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When Lassie Comes Home : When new movie version of the pooch hits theaters this summer, demand for collie look-alikes is expected to soar.

March 11, 1994|DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When the newest "Lassie" movie reaches theaters this summer, Paramount Pictures won't be the only one with a chance to profit from the courageous hound. Pet stores and dog breeders can expect a surge in customers who simply must have a collie of their own.

It's a common phenomenon. Beer commercials featuring Spuds MacKenzie made the American bull terrier popular overnight, industry experts say. After the 1990 film "Beethoven," St. Bernards became the rage.

"If they have seen it in a commercial or a movie, everybody wants one," said Todd Wick, manager of Pups N' Pets in North Hollywood. "It's like a fad."

This is not a story about the average family visiting their local animal shelter in search of a lovable pet. This is about people who desire an exact replica of what they've seen on screen. When the dog in question is a mixed breed--a mutt like "Benji," for example--finding a look-alike can be tricky. Not so with purebreds.

Perhaps the best example of the "hot dog" syndrome involves the 1985 re-release of Disney's animated classic "101 Dalmatians." The black-and-white dog quickly shot into the Top 10 of the American Kennel Club's list of popular breeds, where it remains.

But a lot of people smitten with spots didn't realize that Dalmatians are highly energetic and prone to deafness, both of which can make them difficult to raise. At the same time, experts say, the demand for Dalmatians encouraged new breeders to leap into business, which increased risks of genetic defects the arise from over-breeding.

A similar scenario could unfold when "Lassie" makes her big-screen comeback in August.

So, potential owners blinded by a case of puppy love may find themselves yearning for a dog that might not be suited for them. And even the forewarned shopper risks purchasing a poorly bred animal.

"People have to be careful," said Jim Whitman, an executive vice president at Petland Inc., which operates a Northridge shop as well as 136 others nationwide. "It's buyer beware when a breed gets very popular."

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Stardom and dogs share a long history. Rin Tin Tin was the first canine movie idol. A Lana Turner-figure in doggy film lore, he was discovered in a deserted German army outpost after World War I and went on to star in dozens of films. The Alsatian produced such big box office numbers that he was dubbed "the mortgage-lifter" for saving his studio from financial ruin.

In the years since, movies such as "The Shaggy Dog," "Old Yeller" and "Benji" have garnered similar success, lending credence to the acting axiom: Never share the spotlight with a child or an animal because you're likely to be upstaged.

Other types of animals have grabbed the limelight, including Cheetah the chimp, Francis the Talking Mule and Flipper the dolphin. But, according to the Film Encyclopedia, Hollywood favors dogs because they are easy to train. And, this being the Chinese Year of the Dog, the movie industry will return this summer to a proven formula:

* "The Goofy Movie" brings Disney's rubbery hound to a full-length feature.

* "The Yellow Dog" stars Bruce Davison and Mimi Rogers in the adventure of a teen-age boy who lands in the rugged wilderness of the Pacific Northwest and befriends a trusted dog.

* "The Myth of the White Wolf" continues the adventures of the half-dog, half-wolf named White Fang.

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It is not beyond the realm of possibility, industry experts say, that pet stores will soon receive inquiries about wolf pups. When it comes to dogs and movies, they say, practical considerations fly out the window.

The results can be disastrous.

"Usually it goes something like this: You get an animal you thought you wanted and you get it home and it bites your kid or kills your cat. Maybe it barks all night. Or it jumps the fence," said Lt. Richard Felosky of the Los Angeles Animal Regulation Department. "The breed has a lot to do with it. You need to know what to expect from a certain breed of dog and ask yourself if you're willing to spend time training the dog away from bad habits."

Behavior is merely one consideration.

Collies, for example, require twice-a-week brushings because of their long hair. "Not a lazy man's dog," Wick explained. And although some pet store workers insist that dogs can adapt to any environment, those adorable Labrador retriever puppies inevitably grow too large for an apartment.

"There are some times when you look at the couple and the dog and think, 'This is a match made in heaven,' " said Marlyn Diamond-Gray, manager of Peggy Wood's Pet Emporium in Burbank. "Other times you think, 'Maybe not.' "

Caution was especially warranted during the Shar-Pei craze a few years back. Whitman says a fad arose when Neiman Marcus featured the wrinkly Chinese breed on the cover of its Christmas catalogue.

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