Active, playful and strong, Dalmatians are first and foremost recognized by one well-known aspect: their spots. Turning heads of all kinds -- from firehouse chiefs to Cruella de Vil -- these early eye-catching dogs have been around since at least the 1600s, flaunting their black and white coats for all to see.
In 1950, Budweiser adopted the Dalmatian as the official mascot of the Budweiser Clydesdales.
What's Black and White and Runs All Over?
The Fédération Cynologique Internationale, is an internationally based federation of kennel clubs. The FCI coordinates 84 member countries; recognizing histories, cultures and pedigrees of differing breeds of dogs. According to them, the Dalmatian was first noted in paintings and church records dating to the 16th to 18th centuries. Of these works of art, some paintings and a fresco featuring the black and white dog originated in Zaostrog, Dalmatia, Croatia, giving the Dalmatian its name.
In the 1700s the Dalmatian was provided its Latin name: Canis Dalmaticus. The first reference to the breed name we know today can be found in the work of Welsh naturalist Thomas Pennant, who, in 1771, referred to the "Dalmatian" and described the breed as "very independent."
Since its Eastern European beginnings, the Dalmatian was once commonly used as a coach dog and later, as fire trucks were originally horse-drawn, a fire dog. Not unlike racing stripes or bright colors in cars today, the vivid black and white of this eye-catching dog drew plenty of attention; whether he was fighting off highwaymen, following fire coaches to fires or running alongside the carriages of the aristocrats. During the twilight hours, that black on white was easily visible for pedestrians and passengers alike.
Do These Genes Make Me Look Spotted?
When it comes to the Dal's most-prized feature, we can blame the fuss all on its genetic makeup. The black and white spots are due to their DNA; specifically the genes' loci, or their particular location on the Dalmatian's chromosomes. Each dog's DNA is around 39 chromosomes, with 20,000 to 25,000 genes spread among them.
If we think of genes as ingredients, and gene sequences as recipes, the "cookbook" chromosomes hold all the recipes that determine things like possible eye color, size, shape and -- you guessed it -- spots. You can see how varied these sequences can be, depending on what genes are mixed, and their loci.
With the Dalmatian, the genetic loci of three known alleles, or traits: piebald, ticking and flecking, interact to form the distinctive white coat and spots. Alleles are groups of genes found in the exact same place on a chromosome, allowing geneticists to see patterns and recognize sequences.
A complete set of a dog's DNA is around 2.8 billion letters, compared to a human's 3.3 billion letters of DNA.
It's Not All Black and White
Unfortunately, some of the same gene sequence recipes that give the Dalmatian its glorious coat also bring about health defects. Problems with metabolizing uric acid produce kidney stones, and this issue has been linked to the Dalmatian genes for ticking. By selecting dogs based on perfect coat spotting for show instead of health, dogs at high risk for kidney problems continued to be bred.
Additionally, the genetic sequence for piebald -- another important part of their specific coat combination -- has been linked to hereditary deafness in Dalmatians; 15 to 30 percent of Dalmatians are affected with this defect. The American Kennel Club and British Dalmatian Club are both considering mandatory checks for deafness and kidney problems before breeding, as an attempt to purge both problems from the breed.