Spot Check Pets: Thanks to Disney, Dalmatians may be irresistible, but many end up abandoned when the cuteness wears off. Know what you're getting into, rescuers advise.

November 19, 1996|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

See Spot. See Spot run. See Spot fetch the newspaper, make coffee and thwart Cruella De Vil in Disney's new live-action version of "101 Dalmatians."

See Spot bouncing under the Christmas tree, a big bow around his neck. Six to nine months later, see Dalmatian rescue groups overrun with many, many Spots, rowdy adolescents abandoned by families who thought they had to have a Dalmatian puppy.

That's the unhappy scenario for Dalmatian lovers as they prepare for the release of the Disney film on Nov. 27. Yes, Dalmatians are cute, bouncy and bright (although they can't really make a good cup of coffee). They also are demanding, high-energy dogs who are not suited to young children, or homes without fenced yards.

"They're marvelous dogs, but they're not right for everyone," says Chris Jackson, a Dalmatian breeder who coordinates the Dalmatian Club of America's rescue efforts from the kennel she runs in Owings Mills.

Almost every day, someone calls Jackson with a sad story about a Dalmatian they no longer can keep. On a "good" day, she might receive five of these calls. On a bad day, it's as many as 25. She expects many bad days in the wake of the new film.

"See that poster over there," she says, pointing to the poster from the 35-year-old animated version of "101 Dalmatians," just one of many Dalmatian-themed artifacts in the home she shares with three Dalmatians and one greyhound. "That's an original, and I probably ought to throw it out the window.

"But it's not Disney's fault," she quickly amends. "They're trying to be responsible. They can't be held accountable for thoughtless people and they didn't make the movie to aggravate us."

In fact, Disney is providing brochures on Dalmatians at the "101" exhibit in its two U.S. theme parks. But the filmmakers declined to attach a rider to the new film itself, one that would have advised would-be owners to research the breed -- as well as its breeders.

"This is a problem 365 days a year," Terry Curtin, senior vice president of publicity for Walt Disney Motion Pictures, said in a telephone interview last night from Radio City Music Hall in New York, where "101 Dalmatians" was having its premiere. "Studies show regardless of our movements, there is just a steady increase in demand for these dogs."

Dalmatian mania is relatively new, spawned not only by Disney, but the dogs' increasing visibility in all media.

In 1961, when Disney's original cartoon version of "101" first appeared, there were only 2,291 Dalmatians registered with the American Kennel Club, making them the 27th most popular breed in the country. Their popularity would actually decline into the 1980s, falling as low as 41st, then spike up sharply in the late '80s.

In 1993, Dalmatians cracked the AKC's Top 10, and though the breed slipped to 11th place last year, its popularity is expected to rise again in 1997 -- which inevitably means an increase in the number of dogs needing new homes.

"When we got into Dalmatians, they were 26th," says Julie Lux, who serves as public relations officer for the Dalmatian Club of America. "And it seemed as if the next moment we turned around, they were ninth."

It's a cycle that has played out with a variety of dogs popularized by the movies and mass media: Jack Russell terriers ("Frasier" and "The Mask"), border collies ("Babe"), St. Bernards ("Beethoven") and even Rottweilers (would you believe "The Omen" made them popular?)

A film or television show exposes the breed to millions, increasing demand. "Casual breeders" -- also known as "backyard breeders" or "greed breeders" -- produce puppies to meet the demand, often providing little information on the breed's genetic or behavioral problems to prospective owners.

Both issues come into play with Dalmatians.

Bred to run alongside horse-drawn fire engines, Dalmatians need exercise and plenty of attention from their human companions. With adult weights of up to 70 pounds, they are too large and boisterous for most small children.

Their temperament is determined by heredity, just one reason it's important to find a reputable breeder. Dalmatians also are prone to deafness and urinary blockages, which require a special diet.

One of the biggest surprises for unprepared Dalmatian owners? "They are shedding machines," says Ruth Chase of the Columbia-based Coventry School for Dogs and their People. "And they shed 365 days a year."

Chase often evaluates dogs who are offered to the Central Maryland Dalmatian Club for rescue. Although Jackson and other volunteers want to find homes for every abandoned or about-to-be-abandoned dog, they won't try to place aggressive dogs or deaf ones. (The Dalmatian Club of America believes deaf puppies should be euthanized, a controversial decision within its own ranks. Lux says few homes can provide the level of care a deaf dog needs, although some owners have learned to use a special sign language.)

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