Color Genes

An Array of Colors and Patterns


 Color genetics are one of my favorite topics to discuss and with the Shih Tzu, the skies the limit when it comes to color variations. I have put together some visual aids to help you better understand each of these variations. I will try to explain this as simplistic as possible. Although there is so much research on coat, color and pattern genetics, I will only be addressing what is seen in the Shih Tzu. This is a work in process as there are so many differences, so please bare with me but for now here is what I have.











AKC Breed Standard for Color and Markings


This is the list of colors and markings that AKC has for us to register our beloved breed under. S is for standard colors/markings and A is for alternate colors/markings. The code to the far right is what we would use on our registration paperwork. Although the Shih Tzu coat tends to change it's color as the puppy matures, it's the puppies coat color we use when we are registering our dogs.

Black & WhiteS019
Blue & WhiteS045
Brindle & WhiteS059
Gold & WhiteS092
Liver & WhiteS125
Red & WhiteS146
Silver & WhiteS182
Black Gold & SilverA235
Black Gold & WhiteA310
Black White & SilverA033
Silver Gold & WhiteA188
Black MarkingsS002
Black MaskS004
Tan MarkingsS012
White MarkingsA




Basic Colors

Now the fun part. Lets talk about the basic colors we see in the Shih Tzu.  



BLACKS ~ Can have chocolate or blue hues in their coat but the skin pigmentation is black. Black is a dominant color.




Solid Black 

~ With and without White Markings ~ 






REDS ~ Shades of red vary from light strawberry blonde to a dark mahogany. Red is a dominant color.



Solid Red 


~With and without Black Mask~ 







BRINDLES ~ Brindle comes in an array of colors from silver to dark mahogany. 



Solid Brindle~Brindle/Whites 


~ Skin pigmentation will look similar to the example above when the Shih Tzu has been shaved. Brindle is a dominant gene. Brindle truly is not a color but a marking and needs to be changed in the ASTC and AKC to reflect such a marking. Brindles can be found in every color of Shih Tzu. Gold brindles, red brindles, blue brindles, silver brindles, liver brindles and yes... black brindles too. ~ 






GOLDS ~ Shades of Gold vary from a light cream to a deep blonde. 



 Solid Gold


~With and without Black Mask~ 


 Gold is a dilute of red. Gold is recessive ~ 






Specialty Colors

These colors are fun to work with, as you don't see them as often as you do the others. Many breeders today are specialized in these lovely colors. Although they are not considered common colors that we see in the Shih Tzu breed, they are also not "RARE" colors as some breeders would have you to believe. Please note that AKC deems ALL COLORS of the Shih Tzu equally under the breed standard.



SILVERS ~ Silver must have black pigmentation 


Solid Silver ~ Silver/White 

 ~Silver is a dominant gene. It only takes one copy to pass to the offspring. Many Shih Tzu's are born one color and change over to silver as they age. Solid blacks have the most dramatic change before they reach age 1. The G series is the same gene series responsible for age related graying.~






DOBIES ~ Colors range from Black w/Tan markings, Blue w/Tan markings and Liver w/Tan markings. 

 "Dobie" Marked


~ Dobie markings (Tan Points) are a recessive gene from the Agouti series (at). Both parents must carry the gene in order to produce "Dobie Marked" offspring. ~






WHITES ~ A True White must have Black pigmentation 




~White or Isabella (cream) white colored Shih Tzu are Extreme Piebalds. The piebald is a recessive gene. Both parents must carry the gene in order to produce solid white colored offspring. ~






Black, Gold and Silver ~ GRIZZLE





~ Grizzle, also known as Agouti in some animals is an ancient color in the Shih Tzu. Not to be confused with Brindle, as Grizzle does not have the common stripes we see in Brindle's when shaved down. When researching pedigrees, you will find this amazing color way back in generations of the pedigree. This is a beautiful color and seems to be slowly returning to our breed. Grizzle is a dominant gene ~




Liver & Blue Genes


In addition to affecting coat colors, genes also control pigmentation of the total body including the eyes and skin as well as coat color. (The skin color includes the color of the nose, eye rims, lips and skin epidermis.) There are two dilution genes that completely inhibit the formation of black pigment anywhere in the body: coat, eyes, and skin: 


