The Dalmatian

Dalmatian: Spotted, Dotted Clown


The Dalmatian is among the most easily recognized of dogs, for no other breed in this country sports its distinctive spotted coat. Many adults remember a Freckles or Spot from their youth, and many a fire company still has its Sparky to guard the station and visit schools during fire prevention week.

The Dal was popular among horsemen as well, for its affinity for horses made it an ideal coach dog for country jaunts, trips to shows, and for parades and celebrations. Then, in 1961, Walt Disney Studios produced the animated film "101 Dalmatians" in which the heinous Cruella DeVille collected Dalmatian puppies to make fur coats, and opened the door to increased popularity and potential decline of this ancient breed.

Although the breed's origin is shrouded in the mists of time, it is certain that a Dalmatian-like dog has existed for thousands of years, for engravings portray a spotted dog following Egyptian chariot, and historians have noted reference to spotted dogs resembling Dalmatians as far back as 3000 BC. Known variously as the Harrier of Bengal and the Danish Dog, the Dalmatian owes its name to a country that cannot be proven to be its land of origin. Indeed, it is difficult to find one of the spotted dogs in the former Yugoslavian province of Dalmatia today, and those that exist there are imports or are bred from imports.

Some have tried to trace the dog's name to the province by likening physical features of Dalmatia's rocky coast to the patterns of spots on the dog's coat, but Alfred and Esmerelda Treen, authors of "The Dalmatian" remarked, "If these hills resemble the spotted dogs, it is because one's imagination wills them to do so."

Far more likely is that the breed is named after the poet Jurij Dalmatin, a Serbian who had received two Turkish dogs as a gift from a Bohemian duchess in 1573. Dalmatin bred the dogs and they became known by his name. Whether this Dalmatin dog is today's Dalmatian is unknown.

What is known of the versatile Dalmatian is that the dog was found frequently in the company of Gypsies, an autonomous people derived from the lower castes of India that wandered throughout the middle European states for centuries. Gypsies carried their possessions in horse-drawn wagons and frequently covered many miles each day as they roamed, situations that fit the development of a dog with an attraction for horses and a great deal of stamina. If they brought the dogs along with them from India, the origin of the name Harrier (hare-hunter) of Bengal (then a province of India) is apparent.

Whatever their origin and early history, it is clear that the Dalmatian is a consummate working dog, one with many talents. He has been a hunting dog, a coach follower, a guardian, a draft dog, a shepherd, a war dog, a circus performer, and a vermin dog -- in short, he has performed just about every job man has asked a dog to do.


Well-suited for its primary occupation as a coach dog, the Dalmatian is 19-24 inches tall, has a short coat, and is well- muscled. His state of mind is also geared to long working days, for he craves activity and, if denied, can become neurotic and destructive.

The Dal should be white with black or liver spots distributed evenly over its body. Patches of color and spots in other colors are not permitted in the show ring. Spots should be round and range from dime-size to half dollar size. They can overlap. Dals are born white with perhaps a patch of color on the ears; the spots gradually appear over the first few weeks of the puppies' lives.

Black-spotted dogs must have a black nose and eyelids; liver- spotted dogs must have liver nose and eyelids. Eyes can be blue or brown, with black-spotted dogs having darker eyes than liver-spotted dogs.

In general outline, the dog resembles a pointer. He has a square body -- his length from point of shoulder to the outside of his rump should be the same as his height at the withers (top of the shoulders). His head is powerful and in balance with the rest of his body. His muzzle should be deep, not pointed, and ears must be moderate in size with rounded points and tipped to hang alongside the dog's skull. His gait should be strong and smooth, and he should be capable of trotting briskly for many miles.

Care and maintenance

The Dalmatian is not as easy to care for as it might seem, for although its coat is short, it sheds constantly and can leave a prodigious number of white hairs to cling to clothing, furniture, and carpets and to waft into food and drinks. However, daily grooming with a rough towel or a grooming glove will help.

Like most medium and large breeds, Dals are subject to hip dysplasia, and they also are prone to skin problems, deafness, and bladder stones. The formation of stones is quite unusual among canines, but the Dal's urinary system produces uric acid much as the human system does instead of urea or allontoin as do other canine systems. It is thought that this anomaly can lead to the formation of stones.

There's a wide range of temperaments in the breed, from shy to aggressive, from silly to stable. Some Dals are smell or sound sensitive, and they lose concentration when their senses are bombarded with sounds or tantalized by particular odors.

As would be expected by its versatility, the Dal is an intelligent breed and can be trained to do almost anything if the owner is persistent, consistent, and firm. Tough corrections for misbehavior tend to cause the dog to shut down and make him appear hard-headed or stupid, according to Jackie Krieger a Dalmatian owner and obedience trainer at Canine Connection in Cincinnati, Oh.

Dals never run out of energy, Krieger said, but once the owner builds a rapport with the dog, the Dal is a loving, comical dog that is a great deal of fun to have around the house.

Exercise is of paramount importance. Dals that are not walked or worked daily may develop undesirable behavior patterns and become destructive. The dogs have a lot of nervous energy, and their needs must be satisfied. This is definitely not a breed for a sedate family, a family with very young children, or an elderly couple. A fenced yard is a must, for a Dalmatian that is allowed to run free will do just that, and may wander for many miles before his need for exercise is satisfied.

Obedience training is also critical for this breed. Puppy kindergarten classes provide the necessary socialization and exposure to new situations; basic obedience teaches dog and handler how to live with each other. Krieger describes the Dal as a non-adaptable dog that needs lots of early socialization to avoid unacceptable behaviors and to accustom them to a variety of environments. She recommends Dalmatians only to experienced dog families, for the breed takes much more attention than many others.Choosing a breeder who provides this socialization as well as one who tests for deafness and tries to control the incidence of bladder stones in their breeding lines is as important as looking for dogs of good temperament and freedom from hip dysplasia.

Choosing a breeder and a puppy

The re-release of "101 Dalmatians" into movie theaters and the release of the video tape has increased the popularity of the spotted dogs and made it more important than ever that families who want one of these dogs find a responsible breeder. Pet store and backyard Dalmatians are unlikely to be tested for deafness or to be properly socialized; many puppies from these sources end up being bounced from home to home because they cannot adjust to a family or the family cannot adjust to flaky temperaments or are unable to train or deal with a deaf or hyperactive dog.

Since one-third of all Dalmatians are deaf, prospective buyers should purchase puppies only from breeders who use the BAER test to check for deafness. The test can be done when the pups are seven weeks old and is the only sure way to tell if a pup is deaf.

Prospective buyers should also ask about the incidence of bladder or urinary tract stones in the lines of dogs bred by the breeder.

A low protein diet can help prevent stones, but if they do develop, treatment can be expensive and extensive.

Once the puppies are old enough to have company, the family should make an appointment with the breeder to visit. The breeder should help the family select a puppy that will be compatible with its circumstances, but in general, buyers should gravitate towards bold, self-assured puppies and stay away from those that are very shy, hyperactive, or domineering.

Dalmatian puppies are not cartoon Pongos and Perditas; they are living creatures, with needs and temperaments that go far beyond the movie depiction of hero dogs out to thwart the evil villain. Neither are they fashion statements, even though the world is black-and-white crazy. The decision to bring a Dalmatian into the family should be made with care, as should the decision to buy from a particular breeder and the decision to select a particular puppy. Representative of an ancient breed, the versatile and talented Dalmatian deserves to be more than a fad accessory or a whimsical purchase for a family that is captivated by a cartoon.

[More on finding a dog]

Norma Bennett Woolf

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