101 Dalmatians…the musical?

Oh boy. Via Bark Magazine, I just learned that there’s a 101 Dalmatians musical afoot.

Julia Kamysz Lane’s article/post “I Spot Trouble: Why I think ‘The 101 Dalmatians Musical’ is a bad idea” expresses my instant reaction perfectly: NO!

I love Gilgamesh with a self-evidently deep passion. And: he is one of the most difficult dogs I’ve ever had the privilege to love and care for – and I’ve loved and cared for a lot of animals. I wouldn’t trade 2 seconds of it, but he’s not easy.

Prior to adopting him, my last dog was a rescued Rottweiler who had been abused almost to death. Compared to Gilly, he was cake.

Gilly’s only half Dalmatian (the other bits are mostly Lab, and possibly a little Chow). He has never been abused. He is brilliant, funny, deeply bonded with me (and eager to please me as a result),  and has truly astonishing social skills with other dogs. He’s not 100% representative of Dalmatians as a whole breed, of course (no individual dog, mixed breed or not, ever is), but he does have a lot of very specific Dalmatian traits. Those traits aren’t all as nice and easy as the ones listed above.

He’s curious about children, and loves to hear them laugh, but he’s frightened of the screaming and running and shrieking so many of them do. If he was ever cornered by one who was running wild and totally unsupervised (as so many parents allow their kids to do around dogs), he would panic. I make sure this never happens, of course, but there it is.

Some breed-specific sites still say Dalmatians are – as a breed – great with kids. Most do not – especially since the  101 Dalmatians movie debacle:  they instead acknowledge that Dalmatians’ high energy, high intelligence, high requirements for exercise and supervision, and high level of sensitivity can in fact breed problems with kids, and while they can make great family dogs, it takes a lot of commitment and should never be taken for granted.

Gilly might also panic if any adult tried to corner or restrain him without the skills for appropriate handling of a shy dog. I also make sure that doesn’t happen.

I spend a fair bit of time educating people with whom we interact about how to approach a nervous dog, how to read the animal’s body language, and encouraging people to show basic respect for any dog:  any of them have the capacity to be absolutely divine – and also to bite.

And a bite will, in the end, usually hurt the dog a lot more than the person: a person who does something stupid and gets their finger bitten at a dog park isn’t going to be taken to court and ordered to be killed by lethal injection. The dog who gave warning after warning, had each warning ignored, and finally snapped at someone in panic and desperation just might.

My half-Dalmatian Gilly is no different than any other dog in these things. Most surrenders of ‘unmanageable dogs’ spring from inadequate exercise. Most surrenders of ‘bad’ dogs result from lack of training. Most dog bites are the fault of humans who do unbelievably stupid things.

What’s different is how Gilly needs to be handled, trained, and supervised because of his specific personality, much of which is Dalmatian-esque.

He is shy with those he doesn’t know well, and takes a while to accept new people. Once he does accept new people, that’s it; they are his pack forever and everything’s grand. You’re the king of his world. But it takes a while, and he doesn’t accept everyone.

He doesn’t like people who want something from him without respect for his trust (ie: people who think dogs are things, props there to make them feel or look good regardless of how the dog feels or what it wants).

People who insist on aggressive behavior with dogs because they think it’s funny (or that they are an ‘exception’) also aren’t going to gain his confidence.

He came into the world a shy, tightly wound, sensitive (to an almost neurotic degree) dog. He may have been the runt, or not, I don’t know. What I do know is that as I learned how to care for him, I learned that these traits are common to many Dalmatians.

I also learned there’s one  primary way to keep him pretty balanced and happy, within the limitations of his nature:

about ten miles a day.

Yep.

As an experiment, when he was six months old, I took a whole day for the two of us and let him decide how far we walked. It was ten miles before he wanted to even sit down.

Can I always give him this? Of course not. Modern life doesn’t allow that kind of time for most of us. But he does get multiple miles a day. He’s eight now, so he’s slowed down a lot – but he still does regular hikes of 6 or 8 miles at a whack with pleasure, and needs at least a couple miles every day with longer walks at least once a week.

