Breeding for Color

When talking about breeding, on a regular basis you will hear people say "breeding is a balancing act".  What this means is that there are MANY different traits to take into consideration when breeding.  Structure, temperament, genetic working qualities, cosmetics, health, etc.  And each of these categories have many smaller individual traits.  Cosmetics can include the size and shape of the ears, the length, thickness and color of the coat, the size, shape and color of the eyes, the pattern of any markings, etc.  Structure includes angulation, shoulder placement, length of legs, back, neck, etc.  Style of foot, ie cats foot, hares foot, etc.  Even the webbing between the toes. Working qualities depends on your breed, but it may be how much prey, hunt, food and toy drive the dog has.  For a herding breed it may be how much "eye" it has, innate balance on stock, whether it tends to head or heel, fetch or drive, etc.  For a hunting breed it may be how well it uses its nose, the style of its point, how well it retrieves, swims, etc.  For a working Malinois not only are there the herding considerations, if the breeder is taking herding ability into account, but for the police/protection side of things there is prey, hunt, food and toy drives.  Style of biting/grip.  How well the dog uses its nose for tracking or detection.   There are also traits that fall more in the temperament or structure categories such as levels of aggression, social ability,  jumping ability, etc.

Each time a breeder plans a litter, they are going to have to select certain traits to make their primary focus, and decide what traits are of less importance.   Each breeding may be slightly different due to the breeder trying to bring back in one generation traits that were sidelined in previous generations.  But trying to focus on every single trait, in every single generation, tends to produce “jack of all trades, master of none” type dogs.  Versus dogs that excel in the area(s) their breeder focuses on.  This is not neccessarily a bad thing.  If breeder A's primary focus in their breeding program is gripping quality (how well the dog bites in protection work), prey drive, structure and temperament then they may find over time they are loosing hunt drive.  But if breeder B's focus has been on hunt drive, structure and temperament, because they produce more dogs for SAR and detection work, then that gives breeder A somewhere to go to bring that back into their program.  And B might use A's dogs to improve the gripping quality in their own program.  And breeder C, who is focusing more on conformation and performance dogs, might look for a nicely structured, well balanced dog from A or B's program to improve the working qualities in their own program.  And on it goes.  

This decision making process can be seen in many breeds, when comparing the “conformation dogs” and the “working dogs”.  And let me just add as a side note, I know that there are dogs bred with a focus more towards conformation that can work, and working bred dogs that can be shown successfully in conformation.  How deep that divide is really depends on the breed.  But I think few people will argue that there are definitely some visual differences between these two groups of dogs in most breeds, not to mention differences in how well they work. 

What About Color?

In recent years the Malinois has seen a HUGE rise in popularity.  It has become the fad protection dog, something that has happened to many other breeds over the years, such as the Dobermann, Rottweiler, GSD, etc. much to the detriment of each of these breeds.  And like many of these status symbol protection dogs, a lot of it is about owning a dog that looks “cool” on the outside, with less focus on the “inside”.  IE structure, temperament, drive, working abilities, etc.  While dark Malinois have always existed in the breed, they were uncommon with the vast majority of Malinois being a fawn to red color, with black mask and ears, and medium to no overlay.  A dog like Tom van't Muizenbos, born in 1990 and pictured at the top, was the norm, although per the standard he should have a little more overlay.  Dogs like "Flip", born in 2005, owned by Dantero Kennels and pictured below, were considered to be "dark dogs" at that time. This variation is the standard, and while most working breeders consider color a finishing point, most of the dogs fell within that standard.  If they were out of standard, it was more commonly because of excess white than any other reason.  And most of the dark dogs, like Flip, were dark because of heavy overlay, the hairs in the main part of the body.  The genes for the black legs that are popular now were even less common than the heavy overlay.  For more historical photos check out http://www.camidecatheric.org/GENEALOGIE.htm

Below are the AKC and FCI standards for coat and color in the Malinois.  The FCI one includes information for the other varieties, which I removed to focus on the Malinois variety.

