So is your gundog chocolate or liver? Yellow or golden? And which colours work better in the ring or the field? David Tomlinson consults the colour charts

The best gundog coat colour is a complicated matter. Is your pup chocolate or liver? Yellow or golden? David Tomlinson weighs up showing and working preferences as he consults the colour charts.

Black labradors are trusted and fox-red are trendy. But what about the yellow, chocolate and even silver labradors? Read best labrador colour for David Tomlinson’s advice.


To my eye, no dog has a more beautiful coat than a working golden retriever. On a dull January day when the black labradors merge into the gloom, the burnished gold of the retriever always delights the eye. However, it clearly doesn’t please many show judges. If you go to Crufts, you will find that the great majority of the so-called golden retrievers being exhibited aren’t gold at all but various shades of pale cream, tending towards white. The breed standard requires, ‘any shade of gold or cream’. We think of cream-coloured as a shade of yellow but most cream you buy in the supermarket is white, so it’s not misleading to describe an almost-white golden retriever as cream-coloured.

Quite why anyone would want a white retriever when they can have a proper golden one has long mystified me, but then I’ve never really understood the pleasure that many people get from showing dogs. The golden retriever benches at Crufts always adjoin those of the labradors, and there’s a growing trend for white labradors, too, though they are correctly described as yellow rather than cream.

Curiously, fox-red labradors aren’t popular with show people, though they have become increasingly common in the shooting field. As a photographer, it’s a trend I’m in favour of as fox-red is a great colour for pictures. Chocolate isn’t bad, either, though it is one that has never found much favour with shooting people, though it is popular in the pet market, where chocolates sell for a premium price.

I have always wondered when chocolate labradors changed name, for when the brown-coated dogs first appeared in the 1930s they were called ‘liver’, and they retained that title for many years afterwards. However, chocolate is a much more marketable colour description than liver. When I was a child we ate lots of liver because it was said to be good for us. Today, eating offal is out of fashion, and I suspect that most children wouldn’t even know what colour it is, but they do know about chocolate.

Both springer spaniels and flatcoated retrievers retain the word liver, though on the internet I recently found a couple of references to chocolate flatcoats, a worrying trend. You can still find liver-coloured cocker spaniels, too, though those destined for pet homes are generally called chocolate. One of the great things about cockers is that they come in almost any colour, from lemon roan to black, and every shade inbetween.

It may be show enthusiasts who favour white labradors and golden retrievers but it’s the working brigade who have done their best to produce springers that are predominately white, perhaps with one brown (sorry, liver) ear. I am told that the white dogs look showier when hunting thick cover, so catch the eye of the trial judge, but I have never been convinced that this is so. I do know that when I have bred litters of springers, it has been the heavily marked individuals that have sold first.


I did breed one puppy that, at eight weeks, was predominately white. We thought him the least attractive puppy in the litter but a neighbour’s young daughter fell in love with him, so he went off to a good home. He didn’t stay white for long, for as he aged he developed the most attractive roan markings and he matured into an eye-catchingly handsome dog that was much admired.

A puppy’s coat doesn’t always indicate the colour the same dog will be 12 months later. Roan is usually slow to come through, so to get a good idea of what colour the puppy will become when it grows up take a look at its parents. With golden retrievers the rule is that a young puppy will darken to the colour of its ears as it gets older, so if you want a gold dog, beware of white-eared puppies.

Just as Ferraris look best in red, there are some colours that suit certain breeds more than others. I have seen some strikingly handsome German shorthaired pointers (GSP) – the liver-and-white ticked roans are particularly eye-catching – but in recent years solid black dogs have become increasingly popular and sell for premium prices. To my eye, a solid black GSP just doesn’t look right, but clearly many people disagree.

As a writer it is essential to use the correct terms for a dog’s colour. Quite the biggest howler of all is to refer to a golden labrador, as labs can be any shade of yellow but never, ever, gold. However, many owners are unaware of this fact. A quick check on one of the popular internet dog-for-sale sites revealed plenty of ‘golden labrador puppy’s’. The apostrophe says it all.

Liver is the term used for describing German shorthaired pointers but when it comes to German longhaired pointers, it is strictly verboten: liver is almost as bad as describing a labrador as golden. The correct word is brown, something I was told in no uncertain terms many years ago when I was doing a commentary on working gundogs in the ring at the CLA Game Fair. The rule with horses, of course, is that a good horse can’t be a bad colour. That’s only partly true with dogs: can you imagine an (almost) white labrador winning the Retriever Championship? It just couldn’t happen.