The three main Labrador Retriever colors are black, chocolate and yellow. These colors come in few different shades, some through breeding darker tones to deeper hues like with the red fox Lab, and others through genetic differences like dilute genes. Dilute genes make the typical Labrador Retriever colors more pale, giving you charcoal, silver and champagne Labs. You can also get mismarked Labrador Retriever colors, giving you a splash of white on the chest, paws or toes of black, yellow or chocolate Labs. Today we’ll look at where the colors come from, and what they mean for your dog’s personality, health, lifespan and temperament. We’ll share pictures of all the different Labrador Retriever colors, and help you to decide which one your pup fits the most!
- How many Labrador Retriever colors are there?
- Pictures of the different Labrador Retriever colors
- Labrador Retriever colors through history
- Genetics of Labrador Retriever colors
- Predicting Labrador Retriever colors in a litter of puppies
- Rare Labrador Retriever colors
- Are some Labrador colors smarter than others?
- What are the best Labrador Retriever colors?
How Many Labrador Retriever Colors Are There?
Strictly speaking, there are only three different Labrador colors:
- brown (more usually called chocolate or liver)
- and yellow.
These are the three colors recognised and accepted by the AKC in the United States, and the Kennel Club in the United Kingdom. In practice, there is a wide range of shades of yellow Labrador color, from palest cream to richest fox red. But what makes a Labrador brown, or black, or yellow? And what about Silver Labradors? Where does this new and controversial coat color come into it?
Let’s take a look quickly at what each of the Labrador Retriever colors we’ll discuss today looks like:
Red Fox Labrador
Know Your Lab Colors!
I’m going to explain the genetic code that controls Labrador color inheritance. And I’ll answer your questions about what puppy colors to expect when Labradors mate. I’ll try and keep it as simple as I can! Understanding how a Labrador’s coat color is inherited starts with understanding how the three basic colors are passed on from one generation to the next. So we’ll tackle that first.
Original Labrador Retriever Color
Black is the original, archetypal Labrador color, and genetically the most dominant. In fact, from the breed’s inception in the early 19th century until the turn of the 20th century, it was the only acceptable color. Chocolate and yellow puppies were frequently euthanized at birth. So how come they didn’t die out altogether? To understand that we have to look at the genetic difference between black and chocolate Labs.
Labrador Retriever Color Genetics
Both types get their color from a pigment called eumelanin. Labs with lots of eumelanin pigment in their coat are black. If they have a little less, they appear brown instead. The genetic instruction for being black or brown is held at the B locus in a dog’s DNA.
“Locus” is just a fancy term for a specific place in an animal’s genetic code. We use letters to tell each place apart – a bit like giving each locus its own zip code! The B locus is home to a pair of genes called B genes. One of the pair comes from your Lab’s mom, and the other from their dad. There are two types of B gene your Lab can get in their pair:
- One we call big B – it contains an instruction to make lots of eumelanin, and causes a black Labrador coat.
- And one we call little b – it contains an instruction for less eumelanin, and causes a brown or chocolate coat.
Why Black is a Dominant Lab Color
The three different combinations of B genes that a Labrador can inherit from his parents are:
- and bb.
Dominant genes to switch off, or override, recessive genes. So dog with BB genes will be black, because he has two genes for a black coat. And a Bb dog will be black too, because the dominant B genethe recessive b gene. Only a dog with a matching pair of bb genes will express the instruction for less eumelanin in their coat, and be brown.
How Chocolate Labradors Are Made
Here’s a handy table to help you picture that relationship between B gene combinations, and Lab coat color. Remember that the black dominant gene always switches of the brown gene, so only the dog with two copies of the b gene will actually look brown.
How Labrador Colors Skip Generations
Chocolate Labradors have grown steadily in popularity in recent years. But the dominance of the black color enabled our chocolate friends to remain hidden and rare with the breed, for many decades. Generation after generation of black dogs can continue to have only black puppies if dogs with the Bb gene are only ever mated to dogs with BB genes. Let’s see how that looks:
So you can see how the little b gene gets passed down through the generations without ever being expressed. In fact, it would take two black Labs both carrying the little b gene to produce chocolate puppies. Like this:
Statistically, one quarter of their litter would be chocolate colored. But like tossing a coin and getting heads several times in a row, it’s also possible for a Lab with Bb genes to pass the B version to every puppy in a litter, and only throw black puppies. And of course, some Labradors are neither black nor brown.
Where Do Yellow Labradors Come From?
Next, we’re going to look at the times when a BB or a Bb dog is not black at all. And when a bb dog isn’t brown!
The genetic information that creates a yellow coat comes from another pair of genes altogether. These genes are located at the E locus. And – you guessed it – we call them E genes. Just like B genes there are two versions of the E gene, big E and little e.