AKC

The basic coloring is a rich fawn to mahogany, with black tips on the hairs giving an overlay appearance. The mask and ears are black. The underparts of the body, tail and breeches are lighter fawn, but washed-out fawn color on the body is a fault. Color should be considered a finishing point, not to take precedence over structure or temperament. The tips of the toes may be white, and a small white spot on the breastbone/prosternum is permitted, not to extend to the neck. White markings, except as noted, are faulted.

FCI

Mask: For Tervueren and Malinois the mask must be very pronounced and tend to encompass the top and bottom lip, the corners of the lips and the eyelids in one single black zone. A strict minimum of six points of skin pigmentation is called for: the two ears, the two upper eyelids and the two lips, upper and two lower, which must be black.

Black overlay: In Tervueren and Malinois, the black overlay means that the hairs have a black tip which shades the base colour. This blackening is in any case “flamed” and must not be present in great patches nor in real stripes (brindled). In the Laekenois the black shading is more discreetly expressed.

Malinois: Only fawn with black overlay and with black mask.

For all varieties: a small amount of white is tolerated on forechest and toes.

Unfortunately, excessively dark color has now become a common fad in the breed.  People looking for dogs with solid black legs, chest, head etc.  With a mix of black and fawn on the body, or in some cases black and silver.  And there are plenty of people out there willing to breed to meet those demands, and market their dog as working dogs in the process.  But remember what we discussed before?  Breeding is a balancing act, and some criteria will be given up when pursuing other criteria.  If a breeders primary focus is on color, then they are not focusing on what actually makes a working dog a working dog, such as structure, drives, temperament, etc.  And considering how far out of standard these dogs are, we know the focus isn't on conformation.  Even if it working ability is being taken into consideration, it's not a primary focus so ability will be hit or miss.  Can some of these dogs work?  I'm sure there are some that can, although the ones I've seen were at most capable of entry level work.  And this will continue to get worse, as the selection criteria for these breeding’s continues to be the color the parents can produce, and they get further and further away from actual working dogs.  Will the dogs loose all working ability?  Generally no.  Just like BC's bred for many generations of agility and obedience can still herd, to a point.  Or Labradors breed for generations as pets still retrieve.  But will the dogs excel?  Probably not.  People who buy the dogs thinking they are going to get an excellent worker who is also in a physical package they find attractive, will end up disappointed.  And people who buy the dog because they are attracted to the physical package but don’t care about working ability, will get a dog that also has just enough working characteristics, or even worse an imbalance in working characteristics such as all the energy, but none of the drive and focus, and will also be disappointed.  And more of these dogs will end up in shelters and rescue.  Cruise through the online listings of dogs in shelters and rescues, you may be surprised how many of them look like that pup you are considering paying $2500 for, because of it's color.

If your goal in purchasing a Malinois is to purchase one of the best working dogs out there, then look for a breeder who is focusing on working traits.  If there are multiple pups in the litter who meet all your criteria for a future working dog, then sure, take cosmetic things such as coat color, markings, etc into account when making your final selection.  We all want to own dogs we find attractive.  But if your primary criteria is cosmetics, then is a working dog really your goal? 

I mean heck, if you are going to breed for color, take on a real challenge 🙂

2 thoughts on “Breeding for Color

  1. Lena

    Great article. Loved the final pics 🤣 Have seen a lot of these black ones online (Never at any of the breeders in Belgium, France and Scandinavia that we visited.) As a vet I am a great fan of the mallinois because they are so healthy, athletic and strong. As a dog owner I adore it's mental and physical abilities. I would hate to see the breed spoil over popularity, and I certainly agree that any time you breed on a fenotype instead of genotype you are off in a unhealthy direction. Thanks for your sound input

  2. Joseph Morris

    As a veterinarian who raises Mali's ( and donates pups from every litter to law enforcement agencies ), their "popularity" scares me.  They definitely are NOT a breed for everyone.  And I don't want to  see them ruined because of breeding for color.  We get a few "dark" ones in most litters, but they are nothing like the blacks shown.  If you want a blackish dog, get a Dutch Shepherd.  Or, get a Belgian Sheepdog ( long black fur ).  Both are great dogs ( used to show our Belgian Sheepdogs ).    I don't want Mali's ruined.

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