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Forget Cruella De Vil. Dalmatians have a lot more to fear from well-meaning, but ill-informed, dog owners. Animal shelters are bracing for a deluge of unwanted spotted dogs after Disney's sequel, 102 Dalmatians, released Thanksgiving 2000.
It could be a devastating sequel to what happened after 101 Dalmatians was released four years ago. Six months to a year after the 1996 film came out - just enough time for a cute little puppy to become a full-grown, energetic dog - shelters and rescue organizations reported a 25 percent jump in dumped Dalmatians.
Some shelters were even more overwhelmed. The Humane Society of Boulder, Colo., for instance, saw a 310 percent increase in the breed, while the Humane Society of Tampa Bay recorded a whopping 762 percent hike.
Too Many Dalmatians Without Homes
"Too many Dalmatians are left without homes because of unrealistic expectations" inspired by the films, says Geoff Handy, director of communications and campaigns for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).
The pattern, shelter officials say, is all too predictable. People see the movies and fall in love with the playful, spotted breed. But when they find out the hard way that Dalmatians can be challenging, high-maintenance animals, the dogs are marched to a shelter or, worse, abandoned on the street.
Though the origin of this old, medium-large breed is murky, experts agree that Dalmatians were bred to trot beside horses for several hours at a time. Ever wonder why we associate these dogs with firehouses? Back when fire trucks where drawn by horses, Dalmatians ran in front to clear the horses' path. And at the chaotic scene of a fire, the dogs helped calm the skittish horses.
They rarely run with horses these days, of course. But if they don't get adequate exercise, they can become hyper, snappy and destructive.
Why Choose a Dalmatian
So, why would anyone choose a dal? To begin with, the dogs are loyal members of a pack or of a human family. While their reputation paints them as skittish, afraid of their own shadows, they are actually good watchdogs, clever enough to know when - and when not - to bark. They're exuberant, outgoing jokers - the clowns of dogdom. And they're plenty smart, which makes for an interesting pet.
On the other hand, they need lots of patience. These dogs are strong, bred to run for hours at a stretch. They are equally strong-willed and are tougher to train than many other breeds.
All of which makes them a terrible choice for single professionals who spend most of their time away from home, or for anyone else who wants a submissive dog, grateful for the odd pat on the head.
Regardless of the movie dogs' appeal to children, the breed isn't necessarily best for a young family either. While Dalmatians can be playful, and usually good with kids, their size and general rambunctiousness can be intimidating - particularly when a toddler gets knocked down for the thousandth time.
Dogs Need Experienced Owner
Because the breed tends to have a dominant personality, the dogs need a knowledgeable, experienced owner. "If they don't have a firm leader," warns Dr. Nicholas Dodman, director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine, "they can begin to run your home - and you."
The breed also tends to have medical problems. More than 10 percent of all Dalmatians are deaf because of a genetic defect. Compared with other breeds, they are more prone to kidney and bladder stones, skin disorders and allergies. In winter, they must also be kept indoors because they can't handle frigid temperatures for long periods.
According to the Humane Society, there is another sad side to the spike in demand for Dalmatians: It encourages puppy mills to overproduce the breed. There are an estimated 4,000 of these often unregulated breeding facilities in the United States, mass-producing purebred puppies. Because the mills are usually overcrowded and understaffed, the dogs can be sick, malnourished and inadequately sheltered, says a spokesman for HSUS. Because of excessive breeding, the dogs can have a genetic disease that won't show up for years.
If you do decide to get a Dalmatian, make sure you get one from a reputable breeder. Be wary of pet stores, which are often supplied by puppy mills.
Humane Society to Hand Out Flyer
In the meantime, the Humane Society has come up with a flyer - "Much More Than Just Spots" - to hand out at movie theaters showing 102 Dalmatians, warning of the drawbacks to owning one of the breed. "They're not for everybody," warns the society, "they require an extraordinary amount of companionship, training and exercise." The organization has joined with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, shelters and rescue groups to ask Disney to put a disclaimer on the movie, warning audiences to avoid buying a dog on impulse.
According to a Disney spokesman, the company will work with the Dalmatian Club of America to "educate the public on pet adoption and responsible pet ownership."
For more information about Dalmatians, check out the Dalmatian Club of America's Web site at www.thedca.org.