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Dalmatian Fans Ready to Manage Mass Cases of Puppy Love

August 06, 1996|KATHLEEN O'STEEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If you've been seeing spots, expect to see more.

Dalmatians, the dogs originally bred to guard the coaches of England's royalty, have been panting to become one of America's Top 10 most popular pups. And the fall release of Disney's live-action "101 Dalmatians," with Glenn Close as Cruella DeVil, may be just the PR vehicle they need to bump off the one breed in their way: the Yorkshire Terrier.

"It will definitely move Dalmatians up the list," says Wayne Cavanaugh, vice president of communications for the New York City-based American Kennel Club. "It's difficult to say how much the movie will affect the dog's popularity, but I imagine they'll be pushed at least a couple of notches higher."

Not all movie dogs inspire puppy lust. Even with the title role in 1992's "Beethoven," the Saint Bernard has gotten less attention than did some bit players in 1976's "The Omen."

"The Omen"?

"The movie was a breakthrough for Rottweilers," Cavanaugh says. "I mean, that dog was nowhere prior to that movie. They were No. 44 on the list. Now they're No. 2. They are the guard dog of the moment."

The Dalmatian saw a less dramatic leap in numbers after the 1985 re-release of the 1961 animated "101 Dalmatians." But fanciers of the breed are bracing for a very strong response this time around. After all, these dogs are real--and really cute.

The film's opening scene, for example, features Pongo (the leading adult dog) and his master. According to a source on the set, the dog wakes up when the alarm goes off, starts the coffee pot, brings in the milk, turns on the shower and shoves Roger into it. "That's not what a real dog will do," notes John Freed of the American Humane Assn. "Most dogs will tear up the paper and won't make the coffee."

But try telling that to a child with less than a month to go until Christmas (the film's scheduled release date is Nov. 27).

"We know that a lot of kids are going to be asking for Dalmatians," says Peggy Rudder, president of the Dalmatian Club of America. "And we're already preparing our members to get hot on their rescue, because there are going to be a lot of Dalmatians in the pound come spring."

When owners abandon pups or put them up for adoption, club members act as temporary foster parents until a new home can be found.

Dalmatians may be even-tempered and make a good cup of coffee, but they're by no means low maintenance. "If you just stick them in a backyard with no training, they'll drive you crazy," Rudder says. "They are a dog that needs companionship, they need training and they need a lot of room."

Some dog watchers have also suggested that Dalmatians need a high cuteness quotient to make up for low intelligence. Loyalists say that's a pile of dog do. "They're very intelligent animals," Freed says. "People think they're dumb because they're a little bit aloof."

Everyone agrees that the breed carries some hereditary problems: Deafness occurs in about one out of every 10 pups, and kidney or bladder stones are common.

Reputable breeders know how to check for these conditions and will put a deaf dog down. "It's very, very difficult to raise a deaf dog," Rudder explains. "Most get abused because they don't respond."

Good breeders also employ programs to improve lineage and limit the number of litters to the availability of qualified homes, Rudder says. "Commercial breeders don't do that, and when there's a high demand on the market, we start seeing lots of genetic problems," she says.

So while Dalmatian lovers want to see the dog's stature enhanced, they fear the fallout of bad breeding and frenzied buying.

"We simply want the public to understand that this dog is not for everyone," says Elaine Gewirtz, a breeder in Westlake Village.

Freed, who shows golden retrievers and owns boarding kennels in South Carolina, recently spent seven months in England on the "101 Dalmatians" set, ensuring that the puppies were treated well. The American Humane Assn. worked with Disney to place all 208 Dalmatians in homes before they were used in the film.

"We had a number of concerns when the movie was proposed, from the dogs' housing to their security to their physical well-being," Freed says.

The filmmakers put in doggy condos, barred everyone except handlers from touching the puppies and made the crew march through disinfectant foot baths when the puppies were on the set. "The majority of the crew had pets at home and we didn't want them bringing in disease," explains Freed, who adopted the puppy that plays Wizzer in the film.

Long a favorite in Europe, Dalmatians have caught on slowly here. In 1980, they ranked 41st, in number of animals registered, by the American Kennel Club. Today, they're 11th.

"Ten years ago, I would hardly ever see a Dalmatian come into my boarding kennel," Freed says, "and today, sometimes seven out of the 10 dogs I board are Dalmatians."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Top Dogs

According to the American Kennel Club's 1995 statistics, these are the most popular breeds, in terms of numbers registered:

Labrador retriever

Rottweiler

German shepherd

Golden retriever

Beagle

Poodle

Cocker spaniel

Dachshund

Pomeranian

Yorkshire terrier

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