I also trained the holy hell out of him, and went WAY out of my way to socialize him heavily – even to the degree of getting him regular shifts at a dog-toy store so he would be constantly exposed to new people in a positive setting. He turned into an excellent sales-canine: he’d demonstrate each toy’s proper usage, model leashes and collars, flirt and play with your dog (I trained him to lie down and play from a lying down position with little dogs, so when he saw a Chihuahua or a Yorkie, he fell to the ground and played footsie instead of the boxing style he preferred with dogs his own size), and he was always very personable, but he still didn’t – and doesn’t – want most strangers to touch him.

It took until he was five years old or so before I started seeing consistent confidence in him: he matured slowly. He will always be a bit jumpy. It’s who he is. It’s fine, but it’s something I have to be aware of in caring for him.

Dalmatians were bred as carriage dogs; they were used to run ahead of the horse-team to flush pheasants, deer, bears, whatever, before the horses got to whatever might have startled them into upending the carriage. In other words, they were bred to RUN, not walk, tens of miles a day, and to scan for danger constantly.

So imagine.

You’re bred to run up to and maybe beyond thirty miles a day. Your metabolism works at the speed of light, as does your brain, scanning constantly for what comes next, what’s happening ahead, what’s up there, is there any danger. You’re innately coiled like a spring all the time. You have a high prey drive. You can be very possessive of your people.  Because you’re as athletic as they come, you’re prone to knee and elbow injury, as well as to arthritis since you’re a relatively big dog who may be a total crackhead when it comes to high-impact sports – and pain makes you snappy. While you bond deeply to your person, and are very affectionate with them, you’re often a one-person dog, and you’re not enormously snuggly by nature.  In fact, you may see no reason why anyone but your person should be handling you. You need a lot of socializing and training to be confident and well-behaved. You may be extremely vocal. You’re prone to allergies, deafness, vision problems, and skin issues from bad breeding, much of which is a result of the 101 Dalmatians movie and its sequel, which resulted in puppy mills generating thousands upon thousands of backyard Dalmatians for sale to pet stores to meet ill-informed parents’ demand for one of those cute spotted dogs for their kids. You feel most comfortable and secure in a calm, quiet environment and with miles and miles of exercise a day.

You’re picked up one day and dropped into a house full of screaming children who run and jump not only near you but on you. You’re not given anything LIKE adequate exercise: at best, they put you in a fenced yard with the aforementioned screaming, running, jumping children. You probably don’t get any training to speak of, and what socializing there is revolves around children, most of whom do everything, absolutely everything, absolutely WRONG in terms of dealing with a nervous/tightly-wound dog.

What’s likely to happen here, and who is going to be blamed?

Right.

After 101 Dalmatians the movie, shelters across the country filled up with rejected Dalmatians. And those were the lucky ones. How many ended at their vet’s office, or were just turned out and ended up dying in a road or starving, we’ll never know.

There are exceptions to everything I’ve said, of course. I’m sure the occasional Dalmation comes into the world magically confident, mellow, fully house-trained (by the fairies I guess), low-energy, and child-safe.

I’m even more sure no dog breed really does.

They all need training (and so do parents and children) and socialization and exercise to be good dogs.

Dalmatians, though, on the whole, may need even more than other breeds.They are smart, high-energy, tightly-wound dogs. Great dogs, but not low-maintenance ones.

The very things that make Gilly brilliant and hilarious and a total joy to be with day to day also make him very high maintenance.

Parents used to literally shriek and pick up their children, then run to the other side of the street or sidewalk when they saw me walking Shalom the Rottweiler mix on his leash.

Shalom would have killed himself before hurting someone. Truly. He was the gentlest dog I’ve ever known. He raised kittens for dog’s sake.

When parents see me walking Gilly, on the other hand, they literally throw their children at his face saying ‘go get the nice doggy!’ So I intervene, and make sure the interaction either happens in a supervised and safe way or it doesn’t happen at all. And I try to do some mellow and friendly education to keep them from doing that with a less trained and supervised dog.

Point is, there’s a world of impulsivity out there. When it comes to 101 Dalmatians and the effect it has already had on backyard breeding of a dog that’s high maintenance to begin with, poor decisions by ill-informed parents, a high risk to kids, and in the end a whole lot of dogs who pay the price, I say skip that musical.