- Big E is the dominant gene. It does not interfere with the B genes.
- Little e is the recessive gene. It has the potential to mask the B genes that would otherwise give us black or brown coats. And the result is a yellow dog.
How Yellow Overrides Black and Chocolate
Only the little e gene can mask the instructions for black or chocolate fur. But little e is recessive, and if the dominant gene big E gene is present, the little e gene won’t work. There are three possible combinations of E gene that a dog can inherit. It could have
- two dominant genes (EE)
- two masking genes (ee)
- or one of each (Ee).
Only the middle of these three dogs will be yellow. In the first and third dog, the E gene will switch off the e gene, and the dog’s color will be determined by its B genes. Now let’s put all that information about B and E genes together!
Nine Different Possible Labrador Genotypes!
Every Labrador has a combination of B and E genes – called their genotype. There are nine different possible genotypes. Here they are in full:
Predicting Labrador Retriever Colors in Puppies
Trying to work out what colors Labrador puppies will be is difficult without knowing the parents’ genotypes. Because as you can see, the second dog down the list may look black but he could throw brown puppies, and the fourth dog down the list may look black, but he could throw yellow puppies. The fifth dog down the list is also black but he could throw yellow and brown puppies. Puppy colors are easier to predict when both parents owe their appearance to the recessive genes b or e.
Mating Two Yellow Labradors
Two yellow Labradors mated together will never throw brown or black puppies. All their offspring will be yellow. This is because yellow dogs do not possess the big E gene which is needed to switch off the masking effect.
Mating Two Chocolate Labradors
Two brown Labs mated together will never throw black puppies because brown dogs do not have the big B gene. But two chocolate Labs can produce yellow puppies, if each of the parents carries the little e gene – like this:
In the mixed litter, statistically one of half of the puppies will be chocolate and one half yellow. But just like tossing a coin, we know that the rules of probability aren’t the same as guarantees! That’s even more true when we start looking at other color combinations of parents. Let’s look at a few more examples
Can Two Black Labradors have Yellow or Chocolate Puppies?
Depending on their genotype, two black Labradors can indeed have yellow or chocolate puppies. Remember from our grid above that there are four different possible genotypes for a black Labrador. The genotype refers to the genetic code that the dog carries.
Four Ways to be Black
In the diagram below, I’ve put the four possible genotypes along the top to represent one parent – the mother for example. And the four different possible black genotypes down the side to represent the father. Inside the grid are the puppies that could be born from each combination.
If and only if, both parents carry a little e gene, then some of the puppies may be yellow. Remember that your puppy needs two little e genes (one from each parent) in order to be yellow. If only one of two black dogs carries the little e gene, all their puppies will be black. But half will carry the yellow gene, and this is how the color can skip a generation
Is It Possible to Get All Three Colors from Two Black Dogs?
Yes it is, check out the bottom right hand square in the diagram above! Notice that it can only happen if both parents dogs have this genotype: EeBb. In other words, they both carry a little e and a little b.
Mating a Yellow Labrador with a Chocolate Labrador
Now let’s look at what color the pups will be if you mate a chocolate Lab with a yellow Lab. This is good example of how complicated, and unexpected, Labrador colors can be.
There are six different possibilities for litter color combinations depending on the genotype of the parents. You can even get a litter of all black puppies from a chocolate mother and a yellow father (or vice versa)! Here are the color possibilities:
- yellow, black, and chocolate puppies
- yellow and black puppies
- black and chocolate puppies
- yellow and chocolate puppies
- all puppies are chocolate
- all puppies are black
Let’s have a closer look and find out why. In this diagram I have put the yellow Labrador possible genotypes along the top, and the chocolate genotypes down the side.
There are three ways to be yellow, and only two ways to be chocolate. A chocolate Labrador can be either Eebb or EEbb. That’s nice and simple. A yellow dog can be one of three different genotypes: eeBB, eebb, or eeBb – because every time two little e genes come together, they overwrite any combination of B genes. So, if a chocolate Lab with the genotype Eebb mates with a yellow Lab of the genotype eeBb, all the building blocks are there for puppies of every color. But if we mate EEbb with eeBB all the puppies will be black, because they will all have one big B and one big E.
Black Labradors Crossed with Chocolate Labradors
Let’s look now at what happens when we cross a black Labrador with a chocolate Labrador. We’ve seen that there are four different ways to be black, but that chocolate dogs only come in two different genotypes. That gives us 8 potential outcomes. The chart below has the different black Labrador genotypes along the top, and the chocolate genotypes down the side.
Black Labs Crossed with Yellow Labradors
Because there are four ways to be black and three ways to be yellow, there are quite a variety of color pups for a mating between a black Labrador and a yellow Labrador.
