Surprisingly little is known about the origins of the Dalmatian, and, in fact, there is no evidence that the breed even originated in Dalmatia. What we do know is that spotted dogs looking very much like modern-day Dalmatians were described in Europe, Asia, and Africa, and Dalmatians appear in ancient Egyptian wall paintings, medieval letters, and Italian frescoes.
Nobody is really sure where this ancient breed first emerged. Early Dalmatians are believed to have traveled with bands of Romany gypsies, which may explain their elusive heritage, but what we do know is that the Dalmatian, while versatile, made a lasting mark on history as a coaching dog.
As scientists have started poking into the DNA of our dogs, mapping what genes various breeds share, they have been able to piece together how they are related.
But when it comes to Dalmatians, all that scientific evidence comes to a screeching halt. Though genetically they are grouped among retrievers, Dalmatians don’t line up strongly with any established modern breeds. (“Might be that they’re really cats,” one researcher quipped to me.)
All this head-scratching in laboratories confirms what Dalmatian fanciers have known all along: Theirs is an indisputably unique and ancient breed.
Distinctively spotted dogs have been documented across cultures and continents – not to mention millennia. As far back as 3700 BC, Egypt’s King Cheops, who built the Great Pyramid, was said to have owned one. Some 2,000 years later, Greek frescos depicted both black- and brown-spotted dogs, their dotted coats meticulously painted, chasing a boar.
Bringing these two ancient sources together, some canine historians point to records of a 400 BC breeding between a Cretan Hound (which survives to this day on the Greek island of Crete) and a Bahakaa Dog, or White Antelope Dog, a likely reference to its color and swiftness. That cross resulted in offspring that hunted deer and worked so well with horses they were naturally inclined to run alongside them – a tantalizing preview of the Dalmatian’s later role as the world’s pre-eminent carriage dog.
Adding to the breed’s air of mystery, its very name is a source of umpteen theories. Some argue that it’s a time-smoothed version of “Damachien,” which itself a portmanteau of “dama,” the Latin term for fallow deer, and the French word for dog. Others point to Jurji Dalmatin, a 16th-Century poet from Serbia who mentioned the breed in correspondence, or to the cloaks of “dalmaticus” fur worn by monks in a 14th-Century painting by the Florentine artist Andrea Bonaiuto that also depicted spotted dogs of Dalmatian type.
Finally – and probably most unlikely – the name is attributed to the Croatian province of Dalmatia, where the breed surfaced in the mid-1800s, and where it was often associated with the Roma people. Still, it certainly did not originate there. And just like those itinerant travelers alongside whose brightly colored wagons it trotted, the Dalmatian was a jack of all trades, able to herd, retrieve, guard, and control vermin. Any breed that can work as a messenger during both world wars, as well as star as an eye-catching circus performer, is nothing if not versatile.
The first stirrings of the modern Dalmatian trace back to the 16th Century, when well-heeled Englishmen returning from the continent brought some of these attractively polka-dotted dogs with them. The breed’s strong yet streamlined body made it a natural athlete, and its affinity for horses – shades of those Egyptian chariots its ancestors accompanied – soon led it to be used as a carriage dog.
In the days before automobiles, those who could afford to travel did so by horse-drawn coach. Some dogs needed to be small enough to trot beneath the axles, which is likely one reason why the Dalmatian standard includes a height disqualification – no head bumps, please! But not all the dogs ran under the carriages, with some trotting alongside, behind, and in front of them – and some research has suggested that these positional preferences are actually inherited tendencies.
Tireless in their endurance, the dogs would not hesitate to protect both the horses and the passengers from any strangers. To further strengthen the canine-equine bond, Dalmatians were kenneled in the stables, growing up there from puppyhood.
When firefighters began to use horses to pull their water pumps, the Dalmatian was a natural choice to run alongside their brass-outfitted fire engines. The dogs acted like living sirens, barking ahead of the firemen so pedestrians would clear out of the way of the clattering hooves, and they milled around the horses while the firemen were engaged in their dangerous work. Not only did the Dalmatians ensure that no one would take the valuable horses, but they also kept them calm in an atmosphere where fear and tension hung in the air just as heavily as smoke and ash.
The Dalmatian’s connection with firemen was particularly strong in the United States. Long after the arrival of the automobile led to the horses being supplanted by shiny red engines, the spotty white dogs continued to have a place of honor in the firehouse, though they no longer had any interest in following the newfangled trucks.
(Since the 1950s, Dalmatians have also accompanied the famous Anheuser-Busch Clydesdales whenever the beer company’s wagon-pulling horses make an appearance. But instead of running beside the red beer wagon, the dogs are seated atop the wagon next to the driver – not a bad gig.)
The Dalmatian really entered the American consciousness, for better or worse, with the 1985 re-release of Walt Disney’s 1960s-era classic “101 Dalmatians” and the various sequels that followed. The perils of Pongo and Perdita as they tried to safeguard their growing brood of puppies from the coat-craving Cruella de Ville led to a huge spike in popularity for the breed. Some owners who reflexively acquired a Dalmatian after being smitten by the precocious pups in those beautifully drawn Disney cels didn’t understand that art did indeed imitate life: The living, breathing dogs are also high energy, requiring an outlet for their enthusiasm and an owner willing to set clear boundaries.
Today, Dalmatian breeders strike a careful balance in reminding that the breed’s dramatic appearance should not be the only reason for acquiring one. Prospective owners also need to appreciate the Dalmatian’s lively and intelligent character, which has sustained its existence across millennia – and is as much a part of it as that beautifully spotted coat.