Labrador Retrievers are America’s most popular breed according to the American Kennel Club. They are a loyal breed, hardworking, friendly, and smart. They come in three recognized colors: black, chocolate, and yellow. Being so popular, I’m sure you’ve seen all of these colors at the dog park or around your neighborhood. But have you ever seen a different color? In addition to the recognized pigments, there are also silver, charcoal, and champagne Labradors, though there is some controversy over whether or not they are “real” Labs or not. Let’s see if we can comb through the available information and discover the history of these rarer colors.
The first question to ask is what determines a Labrador’s color? If you’re familiar with the breed, then you know that there can be multiple colors in one litter. This is possible because each puppy receives two versions of every gene, one from its mother, and one from its father. They can be the same or they can be different. These are called alleles and the combination of those alleles, whether they are the same or different, will determine the puppy’s color. There are two places on a Labrador’s chromosomes that determine color. The name for these places are loci (singular, locus), specifically the B locus and the E locus.
At the B locus, there will be two alleles: one from the mother and one from the father. Each one can either be B or b (so the possible combinations are BB, Bb, and bb). The B allele codes for a black color and is dominant over the b allele. This means that if a B allele is present (BB or Bb), the dog will be black. If there is no B allele present (ie the alleles are bb), then the dog will be chocolate or liver.
The E locus is where it is determined if the Labrador will be yellow and it trumps the B locus. Yellow Labs occur when two recessive alleles are present (ie the alleles are ee). So regardless of the B locus, if the Lab has two recessive alleles at the E locus (ee), then s/he will be yellow. However, if a dominant allele is present (EE or Ee), then the Labrador will not be yellow and the coloring will default to the B locus and will be black or chocolate.
Here are the possible combinations for each of these different colors of Lab.
Black: BBEE, BBEe, BbEE, BbEe
Chocolate: bbEE, bbEe
Yellow: BBee, Bbee, bbee
So what about the other colors? When researching Labs, you can also find charcoal, silver, and champagne. These rarer colors are result of the dilution gene.
The dilution gene is at the D locus. There are dominant D alleles and recessive d alleles. If a Labrador of any main color (black, chocolate, yellow) has at least one dominant D allele (DD or Dd), then their color will be “normal” (ie black will be black, chocolate will be chocolate, yellow will be yellow). However, if two recessive d alleles are present (dd), then the color will be diluted. Black will be diluted to charcoal; chocolate will be diluted to silver; and yellow will be diluted to champagne.
Here are the possible combinations of all three loci for each of the colors of Lab.
Black: BBEEDD, BBEEDd, BBEeDD, BBEeDd, BbEEDD, BbEEDd, BbEeDD, BbEeDd
Charcoal: BBEEdd, BBEedd, BbEEdd, BbEedd
Chocolate: bbEEDD, bbEEDd, bbEeDD, bbEeDd
Silver: bbEEdd, bbEedd
Yellow: BBeeDD, BbeeDd, bbeeDD, BBeeDd, BbeeDD, bbeeDd
Champagne: BBeedd, Bbeedd, bbeedd
Controversy exists around the rarer colors of Labradors and it seems to be very polarized. Using a simple Google search, I have found people who are firm believers that Silver Labs (and other rare colors) are as legitimately purebred as their more mainstream counterparts and I have also found many people who believe that Silver Labs can only be the result of contamination of the breed (crossbreeding with another breed). I had some questions so I thoroughly researched the subject and found some answers. I still have more to learn, but this is a start.
Silver Labs first popped up around the 1940s/1950s (or so I could find). Kellogg’s Kennel advertised them in a gun dog magazine in the 1950s. Silver Labradors can be traced to two breeders: Dean Crist (Culo) and Beaver Creek Labradors. Both of these breeders trace their lines back to Kellogg.
As a breed, the Labrador Retriever has been around since the 1880s when the 3rd Earl of Malmesbury, the 6th Duke of Buccleuch, and the 12th Earl of Home worked together to develop and establish the breed. Black was the only acceptable color until yellow and chocolate became established in the early 1900s. Yellow was first, and then chocolate a few decades later (1930s). Even though Yellow and Chocolate Labs were deemed unacceptable and often culled at birth, there are multiple records of them being born. On the other hand, there are no records of Silver Labs before the 1930s (that I could find). They seemed to just appear out of nowhere.
This is where the controversy comes in so I want to preface this by saying that I am not an expert and I am only reporting on information that I could find.
As I said before, Silver Labradors can be traced back to two breeders: Dean Crist (Culo) and Beaver Creek Labradors. And both of them trace their lines back to Kellogg Kennels, which was started by Mayo Kellogg in 1899. I have found articles demonizing Kellogg and praising him as a pioneer. I won’t pretend to know the truth, but I will share with you some things that I think both sides can agree on: Kellogg was the first (that I could find) to advertise the rare “grey” Labrador; he also is famous for his “pointing” Labs. His story is that he saw the tendency to point in some of his Labs, thought it was a desirable trait, and then bred his dogs to pinpoint that trait. His critics suspect he would crossbreed to obtain the trait; his fans say he was truthfully breeding selectively. The same arguments can be made for the appearance of Silver Labs in his lines: selective breeding or crossbreeding. It’s also interesting to note that Weimaraners are Hunt Point Retrievers so crossbreeding a Labrador with a Weimaraner could theoretically cause both the pointing behavior and the color dilution.
