With today's national debut of Disney's latest movie--featuring 101, real-life, melt-your-heart puppies--Dalmatian breeders and pet shop owners are suddenly on the spot.
Demand for the black-and-white fire station mascots has been rising steadily since June, when the first previews for the live-action "101 Dalmatians" were released. While at the same time, advocates for the breed worry some dogs will be abandoned when the novelty wears off.
At Petland in Lake Forest, manager Justin Poe said he plans to keep at least one of the popular pups on hand every week through Christmas, saying simply: "We'd be stupid not to." Poe estimates a storm of telephone calls from prospective Dalmatian owners once the film comes out.
"If something's hot, you have to offer it," he said. "These dogs will probably move out of here faster than any others in the next few months."
Pet Pantry manager Susan Lassa already has found that to be true, noting her Orange store sold two of the spotted puppies last week and predicts the remaining two "will be gone by the weekend." The shop normally sells only about six of the puppies a year.
"People are fascinated with them right now because they're movie stars," Lassa said. "They like the idea of having a cute, glamorous, designer dog."
That, according to Dalmatian owners and breeders, is precisely the problem.
Expecting an onslaught of "impulse puppy buyers" this holiday season, the Dalmatian Club of America has launched a national campaign warning families of the quirks and capers these dogs will bring into a home, specifics that go unmentioned--or are magically minimized--in Disney's new film.
Although Dalmatians are generally loyal and affectionate, "They're not a sleep-around-the-fire kind of dog," said Judy Maitlen, Orange County Animal Control director. "They're energetic and happy and love to go, go, go."
Terri Haase, who manages a World Wide Web site for the Dalmatian Club of Southern California in Torrance, said there are other drawbacks to owning the world's only true spotted pure breed, such as constant shedding and a propensity toward deafness and kidney stones.
"And if that weren't enough, most are not good with children anyway," Haase said, because the pooches tend to be overly rambunctious and snippy.
Still, the American Kennel Club reports a steady rise in the number of registered Dalmatians since 1961, when Disney's original feature-length cartoon was released. Since then, the breed has crept from 40th on the club's list to No. 11. By next year, officials expect the Dalmatian to move past the Yorkshire terrier (No. 10), Pomeranian (No. 9) and yes, even the beloved dachshund (No. 8). (The Labrador is No. 1.)
"There's been popularity contests between breeds based on TV shows and movies before, but this blows them all away," said Julie Lux, spokeswoman for the Dalmatian Club of America, which has an estimated 1,200 members.
She attributes at least part of the interest to mass marketing: Dalmatian puppies (and their hard-to-miss spots) can be seen now on everything from candy bar wrappers to the latest fashion collection.
"Cruella [de Ville] would be thrilled," said Lux, referring to the movie's archvillain, who plots a daring dognaping to make fur coats out of the puppies.
Lux said professional breeders are worried about people buying puppies and then sending them to the pound "when the novelty's worn off." They also are concerned about an increase in "backyard breeding," which deteriorates the quality of the stock and results in more health problems.
Westlake Village breeder Elaine Gewirtz said seeing Dalmatian puppies advertised for $100 or even $75 is troubling, because such dogs likely come from questionable stock and stay sickly most of their lives. Her purebreds cost $400 to $800, and she refuses to sell "surprise puppies" bought as birthday or Christmas presents.
American Kennel Club President Peggy Rudder said many members have been preparing for the Disney movie's debut for two years by deliberately not having any new Dalmatian litters available this holiday season. They hope the shortage will force people to think harder about owning such dogs.
But try telling that to the countless children who have already started writing "Pongo" or "Perdy" on their Christmas lists, which any half-awake parent knows are the names of the top-dog characters in the Disney classic. Recently, at Wildwood Pets in Yorba Linda, 5-year-old Courtney Gilbert admired a squirming Dalmatian puppy and dropped not-so-subtle hints about Christmas presents to her weary-looking father.
"He's so cuuuute," she cooed at the dog. "If Santa brought me you, I'd never need another toy again, now would I, you little baby Pongo puppy."
Ron Gilbert, 39, couldn't help but smile at his daughter's efforts at persuasion. "Oh, she's good," he said. "And I can't say she won't win, either."