Nothing starts a lively conversation among Labrador fans quite so quickly as the topic of silver Labs! Silver Labradors are basically chocolate Labs with a twist. They have a gene that dilutes that rich chocolate fur and turns it into a pale, silvery grey color.
Where that gene came from, how it got into Labs and whether it should be there at all, is a debate that has been raging for decades. So I’m going to dig into the evidence and find out what’s going on with this controversial Lab!
- What are silver Labs really like?
- Introducing the dilute gene
- The great silver Lab controversy!
- Pros, cons, and buying tips
Whether you think the Silver Lab is a disaster or a delight, you should find plenty here to interest you and you’re welcome to add your thoughts to the many comments below. Let’s start with the facts and then move on to the debate.
There are only three different colors of Labrador Retriever recognized by the American Kennel Club. Those colors are:
Missing from the list you’ll notice are cream, white, fox-red, champagne, charcoal and silver. The first three are simply variations in the coat color of the yellow Labrador, and are registered with the AKC as yellow Labs.
The last three, are a bit different. They are dilutions of the three major colors. Champagne is a dilution of yellow. Charcoal is a dilution of black, and of course silver is a dilution of chocolate.
The coat color dilution gene is common in many animals including dogs, cats and rabbits. And the AKC recognizes several dog breeds in diluted colors. The Weimaraner is one example. And the Chesapeake Bay Retriever is another.
Labradors are not included among those breeds where the dilution gene is accepted. However the AKC will allow silver Labs to be registered, provided they are registered as chocolate.
This is a source of major annoyance to many Labrador enthusiasts. Many of whom think that silver labs should not ever be registered as pedigree dogs. And who believe that admitting these dogs to the breed register has allowed the spread and proliferation of silver Labs to take place across the USA
There are many opinions on the rights and wrongs of breeding and registering Silver Labs, and we’ll be taking a closer look at them, but those are the bare facts as they stand at the moment. First let’s dig into the genetics, and find out how we get silver fur on a chocolate Lab.
How The Dilute Gene Works
You can read about the way B and E genes control the underlying coat color of the three recognized Labs in this article on Labrador color inheritance.
The gene that dilutes chocolate fur to silver is known as the D gene. And like many genes, the D gene acts as a type of switch. Every dog with dilution genes inherits a pair of them. One from each parent. And there are two types of D gene. Big D and little d
So there are three possible combinations that your Labrador can inherit
Only a chocolate dog with two little ds can be silver. That’s because the big D gene is dominant. It over-rides, or switches off, the little d gene whenever they are paired together. So if your dog inherits just one little d gene, the color dilution will not take place and your dog will have a normal full strength chocolate coat. They will however, pass on that little d gene to around half of any puppies they may have.
In some breeds of dog, all individuals have two little d genes. Weimaraners are one example. And for many decades there were no recorded instances of the dilute coat in Labrador Retrievers.
Which raises a number of questions, including:
- When did the dilute gene first appear in Labradors?
- How did the dilute gene get into the Labrador breed?
- Should silver Labs be registered as pedigree dogs?
We’re going to go into those in some detail in a moment. But first let’s look at what you and your family are getting into, if you decide to buy a silver Lab puppy.
What Are Silver Labradors Really Like?
Silver Labs make great family pets. They need plenty of exercise and are ideally suited to active, outdoor life.
All Labradors can be very bouncy and excitable when young so a silver Lab puppy isn’t always a great match for toddlers or those unsteady on their feet. But an older, calmer, rescue Lab can make a perfect companion for younger children.
Labradors are generally very friendly and sociable dogs that love company. So your silver Lab is likely to be happier in a family where there are people at home for part or most of the day.
Like all Labs they shed, heavily at times, so if perfect carpets and soft furnishings are your dream, then they might not be the best pet for you.
How big do silver Labs get?
Because they are essentially a variation on the chocolate Lab, you can expect the same size range in your dog once they are fully grown. The breed standard height for a Labrador is up to 24 and a half inches for a male, and an inch shorter for a female. Individuals can vary a couple of inches or more either side of that.
When it comes to body weight, the variations can be even greater and will depend on which of two groups (American or English) a silver Lab falls into. Male Labs often reach about 70lbs in weight. Females about 10lb lighter. But there can be as much as 20lbs difference either side of that average.
