By | Posted: Wed May 22 00:00:00 PDT 2002

By Elaine Waldorf Gewirtz

When you see a Dalmatian, right away you know you're in for some fun. The dog's black-and-white or brown-and-white (called liver) spots on a crisp white background immediately catch your eye. Whether the Dal is doing something very stately or something very silly, you're sure to notice it. A Dalmatian is not to be ignored, making a statement wherever it goes.

"Temperament is stable and outgoing," reads the American Kennel Club's (AKC) Dalmatian breed standard, "yet dignified. Shyness is a major fault." This short, but no-nonsense statement about the Dal's personality rings true, yet there is so much more to this colorfully decorated dog.

Many Dalmatians see a stranger walking toward them on the street and just assume that person is coming to greet them personally. Straining at the leash, it's not unusual for a Dal to surge forward and wag its tail so hard it looks as though it will fly off its rear end. Jumping up and giving a newcomer a sniff and a lick are common greetings for a Dal. This is a situation in which good training comes in handy. The owner doesn't want to squash the dog's enthusiasm for friendship, although it is necessary to communicate to the dog that not every stranger wants the dog at eye level or appreciates hordes of sloppy, wet kisses. Teaching the Dal that it can still say, "Hello," with all four feet firmly planted on the ground takes a little time but is easy to do.

Loyal Companion
Lively and upbeat, friendly and intelligent, the people-pleasing Dalmatian is loyal and happiest when around the family and is always ready to join in a game. Combine this with the dog's confetti-spotted appearance and its history of escorting people and the Dalmatian is a sure favorite.

This loyalty contributes to the Dal's protective nature and watchdog mentality. The Dalmatian can sense if someone doesn't want to be approached or someone who might be unsavory. When sensing danger, the hair on a Dal's back might go up, and its ears may perk up in an alert manner. The dog's body becomes taut, and it will hold its tail up or out. Unless there is a real threat, growling or snapping is not appropriate behavior. If provoked by another dog or a stranger, a Dal will usually defend itself and its owner, but a Dal with a healthy, stable temperament will not usually initiate unruly behavior.

People who own Dalmatians love them with a passion. These dogs have been adored and valued ever since they were brought to England around the late 1780s by the British upper class who admired them while traveling to Europe. Historians do not know exactly when the Dal made its appearance in the United States, but the breed was first registered with the AKC in 1888.

From 1951 until about 1960, the Dalmatian ranked around 30th in the United States, as indicated by AKC registrations. When the animated film 101 Dalmatians made its debut in 1961, the public rushed out and bought Dal pups because they seemed so cute and cuddly in the movie. Their ranking continued to climb from 27th place in 1988, to 15th place, then ninth in 1992. The media further catapulted the Dalmatian's popularity by using its image in numerous television commercials, billboards and print advertisements.

The Dalmatian was an instant celebrity, and virtually every child in America at that time recognized the spotted dog on the streets and would call out, "Look! A Dalmatian!" Everyone seemed to want a Dal, and the lure of a lucrative pet market attracted many unscrupulous breeders who didn't pay attention to health, temperament and reasons the breed was first developed. The puppies were appealing in the movie, but many new owners didn't understand that the Dalmatian was bred to run alongside coaches for long periods of time and is a dog that thrives on companionship. This is not a dog that is happy if it is ignored. If excluded, the Dal sulks or acts out.

Me dium-sized and sturdy, its need for frequent exercise explains its exuberance, which can frustrate an owner who may not be very active. In my experiences, reputable breeders and trainers, understanding the need for a calmer Dal, have been attempting to channel its energies into acceptable levels for the average owner. However, it is the owner's responsibility to understand the Dal's temperament before bringing one into his or her life.

"You can't forget about any dog, let alone a dog like the Dalmatian that wants to be your best friend. It doesn't work," says Kathy McCoubrey of Broad Run, Va., national rescue co-chair for Dalmatian Club of America (DCA) Rescue Education. McCoubrey notes that less-than-dedicated breeders who profited from the Dalmatian fad in the 1950s didn't raise young puppies correctly and certainly didn't help buyers train or care for a Dal puppy.

"Many puppies that have not received proper handling or exposure to different situations from the time they are born became very high strung later on and had difficulty focusing," McCoubrey says. "Dalmatians crave affection and attention. When you take this away, they become anxious and overactive, as do many other breeds. Proper socialization is important for all dogs, but it is vital for a Dalmatian."

McCoubrey encourages new owners to expose young puppies as early as possible to a lot of different people with varying lifestyles. To socialize young dogs to the outside world, McCoubrey recommends taking them to a variety of places such as shopping centers, airports or tall apartment buildings. "Anywhere people and noise are likely to be is a good place to let your Dal pup experience life. Reputable breeders do not want shy dogs, which is why this is emphasized so much in the standard."

The Reputation Revolution
The overbreeding in the late 1980s, which produced many undesirable temperaments in the Dal, worried many reputable breeders who paid attention to pedigrees and who performed health screenings before and after a litter was produced. These breeders worked hard to safeguard the breed by disseminating as much educational material as possible and by selectively placing puppies.

When Disney announced in 1996 the impending release of a live-action version of 101 Dalmatians, many Dal owners and breeders did not want to experience another surge in the breed's popularity and the disastrous results of this: high puppy demand, overbreeding and haphazard puppy socialization. The shelters were already overburdened with Dalmatians abandoned by owners who did not understand the special needs of this dog.