PLEASE NOTE: In the Shih Tzu it is the color of the skin pigmentation of the nose, eye rims, lips and paw pads that determine the color of a Liver or Blue Shih Tzu and not the coat color alone as the coat color can be any color under the rainbow but a True Blue or Liver WILL NOT have black hairs anywhere on them


  1. The B locus (liver pigment) is where the dominant partner of the pair allows the development of black pigment. The simple recessive of the pair inhibits black pigments anywhere in the body and allows only liver pigment color phase. The expression of the double recessive liver pigment explains all the ‘chocolate’ or browns we find in the Shih Tzu. (see exmple below)


LIVERS ~ Liver comes in an array of colors from a white to a dark chocolate.


Solid Liver ~ Liver/White 


~Liver will not have any black hairs or pigmentation. All liver colored Shih Tzu’s must have a chocolate nose, eye rims, lips and paw pads. Eye color will be green or copper. Liver is a recessive gene. Both parents must carry the gene in order to produce Liver colored offspring. ~





The D locus (the Maltese blue dilution) is where the dominant gene allows the development of black pigment and the recessive partner allows only the blue color phase to appear. (see example below)



BLUES ~ Blue comes in an array of colors from white to a dark charcoal. 


Sold Blue ~ Blue/White 


~ Blue or also known as a Maltese Dilute is a dilute of black and will not have any black hairs or pigmentation. Some hair may look black but it will actually be a very dark gunmetal color. All blue colored Shih Tzu’s must have a blue/gunmetal color nose, lips, eye rims and paw pads. Eye color will be grey blue or light golden hazel. Blue is a recessive gene. Both parents must carry the gene in order to produce Blue colored offspring. ~ 











 Common terms you will hear from a breeder when they are describing the markings on a Shih Tzu


Blaze ~ a white stripe running up the center of the face, usually between the eyes 

Flare ~ a blaze that widens as it approaches the topskull.

Mask ~ dark shading on the foreface, including the muzzle up to the eye brows 

Eye Stripes ~ dark shading from the corner of the eyes that resemble an eyebrow. 

Collar/shawl ~ the marking around the neck. Usually white 

Saddle ~ A large  patch of color over the back., where a blanket or saddle would go. Not to be mistaken for the Tuxedo marked

Tuxedo ~ A "self" colored dog with a white patch on the chest (shirt front) and chin, and some white on the feet/toes/ The darker color extends down the legs to resemble the Tuxedo jacket.

Ticking ~ tiny spots that appear on the white marking of the body as the dog matures. This resembles the spots on a Dalmatian Dog 



To make things even more complicated, there are also four alleles; that is, genes in a series that occupy the same spot on a chromosome and influence the same color, adding some amount or pattern of white spotting. These four alleles include


  1. Self color which is the total or near total absence of white in the coat. Usually present are white feet or toes and a white chest spot. Known as the "Tuxedo" pattern in Shih Tzu. These white spots are are formed because melanocytes migrate down from the spinal column during embryo genesis, not all animals complete this process by birth or thereafter. In dogs, it is therefore not uncommon to see white toes on an otherwise black or red dog. This is probably more a random event than the result of a specific allele. Another common "white spot" on dogs occurs on the chest. This must again be a site where melanocytoe migration occurs very late in fetal development and a cold or other developmental delay prevents the completion of melanocyte migration. It may be that the rate of melanocyte migration is itself inherited. The ‘self’ dog can carry the other three patterns.


               Self or Solid Colored                Tuxedo Marked


  2. Irish-spotted is the pattern of white that is as ‘self with white trim’: white blaze, white collar/shawl, white chest and brisket, white feet and tail tip. It leaves the Shih Tzu with the appearance of a full saddle on the back and a face mask across the eyes. This pattern is highly prized in the show ring. The Irish-spotted dog can carry the last two patterns. 


         White Blaze           Saddle, Shawl and white tail tip


    Spotted or piebald. we call this pattern a Parti-color. It is a pattern of color patches interspersed on a white background. This pattern can carry the extreme white spotting or be 'white factored’.