Are silver Labs rare?
As a relatively new color variation, silver Labs are rare in some countries. Partly because registration of silver puppies is not widely permitted.
Some national kennel clubs and breed clubs have clarified their views on silver Labradors by issuing statements about them. You can find some of these statements in the links below:
Even in the USA, silver is still a more unusual color and silver puppies can be harder to find than black, yellow or brown. That can have an impact on the price of your puppy.
How much do silver Labs cost?
Prices vary greatly but as a rough guide you can expect to pay upwards of $1000 for a silver Labrador puppy. When you are considering whether or not you can afford a silver puppy remember that medical insurance will likely be your greatest outlay over the dog’s lifetime. Not the once only purchase price.
You may have heard that silver Labs are over-priced. In fact objections to so-called overpricing are common in dog breeding and not confined to the silver Lab. The same accusations are often aimed at Labradoodle breeders and Cockapoo breeders.
Many purebred dog breeders feel it is outrageous to charge large sums of money for dogs that are crossbred. And some view the silver Labrador Retriever as a cross breed.
Are silver Labs healthy?
Silver Labs suffer from the same health issues as other purebred Labs. Including a predisposition to joint problems and to over-eating!
Two studies record Labrador lifespan at between 11 and 12 years of age and Labs also have a higher rate of cancer (at 31% of all deaths) than some other breed
On balance, Labs are a fairly healthy and well constructed breed, free from the disabilities that plague some other purebred dogs. But there is a potential health issue associated with the coat color dilution gene which you need to be aware of.
Color dilution alopecia
The color dilution gene, that dd which gives us the pale silvery coat, is sometimes associated with coat problems. Specifically, it may be linked to a kind of hair loss.
The problem is known as “color dilution alopecia” and is more common in dogs that have the color dilution gene, dogs like Weimaraners, and now, silver Labradors.
It isn’t usually a life threatening condition, but it also isn’t curable. It can lead to progressive hair loss in young dogs and potentially recurrent infection in the hair follicles.
Thankfully, coat dilution does not always lead to skin problems. Not all dogs with the dd gene carry the faulty alopecia version and most silvers are, in fact, free from alopecia. In most respects therefore, silver Lab health is much the same as that of any purebred Labrador.
Ok, so we’ve covered what you can expect from a silver lab, and how they are both different from, and the same as, other Labs. Now it’s time to address the debate!
The Great Silver Labrador Controversy
Each time we discuss this topic on the Labrador Site’s Facebook page there is some anger expressed by those that are opposed to the very existence of silver Labradors. Though I do think that this is getting less over time, and that these dogs are becoming more widely accepted.
Reports of silver Labradors seem to have first appeared in the United States in the 1950s. Culo Silver Labs was one of the early kennels to produce this new silver color. You may be interested to read this report of an interview with the owner Dean Crist giving his account of the history of the silver Lab.
Much of the debate is focused on how the dilute gene that causes silver fur, got into our Labs in the first place. There are actually only a few options that can explain the appearance of a new gene in a purebred dog. We’ll look at each of these in turn
- mixed breeding
- spontaneous mutation
- hidden genes
The first explanation is that at some point, an outcross occurred, between a Labrador and a breed of dog that carries the dilute gene. A Weimaraner for example.
#1 Mixed breeding
The argument that silver Labs are not purebred, is quite a popular one. Many people believe that the first silver Labs were crossbreeds.
The theory sounds plausible enough as there are clear motives for dog breeders to create a new color variation in an existing breed.
Motives could include financial gain (though breeders couldn’t have known initially how popular the color would be), attention, or just the sheer fun of creating something new.
Diane Welle of Blue Knight Labs does not go quite so far as to directly accuse the breeders concerned
“There have been accusations that these “rare” silver Labradors are actually a cross between a Labrador and a Weimaraner. I will let you be the judge, as there is no evidence at this time, one way or the other. However, it is interesting to note that Silver Labradors can be traced back to two breeders. Those breeders are Dean Crist (Culo) and Beaver Creek Labradors.
Both of their lines trace back to Kellogg kennels (LE Kellogg and Harold E Kellogg) Kellogg Kennels began breeding Labradors in 1922. Guess what else they’re famous for breeding? They’re credited for the ‘rare’ pointing Labrador of course!”
