‘Where’s the other 99?’ ‘Do they make good coats?’ Dog owner Colleen Christianson, member of the Greater Twin Cities Dalmatian Club, said she wishes she had a quarter for every time she’s heard those questions.
Columbia Heights resident Catherine Vesley, a charter member of the club, said people often ask, “Is it a real Dalmatian?” In her case though, that’s not a movie joke: her two dogs, Bella and Dobie, are liver-spotted instead of black spotted, a coloration that occurs in only 10 percent of the breed.
Columbia Heights Library Director and Dalmatian club member Becky Loader owns a female prize-winner named Abbey. She came to love the dogs as a child, she said, after her sister read her The Great Dog Robbery (also known as One Hundred and One Dalmatians), a 1956 novel by Dotie Smith serialized in Woman’s Day Magazine. Her sister changed the leading Dalmatian’s name to their family dog’s name.
“I thought it was about our dog,” Loader said. (The story was the basis for Walt Disney’s “One Hundred and One Dalmatians” 1961 cartoon and a 1996 movie, “101 Dalmatians”.)
Dalmatian club members and their dogs attended the Columbia Heights Fire Department’s Oct. 13 open house, celebration the department’s 100th anniversary. Christianson’s dog Stella performed a “stop, drop and roll” fire safety maneuver for the crowd. “The dog sits, and I walk away from her about 50 feet. Then I say, â€˜Stella, come. Down. Roll.’ And I call her. It’s like a little play; we tell the kids there was a fire, and she saved herself.”
Vesley said the Greater Twin Cities Dalmatian Club, which is a local chapter of the Dalmatian Club of America, an American Kennel Club specialty club, has about 50 members. The Twin Cities chapter was formed in the 1970s.
“Dalmatians became popular as guard dogs in 18th Century England,” she said. “Some people liked to drag race carriages, and they’d steal them to do it. The owners would come out of a pub and find their carriage gone. That’s when they’d get a dog. As it was the 18th Century, the age of elegance, they wanted something pretty. The dogs were known as â€˜pongos.’”
The breed is very old, Vesley added. “You find spotted dogs on a lot of ancient art. You also see them in Africa: Mary Leakey had Dalmatians. They are brave dogs, and they kept lions away from the compound.”
The Dalmatians’ association with fire trucks, again, was a theft issue. “There was a lot of horse thievery in the days when the trucks were horse-drawn. Dalmatians were used as stable guards.”
Do Dalmatians need special care and training? Vesley said that generally, they don’t need special grooming before a show. “I give them a bath. We do basic dog maintenance, trimming their nails, things like that. They are very healthy.” They have been to puppy class and obedience training, she added.
Vesley has been all over the country with her dogs, she said. “They really like a dog show. They enjoy the other dogs. It’s fun to do, but it doesn’t matter to me if they win or not. We don’t have a lake cabin; it’s nice to go to Fargo for a weekend for a show.”
Christianson echoes the sentiment. “We don’t have too many vices. All our money goes to the dogs.” She said Dalmatians are “great companions, very funny. We love them to death.”
The owners say they do a lot of community work, trying to familiarize the public with the breed. Christianson said that after the Disney movies came out, “A lot of kids wanted Dalma-tians. People were breeding dogs that probably shouldn’t have been bred to keep up with the demand. It didn’t do a lot for the overall impression of the breed.” People came to think of them as hyper, temperamental and hard to manage, she added.
Dalmatians are very active and need a lot of exercise, Christianson said. She takes regular trips to the dog park with hers, and several times a week takes them to the stable where she boards her horse. “The dogs have a natural affinity for horses.” Christianson said it is thought that the dogs originated on the island of Dalmatia, now Croatia.
Vesley walks her dogs daily and sometimes takes them to story hour at the library or “show-and-tell” at schools. She has marched with them in the Columbia Heights Jamboree Parade, where occasionally she dresses like Cruella de Vil, the villain in the One Hundred and One Dalmatians story.
Christianson’s husband, Jim Tarbox, takes their dogs to elementary schools and puts on demonstrations. “He teaches kids how to approach dogs. Sometimes the kids read to the dogs.” Her dogs both have outgoing personalities and like to be with people. If they win a competition, she added, “They take on an air.”
Vesley, who has owned seven Dalmatians, has been showing dogs since 1975. Her second dog, Champion Paisley’s Pandora, won a national award when she was 18 months old. Five of her dogs have been Breed Champion winners, which is a beauty-contest-like competition.
She had a disappointment, she added, when one of her dogs, Carson, qualified for the Westminster Dog Show. “Northwest Airlines had a policy not to ship dogs when it was below 10 degrees. I was willing to buy a seat for him, but they wouldn’t let me. The plane was full of dogs [in the passenger section] but he was too big. It is very hard to get into that show. He was one of the top dogs in the country. If I ever do it again, I’ll drive.”
At dog shows, the winners generally come away with trophies, not money. When they win, Christianson said, “You have status, and the satisfaction of knowing you have the best dog on any given day.”
She said a “Conformation” competition is for intact (unneutered) animals. (Conformation refers to the fact that winning dogs must conform to a standard for the breed set by the American Kennel Club.) Judges determine good breeding stock; dogs must have the right temperament as well as the right look.
“Performance” competitions are different; they focus on obedience and agility. Dogs competing in Performance can be neutered or spayed, or purebred without papers. Her dog Clancy, she said, has a patch on his head, which disqualifies him for Conformation.
“They want Dalmatians with evenly-spaced spots, about a quarter to a 50-cent piece in size.”
Vesley added that spots can be larger according to the part of the body they’re on; smaller spots on the face, bigger spots on the chest, for instance.
When asked if anyone has ever cheated, and maybe dyed or altered a dog’s spots, Christianson said, “I’ve heard things. Whatever people can think of, it’s been done.”
Loader’s dog, 2-year old Abbey, won her first “major” (which is a top award) last year; to be a champion, she needs one more major. Abbey is her third Dalmatian and the first “showgirl” for Loader and her husband Michael. She said they usually go to at least one dog show a month. In May, they took Abbey to the national competition in Kentucky.
All agreed that their dogs enjoy the competitions as much as they do.
“If she didn’t like it,” Loader said, “we wouldn’t do this.”