  3. Extreme white spotting is the most recessive of the series. The dog may be all white or have patches in specific areas such as the ears and tail. This spotting pattern is ‘pure’ in that it only occurs when there is a double recessive.


  4. The Piebald (s ~ spotting gene) is responsible for the sky blue eyed Shih Tzu's that we see in this breed.



There are also three alleles in the Extension series which influence the distribution of black (or black’s dilutions of blue or liver) pigment over those areas of tan in the Shih Tzu. The expression of these alleles gives us 


  1. Black masks, eye stripes and dark ear tips ~ This dominant gene controls the expression of a black mask and eye stripes. The Black Mask gene has nothing to do with color. It can be found on Blue and Liver dogs as well and should be registered as such.



        Black Mask and Ear Tips               Eye Stripes


  2. Grizzle or Agouti ~ black hairs mixed throughout the coat color This gene is also responsible for Banding as the coat grows or the Black Tipping seen on puppies rather then adults because once the coat has been cut off it never returns. Black Tipping is when all of the colored hairs (not the white) have black tips. This is the normal effect of the agouti (wolf color) gene. This is very dramatic and attractive. Dark tips on the ears are not black tipping - that color goes to the roots. The dog will always have eye stripes and dark ear tips, even after cutting. Black tipping is on body hair, and once you cut it, it is gone for good.

    "Notice the banding of multiple shades of gold at the base of the coat along with the spine and the black tipping that is growing out on the side of the coat. This is caused by the Agouti gene. The same gene that causes the "wild" color in the Grizzle." 

  3. Another example of the banding gene in action. From birth to a year old Cash has gone through several coat changes in color.

  4. Brindle ~ It is sometimes described as "tiger striped", although the brindle pattern is more subtle than that of a tiger's coat. The streaks of color are irregular and usually darker than the base color of the coat,although very dark markings can be seen on a coat that is only slightly lighter.



     Chinchilla gene series also known as the Fading gene, consists of three alleles that affect the intensity of red pigment in the coat and the intensity of the liver and blue pigments in another important series.

    1. The most dominant allele in the Chinchilla series allows the full intensity of red.

    2. The second allele governs the medium range of intensity of red (or liver or blue).

    3. The third allele allows for extreme dilution resulting in extremely pale red coat color,  diluted to near white.  The creamy gold or champagne color Shih Tzu is relatively common suggesting that this allele is expressed in our breed

      Zhu Mei is a great example of the Chinchilla gene. She was born a vibrant red/white with a perfect face mask. As you can see from this example, her mask has faded off to a beautiful light creamy white. The older she gets the lighter she will become. Once her coat is shaved down you will no longer see her lovely red color of her birth. This is the reason why we use the puppy birth color to register our Shih Tzu breed.

    The last but not least of the genes affecting color are the mutated gene pairs including

    1. Graying ~ This is a dominant mutant gene that causes the dog to gray with age - pigmented hairs are progressively replaced with unpigmented hairs.

      As you can see by the example above, Autumn's red color of her puppyhood has slowly changed over to a lovely gray as she has aged. Now at age 7 there is no sign of the red she once adorned.


    Luke is an example of the G series effecting the outcome of a born black pup to silver. Luke's silver coloring resembles that of the Kerry Blue Terrier. Look how dramatic of a change his coat went through his first year of life. Black to Silver. 

    1. Ticking ~ This dominant mutation causes the presence of color in those areas that have been made white by the effect of alleles in the white spotting series. This pattern resembles the spotting on the Dalmatian Dog. These dogs are born without these tiny spots and they appear as the puppy matures. I see this more in black/white, liver/whites and red/whites, although it can happen to any color. 





Coat Texture and Length

 Now we are going to talk a little about coat length and textures along with a strange "Phenomenon"  called a "Prapso" that happens from time to time. Most breeders either have not experienced it or have experienced it but don't wish to discuss it because it is a "fault" within the Shih Tzu breed standard. Even the breeder club has ignored it existence but we are going to discuss it at length because it deserves mentioning. If not to help explain a bit to those bewildered puppy parents that don't understand why their precious full blooded Shih Tzu's hair will not grow.




