirely jet black, but they definitely do not have as prominent brown or tan features as dogs that are classified as “black and tan” or “black and red.”
Blue or Liver German Shepherd Hair Colors
These are dogs that are rarely seen at dog shows, as these colors signify diluted genes. While they are still considered pure bred German shepherds, coat colors indicate that in their line, the “proper” black has begun to be bred out of their genes. This may be because of mixing with another breed somewhere in their ancestry, or because of breeding with dogs that did not have predominantly black coloration in their genes.
Blue is only a slight dilution of the color, and depending on how dark the blue color is, these dogs might still be shown, though very light blue is often considered to be undesirable by breeders.
Dogs that are liver and tan will have the appropriate saddle and mask markings, but instead of black, they have a rich brown color. However, in some dogs, the “liver” color may be so diluted that it is not much darker than the tan or cream, creating a unique-looking German shepherd.
Sable and Gray German Shepherd Hair Colors
Sable German shepherds are more common in working lines than in show lines, as these dogs generally do not have the “acceptable” coloration pattern. Instead, sable dogs have banded fur, meaning that the fur itself is many different colors, creating a uniform, all-over mixture of silver, brown, black, and sometimes even red. It often looks like these coats have one color underneath black.
The coats of these dogs change a lot over the first two years of their lives, so it can be difficult to see what a sable dog will look like as an adult when he is a puppy. Sable comes in many different varieties, with black over cream being the most common, but liver over cream, black over red, and silver over cream all possible.
Gray German shepherd dogs are a type of sable, but their fur has a much more wolf-like color, so much so that this color is often called “wolf gray.” These dogs may have black over silver or gray over silver.
White and Black German Shepherds
German shepherds can be entirely white or completely black. Unlike albino dogs, the white variety is simply a manifestation of recessive genes, like blonde hair in humans. These dogs are not permitted to participate in most kennel club dogs shows, they can participate in obedience and agility competitions.
Black German shepherds are also a result of a recessive gene that any other dog can carry. They will sometimes have white patterns on their chests, and unlike some black and tan dogs that start out predominantly black and take on a more typical appearance as they age, these dogs remain black throughout their lives.
German Shepherd Coat Types
The German shepherd double coat, medium length, is considered to be the most desirable amongst breeders breeding dogs for shows. They may be fairly wiry, depending on the dog. A shorter coat is often sometimes shown. Both of these coats should be “plush,” meaning that there is a fluffy coat beneath the outer coat that gives the fur some volume.
While longer fur is not preferred for the show ring, the long, curly coat is preferred by owners because it makes their dogs soft to the touch and the longer fur, especially around the neck, gives the dog a lion-like appearance, especially if he is predominantly tan or liver colored.