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.
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.
Medium-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, Virginia, 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. 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 says.
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.”