Cotton ~ a cotton coat is seen in the show ring more then any other. The cotton texture of the coat gives the Shih Tzu the soft, full, fluffy look we have come to love within our breed. Cotton coats require a ton of daily maintenance, as they can tangle and knot easier then the other two textures. 


Silkie ~ a silkie coat is beautiful, soft and sleek. It still has the fullness of the cotton coat but the maintenance is so much less. Tangles seem to fall out. Brushing a few times a week will keep a silkie coat in great condition.


Course ~ This is the easiest to care for of the three coat textures. They don't seem to shed as much as the course hair keeps it trapped in the coat until brushed. Tangles and knots are almost non existent. There are drawbacks though. A course coat does not look full and may also look a bit ragged looking in comparison to the other two textures.


LENGTH: Long, Mid length and Prapso

There are 3 lengths in the coat of the Shih Tzu breed that most breeders do not discuss because two of those lengths are considered faults within our breed. Shih Tzu should have a Long coat that grows to the ground. Beautiful and flowing. The picture perfect show coat. Sadly though that is not always the case. Many times you will find "pet quality" Shih Tzu that have a coat that only grows to a mid length. These coats tend to have the courser textures. Although this is a great coat for a pet owner that wants the beauty of the Shih Tzu coat without the maintenance that goes with it, it is a fault. A mid length coat can be beautiful as long as it is kept trimmed to keep it from looking ragged. Major grooming on these coats are only needed a couple of times a year rather then every 6 to 8 weeks required on the cotton or silkie long coats.



The history of our breed shows that there were many breeds involved in their development. The intermixing of the Tibetan Spaniel with the Tibetan breeds Lhasa Apso and Shih Tzu resulted in both the latter breeds birthing the occasional "Prapso"

This is a breeders nightmare but a pet owners dream. This strange phenomenon causes the hair on the Shih Tzu to stop growing. You can tell by the time the puppy reaches 4 to 6 weeks of age that there is a difference in appearance from a normal Shih Tzu puppy. 

I would have never believed it if I hadn't experienced it for myself. I was horrified at what I had produced in my breeding program with these two beautiful AKC Shih Tzu parents that had never produced this with any other pairing but for some strange reason it occurred with this breeding. Although I am not completely sure why it happened, my guess would be that the pairing of these two dogs caused a double recessive gene to pop up in this breeding. (note to other breeders: Do not repeat the breeding of the two dogs that pulled Prapso pups. This is a fault and the Prapso pups should be sold on a LIMITED Registration, spayed/neutered, as they should not be bred).

A Prapso puppy won't only look different from the typical Shih Tzu but it is said to also be more intelligent, as it develops faster then it's Non Prapso litter mates. They are also more dominate in their personalities. 

These lovely pups are a throw back to the Tibetan Spaniel. Giving the look of a Pekineses in the face and muzzle as a young pup but as the pup matures you can really see the Tibetan Spaniel in them. They do not require the grooming of their Non Prapso litter mates, which makes this a pet owners dream. They get the loving personality of the Shih Tzu without all the maintenance that is required. 

There are breeders that specialize and breed these Prapso's on purpose. If that is what you are looking for, just look up the Non grooming Shih Tzu.


 Here is an example of what a Puerbred "Prapso" Shih Tzu looks like as a puppy and an adult. Notice the lack of muzzle hair.




In Conclusion

The more dominant genes carry or hide the recessive genes; therefore, it is a challenge to wrap your mind around planning the breeding for a specific color. However, if you think about the information, considering which genes are expressed as recessive or dominant genes, you can start to understand the ‘rules-of-thumb’ handed down from the old time breeders. “You don’t breed livers to livers” (double recessives). “Don’t breed parti-colors together because you may lose color” (increases chances to express ‘extreme white spotting’  that is the only other gene carried by the parti-color). ‘To maintain color, breed dark to dark” (allows for the expression of the Dominant black genes). In other words if you have a color you want to "lock in" breed that color back to the darkest shade of the color you are trying to produce or back to a black or black/white. This will help to bring out the vibrancy of a color and keep it from fading out.



If you are looking for more in depth research into color genetics please read: Genetics of Coat Color and Type in Dogs or Dog Coat Colour Genetics