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Seeing Spots : Dogs: Dalmatians of the nation have united, along with their owners, at a four-day national show in Anaheim. Dogs are judged on looks and performance.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was an opening ceremony befitting these black-spotted Olympians of the canine world.

First, a Dalmatian named Frank scampered over to a 15-foot flagpole and grabbed a small wooden dumbbell attached to a line. Tugging with his teeth, Frank hoisted the Stars and Stripes up the staff.

Ray Fitzsimmons, a dapper man sporting a white bow tie with Dalmatian-style polka dots, then stepped to the microphone and crooned “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

And for the grand finale came Stacy, a frisky little pooch, who pulled a ribbon attached to a big, white cardboard box bedecked by black spots. With some help from her owner, the Dalmatian pried open the top. A flood of black-and-white balloons floated skyward, the crowd tittered and clapped, and loudspeakers blared a ditty dubbed “Dalmatian Plantation.”

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Welcome to the annual National Dalmatian Show, which sashayed into town Tuesday to begin a four-day run on a grassy strip beside the parking lot of the Grand Hotel in Anaheim. The event segues into the Southern California Dalmatian Show on Saturday and Sunday at the same spot.

It is a fitting location. The Dalmatian convention is being hosted just across the street from Disneyland, the Magic Kingdom whose ownership produced the classic animated movie “101 Dalmatians,” which did for these spotted pups what Spuds McKenzie has done for all the ugly dogs of the world.

About 440 Dalmatians are participating in the national show, with some coming from as far as Maine, New York and Texas. “A couple of people are here from England to see the show and there are some from Australia,” noted Peggy Rudder, chairwoman of the event’s organizing committee.

On Tuesday, the hotel parking lot was jammed with trailers and recreational vehicles, each beside a wire-mesh dog enclosure filled with yipping Dalmatians. Flanking the scene were tents outfitted with all manner of Dalmatian paraphernalia: Dalmatian clocks, Dalmatian bowls, Dalmatian T-shirts and black-spotted canvas-and-wood director’s chairs.

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The dogs and their masters are participating in a variety of events, everything from canine beauty contests to obedience and tracking competition that would tax the nose of a bloodhound. Out of it all comes the show’s top award winner, the single dotted dog that stands out from the rest as the “Best in Breed.”

While one Dalmatian might look pretty much like any other to the untrained eye, true aficionados of these spotted canines can spy an award winner long before the dog’s nose is jammed in an Alpo bowl. It comes down to the build, an even match between height and length, a well-bred combination of nice teeth, tawny muscles and athletic bone structure.

And, of course, nice spots.

The dots are generally black (though about one in four dogs has “liver” or brown spots) and should be about the size of a half-dollar on the body, smaller on the legs and head. The experts look for even distribution of dots all about the dog’s body and great contrast between the white and black.

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But just a good set of spots does not a champion make.

“It’s like Miss America,” said Beth White, who raises Dalmatians and appaloosa horses with her veterinarian husband, Jack, on their ranch in Colorado. “She has to have more than a big bust. And with Dalmatians, there’s more than one thing you have to look at.”

All of those spots are not always God-given. In the past, some competitors have been caught altering their dogs by chalking the white to make it more brilliant or inking extra spots, said Fitzsimmons, chairman of the Southern California Dalmatian Show.

Such instances of cheating, however, are exceedingly rare. Mostly, the beauty of a Dalmatian is in the eye of a judge.

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“It’s human, it’s not a science,” Fitzsimmons said. “I would equate it more with an art form than a sport, except you are dealing with live and loving creatures.”

To display the dogs, their owners push the pups into a splay-legged show stance, then prance about the ring with them on a leash. The judge winnows down the competitors until the top finishers are left.

Throughout the morning, scores of people hunkered in lawn chairs at the edge of the roped-off ring, jotting down notes and exchanging information as the canines danced across the moist grass with their handlers.

“All these people are breeders, and they’re terribly interested in what’s going on in the ring,” said Fitzsimmons, himself a Dalmatian owner for two decades.

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The breeders, he explained, try to spot new talent to blend with their own dogs and create an even better brand of Dalmatian. Breeding is hardly cheap, with stud fees for the top dogs running upwards of $500. A good show puppy, meanwhile, can fetch as much as $1,000.

That’s a pretty hefty price given the blue-collar roots of the Dalmatian. The breed became a common sight in England several centuries ago, where they were used on coaches to protect the contents when the horseman was gone. Dalmatians also got along well with the horses, often living in the stables.

Perhaps the Dalmatian’s most enduring legacy, however, is as a firehouse dog. With their seemingly instinctual fondness for horses, the dogs were fetched up by departments back in the days before gasoline-driven fire trucks. And their friendly dispositions kept them on as mascots with fire companies even after the horses left.

These days, people cite a variety of reasons for favoring the breed. Sam Hart, a longtime Dalmatian owner from Canada, said he “likes the cleanliness” of the short-haired canines and finds them “a great family dog and really true to their masters.”

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He is not alone in his fondness. Judging from the participants at the National Dalmatian Show, owners of the dotted dogs are of all types: teachers, doctors, attorneys, financiers.

“The commonality of the breed unites disparate people who wouldn’t get together otherwise,” Fitzsimmons said. “We can sit and talk long into the night about tail sets, eye color, pigment, spot distribution, angulation, rear drive, front reach.”

If Fitzsimmons is beginning to sound like he’s talking about a new car, don’t be fooled. Like other owners, it’s the personality of the Dalmatian, not the mechanics of the canine, that won him over.

“It’s the temperament, the excellence of the dog as a companion that grows on you,” Fitzsimmons said. “They always want to be around you. They insist on it . . . . They have wonderful, ingratiating personalities.”

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Dalmatian Facts Name: Dalmatian Size: 19 to 23 inches at shoulders and weighs 35 to 55 pounds. Color: White with black spots of various sizes and shapes. About one in four is “liver” brown spotted. Disposition: In general even-tempered and friendly. History: Named after the Adriatic coastal region of Dalmatia, its first definite home. Time and place of origin of breed are unknown. Use: Is best known as a coach or carriage dog, functioning as an escort and guard for horse-drawn vehicles. Common sight in American fire departments of yore. Nicknames: English coach dog, firehouse dog, plum-pudding dog, and spotted dick. Source: The New Encyclopedia Britannica


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