Her point is that ‘pointing’ is, of course, an HPR (hunt point retriever) trait, and Weimaraners are HPRs. An update to her original article, however, also notes that she previously claimed that Weimaraners were also bred in those same kennels, but found out that that fact was in doubt.
Those in favor of the Weimaraner outcross theory often claim silvers have a houndy look about them. To be fair, this is true of many field-bred Labradors of any color. And most silver Labradors today look pretty much the same as any other Labrador Retriever – apart from the fact that they are silver.
The cross-breeding theory has recently lost some credibility due to genetic testing of silver Labs, which has so far failed to show a link to Weimaraners.
#2 Spontaneous mutation
It is not uncommon for genes to mutate. And a spontaneous genetic mutation is another way that a rare or unusual characteristic can appear in a family of dogs that were previously unaffected by it.
This isn’t a popular theory for the appearance of the dilute gene in the silver Labrador. Partly because the other two explanations are both so plausible.
And for a mutation to be identical to a gene that already exists for an unusual coat color in another breed would be something of a coincidence. Many people feel that the spontaneous appearance of this dd dilution gene in the Labrador Retriever gene pool is, to say the least, unlikely. However, it cannot be entirely ruled out.
# Hidden genes
Some people argue that the rare dilute gene has been present in Labradors all along, and that it only appeared, as rare diseases sometimes do, when two closely related dogs were bred.
The capacity of “rare” genes to remain hidden for long periods of time is a phenomenon that most scientists are aware of. This explanation for the appearance of the silver Labrador in the 1950s is perhaps the most valid alternative to the mix breed theory.
Genes carrying rare diseases or indeed any rare attribute, can remain hidden for decades, only to appear when closely related dogs are mated together. This happens more frequently when gene pools are small, as they are in our pedigree dog populations.
A good example of how that works is B color gene in Labrador. This gene determines whether or not a Lab is basically black or brown. Brown is recessive, just like the color dilution gene, and a Lab needs two copies of the little b brown gene to have a brown coat. And brown labradors only became common when breeders deliberately set about mating them to one another.
The first Labradors were not registered by the AKC until 1917. Before then there would have been regular outcrossing with other similar breeds. Including the Chesapeake Bay Retriever, a breed that does have the dilute gene.
So it is entirely plausible that the little d gene passed from Chesapeakes into one or two Labs before the Labrador pedigree registers were closed and remained hidden in the breed only to reappear in the 1950s when the demand for Chocolates was beginning to rise.
Does It Matter?
Some of you will be bemused at all this fuss over a color. And wonder why it really matters how the silver color got into the Labrador breed. And to some extent I share that view.
I breed rabbits, and with purebred rabbits it’s very common for new colors to be recognized from time to time within established breeds. There are protocols controlled by the American Rabbit Breeders Association as to how this happens, but it’s generally seen as a beneficial and interesting event, not something to be afraid of.
Why it should be considered so radical to do the same in a breed of dogs, I’m not entirely sure!
Of course, most Labrador breeders care very deeply about the future of their breed. Some are concerned about the impact of accepting a genetic change in their beloved breed, without what they feel to be proper consideration.
They are angry at what they see as a dishonest Trojan horse operation to sneak what may be an outcross into the breed line. Pedigree breeders are also commonly committed to the concept of closed registry breeding. And are alarmed at what they consider a threat to the purity of the breed.
Concerns about inbreeding
Some breeders are also concerned about inbreeding in silver Labs. Inbreeding is always a potential problem when breeding animals within a closed gene pool such as our pedigree dog registers. But the problem is made worse when focusing on a small part of that gene pool such as a particular color.
It may be that inbreeding in silver Labradors will not be the problem that it once appeared to be. Former Labrador breeder Jack Vanderwyk, a vehement opposer of silver Labradors, conceded in 2012 that:
Today, in 2012, many, many generations later, the ‘silver’ Labrador population has a fairly viable gene pool, with seven distinct, (almost) unrelated lines. As a result, the average COIs (Coefficient Of Inbreeding) are often not higher than those of other Labrador lines. This means that we shouldn’t underestimate the ‘silver’ population.
It is worth remembering that any risk of inbreeding can be reduced by ensuring a low co-efficient of breeding between the parents of each litter. A knowledgeable breeder will be able to help you with this.