Or at least make damn sure that with each ticket to the show, there’s a brochure about what kind of investment of time, money, training and socialization Dalmatians really need to be happy and safe family dogs. Which they certainly can be, with the right investment – but we’ve already seen that the necessary investment isn’t one most impulse-buying families are willing to make in their movie-inspired Dalmatian puppy.

The musical, to give the responsible people credit, is using rescued Dalmatians in the dog parts. That’s great. But it doesn’t change the fact that puppy mills and badly-informed parents will still make life hell for the suddenly-again-fashionable Dalmatian – which will result in more Dalmatians in shelters in need of adoption. And there won’t be a musical for them.

Please be a responsible owner, spay and neuter, do not ever buy from pet stores (because they are supplied by puppy mills), and if you hear people saying they intend to buy a dog as a present for their kids, any dog, please talk with them about whether they are really prepared to invest the time, expense, and many years of responsibility, exercise, training, and love any dog requires.

If you hear someone saying their kids are insisting they get a Dalmatian just like the ones in the musical/movie, please tell them not to do that. They aren’t like the ones in the movie.

No dog is.

And no impulse buy of a living being is likely to end well – particularly one who demands a huge amount of exercise and training.

Gilly is a spectacular creature whom I adore. He’s the single greatest joy in every day, and not one day has gone by in the last eight years – no matter what was going on – that he hasn’t made me laugh.

When we walk down the street, strangers stop me and say “He’s so well-behaved! What a good dog!” as if it happened by accident.

It didn’t.

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5 responses to “101 Dalmatians…the musical?

  1. I heard something about that musical and just thought “oh no.” Was thinking along the same lines with Halloween coming up and all the black kitties that people want as props this time of year.

    Ruby, as you know, was an ‘unmanageable’ dog surrendered to a rescue group that couldn’t even find a foster home for her she was so unruly. [I keep meaning to write up her story for you and wandering off & forgetting. Maybe you need to interview us.] That is a great idea of letting him walk until he stopped. I’ve seen Ruby tired a couple of times, but it takes a lot of doing. It would be good to know just exactly how much! A tired dog is a good dog.

    We’ve done a lot of similar training, it sounds like – with the socialization and jumpiness mitigation. Also trying to educate children. Ruby loves people but knocks the smaller ones over pretty easily, even without jumping on them. Hell, she knocks me over occasionally and I am four times her size! And with a dog who looks a lot like a pit bull, you can’t afford any public unruliness or fearfulness or irritablility or jumpiness at all.

    But people were even more afraid of Kuba – an aloof 85-lb Rottweiler shepherd husky mix – even though she was sweet as pie with people and children. Not so much with dogs. Especially huskies, weirdly. I think it was some kind of family of origin issue.

  2. I keep meaning to interview people about their rescue animals, then wandering away and forgetting! I will do this at some point.

    Yeah, people presume all the wrong things: that the mellow friendly Rottie mix or Pitt is a killer and the neurotic, fearful, or aggressive Lab or Dalmatian is a jungle gym for kids.

    They take a lot, our dogs. They’re worth it, and they give back way more than they take, but it’s a lot – and even with experienced and loving training and socialization, they can still be a handful.

    Just yesterday Gilly had a bad day: I took him to work with me into a situation he’d done before and thoroughly enjoyed, but for whatever multiple reasons, yesterday he didn’t enjoy it. He was stressed out all day, and screamed all the way home in the car like a kid having a tantrum and just could not settle down. I had to stop on the way home and get him into the woods (where, once walking and around other dogs, he was completely and immediately relaxed again).

    They’re as complicated as we are, just in different ways.

  3. Oh, and I meant to say: I have a theory that Huskies elicit different responses from dogs than other breeds do. There’s a wolfiness about them – a standoffish, undomesticated quality – that seems to get submissive admiration from some dogs and alarmed aggression from others. Not always, of course, but I feel like I’ve seen this a lot in dog parks/trail interactions.

    When Gilly was younger, he got downright fan-girly over Huskies in this sort of hyper-submissive and very exaggerated way. Now he just ignores them, as if they weren’t a dog at all but a cow or a llama: he sniffs, shrugs, and heads for the mutt or the Poodle or the Doberman or whatever.

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