PitterPatterPrints

Merle Information.  

From Basics to the History behind the Color Bias.

This page is being presented to be as factual as possible and also as basic as possible in hopes that even the common average person can understand the simple principle behind Merle Genetics and the Controversy of it within the Breed of the American Cocker Spaniel.  

Let it be known that PitterPatterPrints.co is in FAVOR of the Merle Pattern, has educated themselves on the effects the gene presents in the breed with as much scientific information that is available and has never made any attempt to hide their interest in the pattern of Merle.  Let it be further clarified that NOT all merle breeders are ethical or knowledgeable about this pattern and thus the quality is not consistent. We strive to educate not just our buyers but all who know and appreciate the American Cocker Spaniel, especially those who are breeding or owning merles.

  • To directly address those that criticize without understanding the pattern I hope you will attempt to read this information with a mind willing to learn something new, if I can present the facts to even just one of you who have blindly followed the dogma presented without facts, than I have succeeded for the day.
  • To those who wish to condemn the science or history behind these facts I hope that someday you will be set straight on the matter by someone who is willing to have read and investigated this for themselves.
  • To anyone wishing to misbehave, make themselves look foolish and engage us on this topic in a negative manner: I simply suggest you move along as I will not tolerate abuse of any kind and will not hesitate to pursue the matter with my attorney.

Where the Pitter Patter Of Paws Can be Heard Through Out the Halls.

Basics to understanding what MERLE is.

Merle is a gene, all canines have it as their common ancestor the wolf gave it to them.  This includes Am. Cocker Spaniels.  It is most easily described as to how it interacts with the pigment/melanin (color) in the dog's coat (and eyes).

The active merle gene causes the pigment (color) in the dog to randomly lighten, it acts on melanin (pigment) in utero development without being very predictable.  

  • The most easily demonstrated way to illustrate this is to say that an all black dog without the merle gene is simply all black with brown eyes.  If the same dog in color has the merle gene some area of the coat (and possibly the eyes) will appear to be lighter (imagine a splash of bleach on a black t-shirt) thus the areas of the coat will appear gray (sometimes this is referred to as blue) compared to the black.  When it comes to the color of the eyes they are not completely brown (sometimes) but are blue or have flecks of blue.

Rather than be considered a color it is a pattern.  This is often in the past casually overlooked because the gene affects the coloration of the coat etc.  However it is not a color it is by it's definition a pattern (even tho it randomly appears in the color.

Why is this a genetic concern?

Because melanin (pigment) is needed in the development of the fetus for proper ear and eye function there is a cause for concern that the fetus inherits enough melanin for the eyes and ears to form properly.  This is a situation that is easily avoided by breeding a merle parent to a non merle parent to have a litter of puppies (who will randomly inherit the active merle gene, some do some do NOT).  Merle lightens/lessens the melanin and so it is not advisable to breed 2 merles together because the risk of improper development of the eyes and ears is greater.

  • There is NO LETHAL Merle Gene.  The death rate of merle puppies in a litter is no higher than a litter with no merles.  An adult merle does not simply keel over dead for any reason related to the inheritance of the merle gene.
  • There is the same health concerns in any American Cocker Spaniel as there would be in Merle Patterned ones.  Please choose a reputable educated ethical breeder whenever making a choose to purchase a dog.  Every purebred and designer mix has it's own health concerns and your chosen breeder should be able to explain them in detail to you and be willing to discuss them.  Verify this information as much as you can before making a decision to purchase this animal.

Why is there 'color' bias against Merle?
American Cocker Spaniels have a long history of color bias, most of it is a matter of preference and it tends to become a hot topic amongst breeders who will say anything to promote their view and their choice, these same people are at minimum, influential in how the breed standard is written, if not those that have written it themselves.  

  • Another well known example of this is the Sable Pattern (also said to be a color tho it is not) which at one point was an allowed color and there are still some Champions alive from the conformation ring.  To summarize this color bias incident as basically as I can it was said that the more re-known breeder of Sables at the time of this 'controversy' was also breeding beagles and that THAT is where the pattern was introduced into the American Cocker Spaniel.  Again without the use of DNA/Science this could not be disputed and a very political decision was made against the Sable Pattern.  Let us note briefly here that some of the oldest registered Am. Cocker Spaniels have been registered as Sables, at one point they were even some Champion Sable & Sable Parti cockers.  For more info on Sables visit our SABLE INFO page.
  • With regards to Merle it is considered a relatively 'new' pattern for Cocker Spaniels although even the published study cited by the American Spaniel Club points out that all colors/patterns in any of today's canines is inherited from the wolf.  Whether or not the breed has acknowledged or approved of the color/pattern is an entirely other matter.  Selective Breeding is what shapes a breed from another.  Over the centuries taking 2 similar looking dogs to what you wish to produce and breeding them together to set 'type'.  In today's more science based breeding and ethical standards we know that breeding closely related animals to each other doubles up on potential genetic issues.
  • Because Merle is not included in the Am. Cocker Spaniel Standard (set by the parent club to the AKC) and until recently it wasn't even an option (it is still incorrectly an option of color vs pattern) to register it with the AKC tracing merle has been difficult.  Currently it is a widely accepted trace back to one dog (Rusty Butch) thus giving credibility to the idea that it was introduced into Am. Cocker Spaniels.