Puppy mills and backyard breeders
There have been concerns that many silver Labrador puppies are irresponsibly bred by backyard breeders or in puppy mills. These concerns can of course apply to any popular breed but are more of a worry when a particular cross breed or color variation become so popular the prices are driven up and less scrupulous breeders try to cash in.
But as silver Labs become more mainstream, there are clear signs that responsible breeding practices are being adopted. And it is certainly possible now, to buy a silver Lab from a reputable breeder
Pros, Cons, And Buying Tips
One of the downsides to bringing a silver Lab into your life is that you may experience unpleasant reactions from those that think silver Labs are ‘ruining the breed’. Or who believe that they should be banned. The comments and social media posts can sometimes be very hurtful
- Some people may be rude about your dog
- You won’t be able to compete your dog in the show ring
- You may have to pay a higher price than you would for a regular color Lab
- It might be harder to find a responsible breeder in your area
- There may be a small risk that your dog will get alopecia
- Your silver Lab is likely to have the health and fitness of any other Lab
- This Lab will be as lovable and trainable as any other Lab
- Your Lab will probably be a great family pet
- You will have the pleasure of owning an unusual and beautiful dog
There are questions regarding the registration of silver Labs born in the future. You should be aware that there are people campaigning to have silver Labs de-registered.
Should they succeed it could affect those who want to breed from their dog, or who want to compete with their dog in obedience or field trial competitions that are only open to registered pedigree dogs.
Tips For Buying A Silver Labrador puppy
If you decide to bring a silver Lab puppy into your life, it is very important to find a responsible Labrador breeder.
You’ll need a breeder who health tests all their dogs before breeding, and whose dogs are a part of their lives, not just breeding machines.
Happily, breeding silver Labrador puppies is not mutually incompatible with being a responsible breeder. But you will need to be diligent in order to avoid puppy mills and bad breeding practices.
Silver Labrador puppies should only be purchased from breeders that have tested the puppy’s parents for hip and elbow dysplasia, PRA (inherited blindness) and CNM (a muscle wasting disease.
Remember that a silver Labrador, if registered with a kennel club, will be registered as chocolate. Check the pedigree and health certificates very carefully.
You can find out more about how to find a good Labrador breeder in this article.
Your Silver Lab
If you share your life with a silver Lab, we’d love to hear about them, and about your experiences in finding him or her. We’d also be interested to know if you have experienced any prejudice against your dog because of his unusual coat color.
We love to hear from our readers. So whether you adore silver Labs or oppose them, your politely expressed views are very welcome! Just drop them into the comments box below.
Let us know what you think and why!
References And Further Reading
- “Purebred Vs. Mutt,” The Labrador Site, 2019
- “Dilute Coat Color D-Locus and New D2-Locus,” Animal Genetics, 2019
- “Dilution D Series,” Dog Genetics
- Welle, M, et al., “MLPH Genotype – Melanin Phenotype Correlation in Dilute Dogs,” Oxford Academic Journal of Heredity, 2009
- “Q And A With Dean Crist,” Silver Labs – Just The Facts
- Welle, D, “No Such Thing – Silver Labradors,” Blue Knight Labrador Retrievers, 1990
- “Breed Color Position Statement,” National Labrador Retriever Breed Council of Australia, 2010
- “Silver Labs,” The Labrador Club of New Zealand
- “What’s In The Gene Pool?” Institute of Canine Biology, 2017
- “How Population Size Affects Inbreeding,” Institute of Canine Biology, 2017
- Wagner, S, “The Truth Behind ‘Silver’ Labradors,” Woodhaven Labrador Retrievers
- Hered, J, “A noncoding melanophilin gene (MLPH) SNP at the splice donor of exon 1 represents a candidate causal mutation for coat color dilution in dogs,” 2007
- “Color Dilution Alopecia,” Animal Dermatology Clinic, 2010
- Philipp, U, et al., “Chromosomal assignment of the canine melanophilin gene (MLPH): a candidate gene for coat color dilution in Pinschers,” 2005
- Philipp, U, et al., “Polymorphisms within the canine MLPH gene are associated with dilute coat color in dogs,” 2005
- “Silver Labs – Improvement Movement,” Silver Labs Blog
- Zeirath et al Frequency of five disease-causing genetic mutations in a large mixed-breed dog population. Plos one (2011–2012)
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