Of course, knowing what to expect depends upon knowing your sire and dams’ genotypes.
Some breeders might be able to hazard an educated guess based on observing several generations of litters.
But we’ve also seen how genes can remain concealed within a family tree for decades – so surprises are always possible!
Last but not least, you may be wanting to know how silver Labradors get their coat color?
Silver is not among the traditionally recognised Labrador colors. Some of its detractors even believe it can only be possible if a Lab isn’t perfectly purebred at all.
But for lots of pet owners who don’t mind whether their Lab had a great, great, grandparent of a different breed, the possibility of an unusual and distinctive silver coat is rather special and appealing.
And that silver color comes from another pair of genes, which we haven’t looked at yet.
These are the Dilute genes.
Big D and little d.
The dilute genes have the potential to override all the other colors, albeit in a subtle way.
Labs have a pair of Dilute genes at the Dilute locus – DD, Dd or dd.
When two little d genes are paired together they dilute the coat color of the Labrador that carries them.
Silver Labs are chocolate labs with the dd genotype.
More Unusual Labrador Colors
The dd genotype dilutes the other Labrador colors as well.
In a black dog it gives a softer, charcoal coat color.
In a yellow dog a paler ‘champagne’ yellow.
Head over to our article on silver Labradors to find out more about why some Labs might carry the dilute gene, and what these unusual colors mean to Lab lovers.
Genetic Testing for Labrador Color Inheritance
For a lot of Labrador Retriever breeders, waiting to find out which Lab colors appear in their litter is part of the thrill.
But for breeders who prefer certainty over surprises, there are genetic tests to determine the genotypes of breeding dogs for the B, E and dilute genes.
Of course, knowing the genotype of your dogs doesn’t necessarily guarantee pups will be born in all the possible colors, or in statistically perfect proportions.
Rare Labrador Retriever Colors
If Labradors populations existed in the wild, we could expect chocolate to be the rarest Labrador color. That’s because of the nine possible E and B gene combinations, only two produce a chocolate coat.
But in the real world, Lab breeders have a degree of control over the color of puppies they produce, and they will be influenced by demand from dog owners.
Therefore, the frequency of each color in the Labrador population varies by region, and over time.
In the UK, black Labs are most closely associated with gundog work. But in the US, chocolate Labs have long been in demand as hunting dogs too.
And over time, more and more Labs have been reared purely for companionship. This means “novel” colors like silver and charcoal – previously considered unsuitable for working dogs – have gained their own fanbase.
Labrador Retriever Colors vs Intelligence
All Labs are intelligent and quick to learn new commands.
At the time of writing, we’re not aware of any research into the relative intelligence of Labrador colors.
In fact, it’s only in recent years that researchers have been satisfied that they can measure dogs’ intelligence in a reliable way.
This could be a valuable tool for assessing potential military working dogs and service dogs etc.
But it’s likely to be a while before we see it used to compared the intelligence of different color Labs.
In the meantime, you can find out why one Lab color has a reputation for being less smart than the rest over here.
Which Labrador Retriever Colors Are Best?
It isn’t unusual for people to be quite surprised by the color of the puppies in a litter that they have bred.
But as you can see, colors and indeed other inherited characteristics like certain diseases, can remain hidden from one generation to the next.
Potentially for many generations in a row if they are carried on a recessive gene.
It is enough to make your head spin!
But at the end of the day, beauty remains in the eye of the beholder, and your perfect Lab color won’t be the same as everyone else’s.
So which color do you like the most? And have you ever been surprised by an unexpected puppy color in a litter?
Tell us in the comments box!
If you want to refer back to any of the charts I have made for this article, you are welcome to do so providing you link to this website as the source.
References and Resources
- McGreevy et al, “Labrador retrievers under primary veterinary care in the UK: demography, mortality and disorders”, Canine Genetics and Epidemiology, 2018.
- University of California, Davis, “Genetic Diversity Testing for Labrador Retrievers”, 2018.
- Lofgren et al, “Management and personality in Labrador Retriever dogs”, Applied Animal Behavior Science, 2014.
- Everts et al, “Identification of a premature stop codon in the melanocyte‐stimulating hormone receptor gene (MC1R) in Labrador and Golden retrievers with yellow coat color”, Animal Genetics, 2002.
- Lazarowski et al, “Acquisition of a visual discrimination and reversal learning task by Labrador retrievers”, Animal Cognition, 2014.
The Labrador Site Founder
Pippa Mattinson is the best selling author of The Happy Puppy Handbook, the Labrador Handbook, Choosing The Perfect Puppy, and Total Recall.
She is also the founder of the Gundog Trust and the Dogsnet Online Training Program
Pippa's online training courses were launched in 2019 and you can find the latest course dates on the Dogsnet website