I want to introduce an idea I haven't seen shared by anyone other than me at this point.


The Breed Standard is written to make known the "IDEAL" Cocker Spaniel's characteristics.  If it is written that the eyes should be dark brown that leaves room to say that it is already known that there are cocker spaniels without  dark brown eyes.  YES, brown/chocolate colored cocker spaniels have lighter eyes (usually green) but there is room to mention 'when we state something MUST be one specific thing that it is separating it from that which is already in existence'.  

  • For example if I say I want ONLY Vanilla Ice cream, it acknowledges that there are other flavors of ice cream.  If I only want dark brown eyes that leaves room to say it is known that there are cockers with green or even blue eyes (such as in MERLE!)  
  • Since showing for conformation is to create more desirable breeding stock (and many show breeders say only Champions should be bred at all and those pups that are not 'show quality' should be the only pets produced) can we not see how the Standard is written to benefit a favored group of breeders?  Those that say Merles are only being bred for profit are also themselves breeding to profit.  I am NOT saying it's a great profit but it does benefit them!

Did Merle always exist in cocker spaniels?  Quite possibly.  

  • Culling is the act of killing/disposing of any offspring from a breeding that does not fit the desired criteria of that 'breed'.  While today we are appalled by this practice it was commonly accepted just a few years ago.  If you take into the consideration that as a breeder if your dogs are producing something other than desired by the majority how tarnished your reputation can become it is easily conceivable that it still happens to this day.

  • Given the documented fact that there are merles improperly registered as roans and that as adults this pattern can appear somewhat similar this, again raises the question of it's existence from the beginning.  Unfortunately the Roan pattern has taken a serious negative hit over the controversy of merle and is also less in favor because of it.  Roan is another example of color bias and it is without a question original to the breed.  It is more favored in the English Cocker Spaniel which at one point in time was born in the same litters as American Cocker Spaniels ~ the difference back then simply being the size of the puppies (smaller ones were American, larger ones were English).  For more info on Roans visit our ROAN INFO page.

What is the controversial history behind Merle?

Because the Merle pattern has been traced to one Stud dog it is often assumed that this dog was not a purebred cocker spaniel.  The lack of science and available information to evaluate that claim vs the possible chance that it was a more random mutation of an already existing gene that hadn't yet expressed itself is often used by those breeders who do not appreciate the pattern to say that Merles are not purebred or are of lesser quality or that those who breed the pattern Merle are dishonest and or only breeding the Merle for profit.  

  • While this might be true for some breeders of Merle, it also true for some breeders of anything.  When something becomes popular those that breed for profit (and most often without regard for the health of their 'product') tend to want in on the situation.  The quality goes down and the quantity goes up.

It is currently the widely accepted belief that all Merles go back to one dog (Rusty Butch AKC # SC914708 (06-81) 
DOB:10-20-1979). 
 Since that dog is no longer living nor are the puppies from the 2 litters that later went on to continue producing Merle we can not use Science to find out if in fact they were 'purebred' or not.  Wikipedia defines "A purebred dog typically refers to a dog of a modern dog breed with a documented pedigree in a stud book and may be registered with a breed club that may also be part of a national kennel club".  From there we know that there are 36 years since the birth of Rusty Butch (at the time this is being written in 2015).  If we pretend that every litter that descended from this dog was at least 2 years of age (granted this is a bit of a reach but let's just go along with it for now) you take 36 and divide it by 2 and get 18 generations!
Ok yes, I have not documented this with pedigree research published on this website.  

Why is that?  Because I honestly believe that the following doesn't matter at this point: 

  • who introduced this (if it was introduced)
  • what lead up to it it being here
  • where it came from (I will readily agree it might have first appeared out of Rusty Butch's offspring)
  • when it happened (36 years later at minimum!)
  • why it's so controversial (I stated my opinions above)

What is the Future of Merles?  Where do we go from here?
Please continue on to our Goals for Merle page.