There are three scenarios that make sense to me in determining what caused the appearance of Silver Labs: the recessive d allele was present in some Labradors the whole time and it just recently started presenting; crossbreeding (most likely with Weimaraners); or a spontaneous mutation.
The first scenario, where we assume the recessive d allele was present in some Labradors the whole time, is less likely than the other two, in my opinion. If the d allele was always present, there would have been some record of a Silver Lab, even if the puppies were culled at birth. There also would be Silver Labs that are not descended from Dean Crist (Culo) and Beaver Creek Labradors, but there are not. If the recessive dilution allele has always been in Labrador Retrievers, then why are there no records of Silver Labs before the 1930s? And why are there no Silver Labs now that are not descended from those two breeders, Dean Crist (Culo) and Beaver Creek Labradors? It just doesn’t add up.
In the second scenario, the addition of another breed’s DNA could introduce the recessive d allele resulting in the dilution of color once a puppy with two recessive d alleles (dd) was born. The common theory here is that Weimaraners were bred with Labradors. This makes since as Weimaraners already look fairly similar to Labs AND Weimaraners are known to carry two recessive d alleles. From what I’ve read, this theory makes the most sense to me. At some point, Weimaraners were bred with Labradors and the resulting dogs were bred together to make Silver Labs. But remember, there is no concrete proof.
In the third scenario, a spontaneous mutation of the dilution gene could occur introducing the recessive d allele. If this happens in two dogs and they are bred together, they could potentially have a puppy with two recessive d alleles resulting in a Silver Lab. This makes more sense than the first scenario, but it’s not as convincing as the second. The likelihood of this mutation is low. Occam’s Razor tells us that the simplest explanation is usually correct.
According to the AKC, the only acceptable colors for Labrador Retrievers are black, chocolate, and yellow. Any other color is a disqualification. However, some silvers are registered under chocolate because silver is a diluted form of chocolate.
The Kennel Club in the United Kingdom also only recognizes black, chocolate, and yellow. Yellow can range from light cream to red fox. Any other color is a disqualification.
According to the CKC, the only acceptable colors for Labrador Retrievers are black, chocolate, and yellow. Any other color is a disqualification. This means that silver, charcoal, and champagne are not recognized by the CKC.
The majority of Labrador Retriever breeders will tell you that the only real Labradors are black, chocolate, and yellow. The other colors (charcoal, silver, and champagne) are the results of contamination of the breed and should not be considered true Labradors. It’s hard to argue with them since Silver Labs all descend from two breeders, who can both trace their lines back to Kellogg’s kennel.
However, the breeders of the alternative colors stand firm and claim that their pedigrees prove that their Charcoal, Silver, and Champagne Labs are just as true as any Black, Chocolate, or Yellow Lab.
At the end of the day, neither side can definitively prove they are right so you have to decide for yourself.
In my opinion, all dogs are wonderful creatures who deserve loving homes. It doesn’t matter if they come from the purest pedigree or are mangy mutts. Dogs are loyal and loving and for that they deserve the best from their human families.
Dog breeders have a responsibility, not only to their breed standard, but also to the dogs themselves. It is important to avoid inbreeding, which often results in health issues. This is something to keep in mind when discussing the Silver Labrador. Even though there are more of them now, it wasn’t long ago when they were very rare. Inbreeding was required to maintain their color. Their color was sought-after because it was rare. Silver Lab breeders are often accused of just being in it for the money. Nowadays, there are enough diversity in Silver Labs that the concerns of inbreeding are no longer what they were.
There are some health concerns to keep in mind when considering the Silver Labrador. According to the National Labrador Retriever Breed Council of Australia, they are at a high risk of inherited structural and health defects. They can suffer from skin problems, neurological disorders, thyroid problems, and hip and elbow dysplasia.
Whenever you are purchasing a puppy, no matter the breed, it is important to research the breeder. Make sure they are trustworthy and responsible in their breeding.
To sum up, Charcoal, Silver, and Champagne Labs are Black, Chocolate, and Yellow Labs with two recessive dilution alleles. All diluted-colored Labs can be traced back to two breeders, who each trace their lines to a single breeder (Mayo Kellogg). The common theory is that Kellogg bred his Labradors with Weimaraners, introducing the recessive dilution allele and pointing behavior of the Weimaraner. This is widely argued.
At the moment, the diluted-colored Labs are not recognized by the AKC and many Labrador breeders say they are not true Labradors. I guess you’ll have to decide for yourself! Lab or not, all dogs are wonderful dogs and they deserve our care and affection. Feel free to comment and let me know what you think! I always like to learn more.
Anna is a canine enthusiast. She loves everything about dogs from their loyalty to their energetic spirits to their stubborn moments. She has a passion to learn everything she can to become a better "dog-mom" to her Toller, Penny, and to share her knowledge of dogs with all who are interested in the hopes of educating people on the best canine care.