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Black Mask German Shepherds

When people think of German Shepherd Dogs, the first image that may come to mind is that of a guard dog from a POW camp in a World War II movie.

For others, it may be the legendary movie star Rin Tin Tin from the 1950s TV series, The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin. The dog will have pointed ears, a coloring of black and tan, and may have a black muzzle.

This black muzzle or black mask is a genetic trait in dogs that can vary in degree and is sometimes referred to as “masking.”

What is a black mask German Shepherd? A black mask German Shepherd dog is a dog that carries the genetic trait referred to as a melanistic mask that darkens the hairs on the muzzle and around the eyes. This gives the appearance of a mask in contrast to the color of the dog’s coat.

The Masking Phenotype and the EM Allele

Genetically, the melanistic mask phenotype is caused by the presence of a specific MCR-1 allele labeled M264V (source).

Also known as the EM allele, M264V is dominant over every other allele on the E-Locus receptor gene designated MCR-1. The MCR-1 gene has three possible alleles: E, EM, or e, and both E and EM produce the black pigment eumelanin.

EM produces black pigment on the hairs of the muzzle, ears, and most of the mask. These areas of black fur contrast with the German Shepherd’s typically lighter coat, thus forming a black mask. As a dominant allele, it only takes one parent to pass along the EM allele to produce this trait (source).

The German SV Standard of 1899 favored dogs with a black mask since pigmentation was seen as a positive trait. Coat colors for German Shepherds were listed as “black with reddish-brown, brown and yellow to light grey markings; single-colored black, grey with darker shading, black saddle, and mask” (source).

Like the EM allele, the E allele also produces black pigment. The E-Locus is only one among four genes (including A, B, and K loci) that determine the dog’s coat. Dogs with some combination of E and or e can produce great variation in coat pattern.

The Maskless Phenotype

In contrast to the masked variety of German Shepherd, there is a “maskless” German Shepherd. This happens when neither parent passes on the dominant EM allele to their offspring but, instead, they pass on either the E or e allele.

The inheritance of two of the more recessive e alleles on the MCR-1 receptor prevents the dog’s fur from being tinted black. The e allele is a mutation that produces only pheomelanin instead of eumelanin. Pheomelanin produces colors of more yellowish to reddish tint, depending on the breed (source).

Enthusiasts of the Rin Tin Tin TV show, if they studied the different dogs the studios used, will recognize that Rin Tin Tin II and IV were both maskless while the other dogs used were masked.

While the German SV Standard does not disqualify a dog without a mask, it does view the maskless trait and the lack of pigmentation as undesirable. Small white markings are acceptable, but larger markings are not.

This same preference for pigmentation is included in the breed standards composed by the American, UK, and Canadian Kennel Clubs, even though the mask is not mentioned.

Degrees of Masking

black shepherds masking

For German Shepherds of the masked variety, there is actually a spectrum of masking ranging from next to no mask at all to one that completely dominates the facial features.

The way that the mask is manifested is influenced by the type of coat, the coloring of the coat, and the genetic markings.

Reverse Masking

Another form of masking is known as the “reverse mask,” where the mask is brown or a lighter color instead of the black mask caused by the EM allele.

Currently, there is no genetic test for the German Shepherd breed to determine the pattern for the reverse mask (source).

However, genetic researchers have discovered the new E-Locus alleles Eg and Eh that are responsible for the reverse mask trait in the Afghan Hound and the English Cocker Spaniel respectively (source).

While the reverse mask is not as common a trait as it used to be in the ‘40s and ‘60s, it is one that is still bred upon request. While they do not have a black mask, they can have black markings on their brow and cheeks.

Solid Coats

White German Shepherds

The earliest German breeding standards viewed a lack of pigmentation as a genetic flaw. Breeders believed that the white gene seen in white German Shepherds would dilute the other coat colors and that the original colors would be lost entirely over several generations (source).

The coat of white German Shepherds makes these dogs excellent guardian dogs for sheep. The sheep identify closely with the white-coated dogs, which also makes them harder to spot by predators.

