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If This Is Dalmatia, Where Are All the Dalmatians?
We're living in the historical region where Dalmatians originated, but we've seen few of the spotted pooches. Is Cruella de Vil behind the dearth?
Brent and I are currently living in Split, Croatia, in the region of the country historically known as Dalmatia.
Yes, as in “Dalmatians,” the breed of spotted dogs featured in 101 Dalmatians, the animated Disney movie (based on a book) about turning adorable Dalmatian puppies into a fur coat.
Well, Dalmatians probably came from this region: there’s actually some dispute on the matter. There are drawings of spotted dogs that date from the time of Ancient Egypt and Rome, but they don’t really look like Dalmatians.
Meanwhile, the Romani people — the famous ethic group sometimes known as “gypsies” — have long traveled with Dalmatians, taking them all across Europe and northern Africa, making it difficult to pinpoint the exact location of the dogs’ origin.
But the American Kennel Association (AKC) says Dalmatians “certainly did not originate” in Dalmatia. Meanwhile, the Dalmatian Club of America acknowledges the dispute over where the breed originated but ultimately says, “It is from his first proved home that he takes his correct name, the Dalmatian.” Finally, the Fédération Cynologique Internationale — the European version of the AKC — has declared definitively this part of Croatia is where the breed originated.
Since we’re currently living in Croatia, I’m siding with the home team — and the FCI — and definitively declaring that Dalmatians originated here in Dalmatia.
Take that, AKC!
The first written mention of what was almost certainly a Dalmatian comes from 1374, when a Catholic bishop mentioned a dog with short white hair and black round spots he saw here in Dalmatia.
The first confirmed illustration of a Dalmatian — one that looks like an actual Dalmatian! — dates back to the 17th century: “Madonna with Jesus and Angels,” a painting located in the town of Veli Losinj here in Croatia.
Which again seems like fairly decent evidence Croatia isn’t just the source of the the Dalmatian’s name — that Dalmatia’s claim to actually originating the breed is strong.
The Dalmatian is possibly a cross between a Great Dane and some kind of pointer, and due to their intelligence, athleticism, and loyalty, they ended up becoming a popular hunting dog.
They also became what is known as a “carriage dog” — an especially loyal and protective dog bred to trot alongside carriages to protect the occupants from bandits. This behavior, at which Dalmatians excel, might be one of the reasons they were so popular with the traveling Romani.
Another reason Dalmatians were so popular as carriage dogs was because of how well they got along with horses. Thanks to their ability to easily keep up with a trotting horse, Dalmatians and horses spent a great deal of time together — and for reasons not really understood, Dalmatians still exert a calming influence on equines.
But the qualities that make Dalmatians great carriage dogs don’t necessarily make them good pets. Dalmatians are very energetic and need a lot of exercise. And while they get along with horses just fine, they don’t mix well with other dogs.
After the success of 101 Dalmatians in 1961, the breed became very popular. But a few years later, shelters started seeing a rapid rise in the number of abandoned Dalmatians, when owners realized their difficulties as pets.
Ironically, despite our living in smack in the middle of Dalmatia, we initially saw exactly zero Dalmatians.
Then, three weeks in, when I had just started writing this article, I finally spotted one.
Why such a dearth?
First I checked with Ives, a local Croatian friend, to make sure we hadn’t just been terribly unobservant. But she told me that Dalmatians (the people) don’t like Dalmatians (the dog) as pets any more than other dog owners.
“Dalmatians aren’t popular with Croatians,” she said. “There are many other popular breeds, and lately stray dogs are of more interest.”
How did Dalmatians come to be associated with fire departments? It all goes back to being such great carriage dogs — and their affinity with horses.
Back before steam engines, firefighting carriages were drawn by horses. And since horses and Dalmatians get along so well, Dalmatians were used to not only run in front of the carriages to clear the way, but also helped keep the horses calm once they reached the location of the fire.
Furthermore, since horses and firefighting equipment were quite valuable, Dalmatians’ loyalty made them very helpful in guarding the firehouse. To this day, even though the horses are long gone, Dalmatians are often kept as pets and mascots for firefighters across the world, especially in England.
Which is much nicer than turning them into fur coats, wouldn’t you agree?