What's black and white and red-hot?
Dalmatians, the fastest-growing breed of dog in America. A relative rarity until recently, the dotted dog is now No. 19 on the American Kennel Club's list of registered breeds.
During the '90s, the half-and-half hounds are expected to soar into the top 10, right up there with beagles and dachshunds.
That boom has been echoing at the box office, where Disney's "101 Dalmatians" is setting re-release records. The 30-year-old animated feature is running neck-and-neck with the new summer blockbusters.
Mind you, real-life Dalmatians are funkier than their cartoon cousins. These are dogs with spots inside their mouths and on the bottom of their paws. Dogs that know how to smile. Canine clowns whose impetuous high-energy personalities can bear their share of dark spots.
So why this outbreak of Dal-mania? Breeders say it's because the dogs have become the polka-dot darlings of advertising and fashion photographers.
It's not that Dalmatians have lost their old status as the fireman's freckled friend. Some firefighters still own the dotted pets -- and give them names such as Hydrant, Chief and Cinder.
But these days you're as likely to spot Dalmatians in advertising as with a fire company on parade. They've been in ads for Sears, Steuben glass and Southern New England Telephone. They've sold software. They've brought their dot-matrix coats to a campaign for Hewlett-Packard laser printers.
"The black and white is high contrast -- it captures your eye, and that's what advertising is all about," says Charles Grabarek, TC Hartford, Conn., art teacher whose Dalmatian, Pearl, can be seen in double exposure on the cover of the July-August issue of HartfordMonthly, illustrating the city's "best and worst."
But not all Dalmatian aficionados relish their breed's role as hot dog for the '90s. They worry that over-breeding will amplify the breed's flaws.
For example, fans of the breed know that three of every eight Dalmatians are born either partially or totally deaf.
"Breeding indiscriminately increases that problem. It can really do our breed a lot of harm," says Eva Berg, chairperson of the research committee of the Dalmatian Club of America.
The other danger is that future dog owners of America -- their appetites whetted by Happy Meal "101 Dalmatians" poseable figures from McDonald's -- may buy pleasingly punctuated pooches without properly picturing the powerful packages they're purchasing.
"They're the kind of breed where people say, 'Oh, I want 'em!' Then they say 'Oh, my God!' " says Ms. Grabarek, the cover-dog owner. "They're extremely energetic dogs."
Bred as coach dogs to guard the stables and run with the horses (they became firehouse mascots when pumpers were still horse-drawn), Dalmatians need to expend their considerable energy in play.
"They're impulsive," says veteran dog trainer Laurie Fass of Newington, Conn. "If you say, 'Do this,' they're going to say, 'Why should I? I've really got something better to do right now.' "
Add a stubborn streak and distractibility, "that can be trying for a lot of people, particularly after seeing a movie like '101 Dalmatians.' Those dogs are . . . just about cooking breakfast."
Probably too much dog for the elderly and for small children, a Dalmatian is also no low-maintenance yuppie puppy.
Take the sleek short-haired coat. It just happens to shed year-round.
Each hair has a barbed end that makes it difficult to remove from clothing and upholstery short of tweezer surgery. Being both black and white, the hairs will stand out on just about anything you wear.
She recommends buyers undertake standardized puppy-temperament testing before picking their pets.
Most Dalmatian owners find their dogs to be slightly dotty but hardly dangerous.
When Sandra Gerster of Wallingford, Conn., and her boyfriend bought their Dalmatian, Bebop, she said, "We're not going to become like those people who collect all that Dalmatian junk, figurines and stuff."
Now, three years after picking a pup with a heart-shaped constellation on its left foreleg and a black pirate's patch over its right eye, Ms. Gerster "must have 100 Dalmatian items, like some wacky old lady."
Along with the Dalmatian salt-and-pepper shakers, Christmas ornaments, earrings and countless pins, Bebop's owners commissioned a mobile of her surrounded by her favorite objects, including a chocolate-chip ice cream cone.
Back in Hartford, Charles Grabarek's Pearl has a rather nasty tendency to attack other dogs unprovoked. But she makes up for it with an ear-to-ear grin that many Dalmatians, along with a few other breeds, can summon at will.
As for the advertisers who unleashed this four-legged fashion, some are dropping Dalmatians.
"We discontinued the campaign because there was an explosion of Dalmatians in advertising," says an executive at Hewlett-Packard's ad agency. "We and our client felt that they were becoming overused."