Breeders throughout the United States were contacted for interviews by well-meaning investigative television, magazine and newspaper reporters who again wanted to know if Dalmatians were really as cute on screen as they are in real life. This time, though, Dalmatian breeders publicly expressed how special the breed was and cautioned potential owners to "Think before acquiring a Dal."

Unfortunately, this cautionary message and appeal was quickly transformed by the media into "don't even bother." On prime-time news, worst-case stories about hyperactive, poorly behaved Dals were broadcast. Dalmatians were labeled crazy, stupid, noisy, untrainable and aggressive. As a breed in general, nothing could be farther from the truth, but these same accusations could be made about any dog not properly trained or cared for. These are management issues, not genetic problems.

Within six months, the breed's reputation as a wonderful companion was ruined, and seemingly overnight the Dalmatian became the last dog anyone wanted. Some Dalmatian owners noted that when children recognized the Dalmatian breed on the street, parents would steer them away from greeting the dog. People believed the negative myths and did not take the time to train their Dal. In their minds, it was easier to give up on the Dal and thi nk that it was a hopeless breed. Dalmatians were abandoned in record numbers. It was incredible how a well-meaning, positive message was so misconstrued by the public.

It is doubtful whether the Dalmatian's popularity will ever return to where it was, but hopefully more people will become aware of this breed's pleasing, energetic personality.

A Great Dog: In and Out
For the person who enjoys outdoor activities and a loyal companion indoors, the Dalmatian is perfect. A medium- to large-sized fenced yard allows your Dalmatian ample opportunities for stimulating exercise and outdoor entertainment. Give a Dal a ball with cheese stuffed inside a hole in the middle, and it will be happy for hours. Structured daily exercise such as a long walk or a jog alongside a bike makes the Dalmatian very happy. This breed has an active mind and relishes a challenge. Give a Dal a puzzle to figure out, and its intellectual curiosity is challenged.

As a therapy dog, the Dalmatian has great patience and a true concern for someone who is bedridden. Norma Baley, of Bartlett, Ill., an AKC Dalmatian judge, a past president of the Dalmatian Club of America and a Dalmatian breeder for more than 30 years, remembers a time when her Dals surprised even her: "I was ill for a year, and my Dals were wonderful. They never jumped on me and seemed to know when the time was right to come close and snuggle or stay out of my way. They have a great empathy for older or weak people and make excellent hospital visitors."

Baley believes Dalmatians are highly intelligent. "You can communicate with them easily once you know how to read them," she says. "That's the problem with many first-time owners or people who don't take the time to go the extra step-they don't take the time to figure their dog out."

In her years of owning and judging Dalmatians, Baley believes that the best way to get the most out of a relationship with a Dal is to read the dog and see what its saying through its body language. "When a Dal is rooting around for something in the house, it's a sign the dog senses something is missing. It could need water, more food or something to chew," says Baley.
Baley also thinks it helps to anticipate a Dalmatian's needs. "If a Dal wants to be petted, and you're not paying attention to it, it'll let you know very clearly. The dog will stick its nose under your arm and flip your hand up until you get the message."

Wendell Sammet, of Bryantville, Maine, a breeder and handler for nearly 60 years, thinks the Dal intelligence is often confused with stubbornness. "Some Dals like to do things their own way, so it's up to the owner to convince them it's the dog's idea." Sammet thinks Dals are easy to maintain, and once they're taught what is expected, these dogs are very dependable and loyal. "Dalmatians are very curious about their environment, too," Sammet says. "When I go out to the barn at home, my Dal puppies will follow me outside and trot off to different corners to smell the flowers, sniff the ground or investigate a bug," Sammet recalls. "Eventually, they wind up with me, but it takes them awhile before they're done checking out everything."
A Dalmatian will team its curiosity with a sense of humor. Dals are true clowns, a quality that endears breeders and owners alike to this breed. "Dals know how to amuse us and make us laugh. Dalmatians can find something funny in just about every situation," explains Sammet. "One minute they can be lying quietly at your feet, and the next thing you know they've left the room and come back with a towel in their mouth."
Although most Dals are content to stay by their owners and safely inside the yard or the house, if the front door or the gate is opened accidentally, many Dals may seize the opportunity to explore the neighborhood. After the brief adventure, the dog will return home carrying a soccer shoe or some other object in its mouth that it has disc overed along the way. The wayward Dal's expression says to its owner, "Here's a trophy for you, so you cannot possibly be mad at me for leaving."

With a Dalmatian, there seems to be a reason or at least a logical explanation for everything it does. If its owner is working in the garden and digs a hole to plant a new shrub, this spotted companion will want to help. Unfortunately, the dog doesn't realize its just dug up the newly planted rosebush in the process.

Spectacular and fun-loving, the Dalmatian is a breed that has endured and adapted to many different kinds of owners and situations throughout the centuries. Across the ages, one thing is constant: The Dalmatian is a loyal, true companion that will follow its owner for miles alongside a horse or for hours around the house. As long as it's loved and given a pat, it's content for a lifetime.

Elaine Waldorf Gewirtz is a Dalmatian breeder and exhibitor. She is a writer and a member of the Dog Writers Association of America and is the editor of the Dalmatian breed club publication, The Spotter.


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