However, white German Shepherds do not make good herding dogs due to this close identification with the sheep. Dogs with a darker coat are more intimidating to the sheep which makes it easier for them to move the sheep around.

For these reasons, the white German Shepherd breed was discouraged in the 1920s and 1930s. By 1933, the German Shepherd Dog Club disqualified the breed.

In 1968, the American Kennel Club did the same for their conformation ring competition. In 1998, the Canadian Kennel Club officially removed the white coat from the breed standard (source).

We now know that, in the German Shepherd breed, the white coat is caused, at least in part, by the inheritance of two recessive e alleles at the E-Locus. While the alleles are recessive at the E-Locus, they mask the expression of other alleles involved with color at other loci. This masking created the illusion of color dilution.

Unfortunately, since the trait was discouraged for so long, the available gene pool is very limited. As a result, white German Shepherds are more prone to genetic disorder and disease than those with colored coats.

Black German Shepherds

Unlike white German Shepherds, black German Shepherds make excellent herding dogs while being less ideal as guard dogs.

They were also favored because their coloring would darken the colors of the more common coats. This broadened the gene pool and improved the health and traits of the breed over time.

The black coat was considered a breed standard, and none of the stigma associated with their white-coated cousins was ever attached to this group.

While the black German shepherd can carry the masking gene, their darker coat makes it undetectable without DNA testing (source).

Max von Stephanitz and the First German Shepherd

As the name implies, the German Shepherd originated from working dogs in Germany that herded and protected sheep from predators. Their intelligence, patience, strength, size, and speed made them ideal for this role.

Early breeders were less concerned with the dogs’ appearance so much as their utility. During the 1850s, the herding dogs throughout Germany were bred with the goal of maximizing the traits that were inherent with the class of working dogs: intelligence, stamina, strength, and obedience.

These breeding programs varied by region throughout Germany, producing a range of different results. The first attempts to standardize these breeds were made in the early 1890s.

Max von Stephanitz was a German cavalry officer who served for a time at the Veterinary College of Berlin. In 1899, he purchased his first dog, Hektor Linksrhein, at a show.

He subsequently founded the Verein für Deutsche Schäferhunde (SV), or German Shepherd Association, and registered his dog, which he renamed Horand von Grafrath, as the first dog of the German Shepherd breed. Horand was grey colored and very wolf-like in appearance (source).

Other owners joined the society, and Horand was carefully bred with dogs having desirable traits. Within two decades, the breed became one of the most numerous and sought after in the world, a trend that continues to this day.

The Five Main Types of German Shepherds

types of german shepherd

It was Max von Stephanitz who established the strict German SV Standard in 1899. Beginning with his work, five main types of German Shepherds would eventually emerge to meet the specific needs of breeders and trainers (source).

West German Lines

The West German lines adhere to the strict German SV Standard which encouraged dark-colored coats and masking. These dogs will also meet the temperament and intelligence criteria of the German standard, so they are trainable like their American cousins.

West German Working Line

The earliest of the German breeds was the West German Working Line. The dogs are usually smaller and have very little angulation or slope in their back.

In the early 1900s, German Shepherd breeders developed the Schutzhund competition to preserve the working traits of the dogs and determine which dogs were allowed to breed (source).

They are bred with a very high pain tolerance which makes them excellent police dogs. They are also bred to be aggressive with a higher “Prey” drive.

They do not stand down from a confrontation as readily on command and will chase after any fast-moving object or animal, which makes having them around children a concern.

The decision to choose a German Shepherd as a household pet should be carefully considered. These dogs were originally bred to work, and they will not take well to inactivity. They will require a great deal of training and attention (source).

West German Show Line

Breeding a dog for the West German Show Lines is governed by the Club for German Shepherds which has its own breed registry. To be on the list means the dog must have won herding competitions as well as the regular dog show.

The gene pool is extremely limited for this type of dog and can manifest itself with several health problems including hip dysplasia. If the dog exhibits any of these health problems, it is removed from the registry and is not eligible for any breeding programs. 

Post-WWII East German and Czech Working Lines

After World War II, with the division of East and West Berlin, two new German Working Lines were formed in isolation from the West. The Soviet Block territories of East Germany and Czechoslovakia bred German Shepherds to patrol their borders.

