Tuesday 20 July 2010

So you think you know Dalmatians?

The curse of the Dalmatian is that it is instantly recognisable. I don't believe there is a child alive in the Western world who cannot correctly identify a Dalmatian – and even many in Asia, following the 'Dalmatian on a bicycle' clip.
(I have mixed feelings about this – bike riding doesn't come high in a dog's natural life, but as the dog's tail is wagging, I assume he's relatively unfazed, but maybe he's using his tail for balance . . . I digress!) We have Walt Disney to thank for this breed's recognisability (Is that a word? If not it should be!) The film was adapted from Dodie Smith's book 'The Hundred and One Dalmatians' which was possibly inspired by the birth of fifteen puppies to her own Dalmatian. (Now you know why we never bred from our Dalmatians – we ended up with more than enough cats when we bred our Burmese and they're a lot smaller than the dogs!)
The trouble is that the cartoon Dalmatians are impossibly cute and even in the remake, with real Dalmatians, (which caused a lot of anger and horror in the world of the Dalmatian breeder and exhibitor) they are portrayed as friendly, approachable bundles of fun – and they are, once they know you. Puppies, of course, are always delightful. An adult Dalmatian has centuries of breeding behind it as a guard dog, a protector of its people. These dogs were bred to run ahead to clear the roads of obstacles (people!) and to guard the carriages of their owners, running alongside to see off highwaymen. The most desirable dogs ran between the wheels of the carriages where, presumably, they were not easily seen. Imagine the shock to a robber when a spotted dog launched itself at him, barking and lunging.
A fit Dalmatian can run for hours. If the speed of the accompanying horse or bike increases the dogs maintain their cadence and simply lengthen their stride – they are a delight to see.
Anyway, along with the cries of delight from children, 'Look, look, Dalmatians!', come the inevitable comic remarks, 'Where are the other ninety-nine then?'
At the time of that question we had three Dalmatians - 101 minus 3 is . . . ?
'What d'you call him? Spot?'
I wonder why we never considered such an original name.
Added to this is the confusion of seeing a Dalmatian with brown spots (brown is correctly known as liver in Dalmatians, chocolate in Labradors, tan in Jack Russells, even brown in some breeds!) 'That's not a proper Dalmatian' was one confident comment. Another asked, 'Do they go brown as they get older?' in the same way, presumably, that some black clothes acquire a coppery sheen with age (or is that just mine?) Yet another onlooker wondered if puppies started off brown and gradually turned black.
Dalmatians are basically white dogs with the same potential problem that can afflict genetically white animals of any species – deafness! Responsible breeders are eliminating bi-laterally and uni-laterally deaf dogs from their programmes. Many more irresponsible breeders are not. Nonetheless, interested bystanders ask, 'Is blindness a problem?' Well, yes it is, for Buddy Liver Spots, whose sight has been deteriorating since he had meningitis three years ago – otherwise, no.
Having jumped these predictable hurdles there come the requests to stroke the dogs. Dalmatians are expected to show a degree of reserve but Dominie never understood this. She was a very big, extremely gentle girl who loved everyone, particularly children. Buddy, before his sight failed, was very fond of attention too but now sees only shapes and shadows and uses his limited vision in conjunction with his mouth to work out if the thing approaching is edible – this can be off-putting! (Did I mention that Dalmatians are very greedy, easily as gluttonous as Labradors though without their amazing siphoning speed? Our grandchildren have never forgotten the incident of the cake.)
By now, some two minutes into the encounter, it has become obvious to all but the blind and deaf that Frodo the Faller is not at all happy that strangers are approaching his people, especially his woman – me! (I suppose you could say I'm his bitch.) He takes 'a degree of reserve' into another realm. He is shouting for all he's worth, looking every inch the guard dog. At home he is as gentle as a lamb, a sweetheart with puppies and kittens and babies, allowing cats and dogs to share his food or even take it away from him. Out of doors his job is to defend. He will not attack – that is not his way. He will merely keep danger, in whatever form it appears, at bay. To this end he resists friendly gestures from dogs and humans alike.
Appointing himself as my protector made showing him an interesting exercise. As a pup he simply wore suspicion in his eyes. When he grew up he started to grumble softly when the judge 'went over' him. When we galloped (inelegantly, in my case) round the show ring he attempted to take lumps out of any dog he considered was moving too close to me. Neither he nor I enjoyed his show days and we stopped with some relief when he embarked on his falling career.
Trail bikes, motor bikes, quad bikes are all forbidden in the forest but it remains a favourite venue for them. One day, a youth on a trail bike roared past Barry as he ran with the dogs, nearly crashing into them. Frodo took great exception to this and accelerated after him, deaf to all commands to return. Eventually, Barry caught up with him. The youth's bike had broken down and he was on his knees in a ditch with Frodo preventing his escape. Every time he tried to move Frodo blocked him, barking fiercely but not touching him. It really was a case of, 'Call your dog off, mister, PLEASE.' It's noticeable now that any bikers take another path when they see us – word gets around.
So, if you see a Dalmatian you don't know, give him time and space to overcome his natural reticence or, in the case of Frodo, come to our house where he will welcome you as one of the family!


  1. A lovely account of such talanted animals.

  2. LOL
    Great post. Slightly unsettling to see the dog's balls hit the saddle. I guess that's why he cycles standing up ;-) Poor dog.

    Clearly we need a Dalmation boy who considers me 'his bitch' (hahaha). Holle tries everything out for eatabilityness (another word for our dictionary) and she doesn't even have an eyeproblem. The wagging tail however tells people she means well (shoot!).
    Filmproducers should be forbidden to use dogs and make them look cute, to prevent the 'dogs for Christmas' syndrome.

  3. That is all so interesting! I always had a vague wariness of Dalmations, so maybe their job as protectors is the cause of that. It was funny to read all the questions you get asked-people are so original aren't they?! I loved the story about the boy in the ditch too!

  4. My sister has a dalmation named... well, Spot. Spot is a great guard dog. The UPS man is terrified of her.

  5. This is really a remarkable video. He sure seems happy enough.

  6. Thank you, kind people :-)
    Dalmatians have been used in circuses, drug detection,retrieving, as fire house dogs, search and rescue, even guide dogs for the blind.
    Caroline, I agree the rear view is a little 'unfortunate' ;-)
    Sarah, we always advise people not to look directly into Frodo's eyes until he's summed them up. It's a challenge to any dog but seems particularly so for Frodes.
    Janie, our Labradors actually make more noise and in that sense are better house dogs than the Dalmatians! Good to hear that Spot is protecting her people :-)

  7. When we decided to have a dog, in the days when our sons were young, I really wanted a Dalmation. I did a lot of research though, and got the impression they were more boisterous than I thought we needed. We ended up with a Lab/border collie cross. She was an adorable friend to the family, and greeted all-comers in precisely the same way - as friends of the family.


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