East German DDR Working Line

The basic structure of the German program formed the foundation of the East German program.  Its requirements, however, were even stricter than their West German counterparts.

The dogs were bred specifically as police dogs or for work in the military service. They have larger heads, broader shoulders, heavy bones, and straighter backs.

These dogs have fewer health problems than the West German line since no dog with health issues was permitted to breed. They are extremely strong, intelligent, and loyal to their owners.

Their temperament, intelligence, and drive to complete a task set them apart from the West German version of the working line.

Czech Working Lines

Like their cousins in East Germany after World War II, the Czech working line was bred to patrol and protect the border of communist Czechoslovakia. Their appearance is very similar to the other German Shepherd lines except that they tend to be slightly larger.

They also lack the coloring and hallmark markings that the other lines exhibit. Instead, their coats tend to be of a solid color like grey, brown, or black and look more like wolves than the other German Shepherd lines. Apart from this, their breeding standard is basically the same.

They are extremely agile, purpose-driven, and surpass the other lines in terms of protection and obedience.

American Show Line

The first German Shepherds brought to the United States during the early 1900s were meant to be petted and not working dogs.

Shepherding was less common in America than in Europe, and breeds like the German Shepherd and the Border Collie were slow to take root. Hunting breeds like the Labrador Retriever, the Beagle, and Mountain Curs, among others, were more common.

The first German Shepherd registered in the United States by the American Kennel Club was Queen of Switzerland, who was born in 1905. She was grey with a black saddle (source). These early breeds in the US suffered from health defects, and their popularity waned in the 1920s as a result.

Like their counterparts in the UK, the breeding program developed in the United States was much less rigorous than that of Germany.

Over time, they developed features differing from the original working German Shepherd. The rear angulation or the downward slope between their forequarters and hindquarters is pronounced. They are also taller and longer than their forbearers.

They come in similar colors but tend to be lighter than their European brethren. They excel at the competitions that occur in American and Canadian dog shows including tracking, agility, and negotiating obstacle courses.

They make wonderful pets and guardians for children, and they can also be trained as service dogs like Seeing Eye dogs or dogs for the deaf.

While there are exceptions, this variety is not considered as strong as the European types, so American Show dogs are not typically used in law enforcement or military service.

Learn more about German Shepherd in this video here:

Popularization of the German Shepherd in America

As a result of shows produced in Hollywood like Rin Tin Tin and Strongheart, the German Shepherd Dog became an extremely popular dog in the US. Both the original Rin Tin Tin and Strongheart came from the West German Working Line and bore the black-masked trait.

Rin Tin Tin was rescued from a WWI battlefield, and Strongheart worked as a police dog in Berlin before his owner sent him to a kennel in New York.

Rin Tin Tin began his movie debut in 1922 and would help improve the breed’s waning popularity over time. The German Shepherd’s popularity suffered another hit during World War II due to anti-German sentiment.

The trend would continue immediately after the war, but their popularity would revive due to the positive traits inherent in the breed. This popularity received an extra boost with the TV series The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, which aired from 1954 to 1959 with Rin Tin Tin IV.

Related Article: Blue Basset Hounds: The Complete Guide – Is it a fitting breed for you?

Final Thoughts

The black-masked German Shepherd has a long history since pigmentation was favored in the earliest breeding standards of Germany.

Geneticists now know that this specific trait is caused by the dominant M264V (EM) allele on the E-Locus. The maskless varieties inherit the more recessive alleles on the same locus, while the reverse mask for German Shepherds requires more research.

Thanks to continued genetic research, we now know more about this breed than Max von Stephanitz did when he composed his standards in 1899.

Some of the stigma associated with a lack of pigment in German Shepherds has been alleviated thanks to this research, though German breeding standards remain very strict.

Before adding one of these to your family, ask yourself if you are prepared to spend the required amount of time such a traditionally working dog will need to be happy and healthy.

They won’t be a pet you can keep cooped up in an apartment and simply forget while you are busy elsewhere. They are loyal, active companions that will demand to be part of your life.


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