Christine Bernsdorf
Dr Christine Bernsdorf (DVM, University of Queensland)
Photo of adult Dalmatian

The Dalmatian is a medium-to-large sized dog that is active, athletic, friendly, loyal and intelligent. The Dalmatian has a short fine coat with a highly distinctive pattern, with a lovely white base coat decorated by distinctive spots that are usually black or liver in colour. The Dalmatian became popular in England in the early 1800s, where it was used as a carriage (coach) dog, due to its natural affinity with horses, and its talent for running long distances.

In modern times, the Dalmatian has integrated easily into family life, due to its easy-going nature and trainability. The Dalmatian is an energetic dog and is most suited to an active lifestyle with daily exercise – the Dalmatian is an excellent jogging companion.

About & History

The origin of the Dalmatian is unclear. What is agreed upon is that Dalmatian ancestors likely come from ancient stock, as depictions of spotted dogs following chariots have been found among ancient relics in Egypt and Greece.

A description of a spotted dog, called Canis Dalmaticus, was found in church documents, dated in the early 1700s, from a historical area in Croatia called Dalmatia. This is the best evidence available as to the origin of the name Dalmatian.

The Dalmatian is reported to have travelled with migrating gypsies throughout Europe, and through this mode of travel the Dalmatian may have arrived in Great Britain. In nineteenth century Great Britain, the Dalmatian breed became firmly established as it became popular among aristocrats, and popular as a carriage dog. Carriage dogs in this era were used to accompany horse-drawn carriages, where they would run behind the carriage, or in front of the carriage, possibly clearing the road ahead of the horses of other animals.

The Dalmatian had many attributes that made it useful as a carriage dog – it had a natural affinity with horses, it could run long distances, it could act as a guard dog for the coach and for the horses, and it enjoyed hunting the vermin, which were found around horse stables. The Dalmatian’s distinctive appearance, its trainability and its good temperament were also clear assets.

The Dalmatian became a standard addition to the early horse-drawn fire brigades, and were frequently found accompanying the wagons of beer brewers. This tradition has continued into modern times, even when the Dalmatian is no longer required to accompany carriages. The Dalmatian is frequently used as a mascot and/or guard dog at fire stations, a tradition that spread to the United States. Dalmatians also accompany the beer wagons drawn by the Budweiser Clydesdale teams. Kennel clubs currently classify the breed as either utility, non-sporting, or companion dogs.


Dalmatian Large Photo

The Dalmatian is a medium-to-large sized dog with a lean, muscular, proportionate build, that is as long as it is high (at the highest point above the shoulders). The muzzle is long, and the ears are flat and drooping, and taper at the tips. The eye colour is usually brown or amber, but can be blue. The eyes may also be different colours, for example, one brown and one blue.

Dalmatians weigh approximately 23-25 cm; the male dog tends to be slightly taller (58-61 cm) than the female dog (56-58 cm). Over time, breeding has refined the colouring of the Dalmatian coat, with the aim of having distinct spots, black or liver in colour, over a pure white background.

Dalmatian pups are usually born with a pure white coat. The spots start to appear at about 2 weeks of age and develop rapidly in the ensuing weeks. The spots are almost fully developed by 1 month of age, although they can continue to change, slowly and subtly, over the ensuing years. Dalmatian pups can occasionally be born with colour, which was traditionally considered an undesirable trait by kennel clubs. However, it has been found that these pups are less likely to having hearing problems (as discussed within the Health section), and therefore, these pups may be quite desirable as pets.

Patches, which are blocks of colour that are larger and less defined than spots, can occur, particularly around the ears and head. These patches are often present at birth, and while not considered desirable in show dogs, they are perfectly acceptable, and even considered cute, for family dogs.

Rare variations in coat colour exist, and can include:

  • Pure White (No Spots)
  • Lemon or Orange-Coloured Spots – these spots develop later than Black or Liver Spots
  • Blue-Grey Spots
  • Brindle Spots
  • Mosaic Spots
  • A Tri-Coloured Coat – often with predominantly Black Spots, but Tan/Liver spotting on the eyebrows, cheeks, legs and chest

The Dalmatian coat is usually short, fine and dense and sheds on a daily basis. Rarely, a Dalmatian is born with long hair, and this coat type tends to shed less frequently.

The Dalmatian sometimes shows an unusual and characteristic 'grin', where the corners of the mouth and the lips are pulled back, and the teeth are on full display – it can look quite threatening. This grin, when accompanied by happy snorts, a wagging tail and a wiggling body, is usually a form of greeting. The 'grin' may also be displayed as a form of submission, especially when the dog is being rebuke for naughty behaviour, in which case the tail tends to wag but the body is soft and droopy, bending around slightly. A more threatening sign is if the body and tail are stiff, and the dog is 'grinning' with a snarl - this behaviour is normally quite rare for Dalmatians.

Character & Temperament

The Dalmatian is an energetic, friendly, loyal, sensitive dog that is usually an excellent companion for children, however, may be a bit boisterous for babies and toddlers. The Dalmatian is likely to require more exercise than simply playing with children, however.

The happy, balanced Dalmatian is unlikely to show aggression, and when a strange person or animal is nearby the Dalmatian will demonstrate its wariness by remaining aloof to the stranger. The Dalmatian is usually compatible with other animals once it has become accustomed to them.

Dalmatians are said to have a high guarding instinct, although this trait may have 'mellowed' in the modern Dalmatian. The Dalmatian may warn of the presence of strangers with a deep bark, however, in general they are not overly talented guard dogs due to their affable nature, low tendency to bark, and their tendency to remain aloof (rather than aggressive) with strangers. Lastly, Dalmatians have a strong hunting instinct and may enjoy catching rats, mice and other vermin.


Photo of Dalmatian puppy

Dalmatians have good memory retention, are eager to please, and respond well to praise – a combination that makes them easy to train. For this reason, Dalmatians are sometimes found performing in circuses. As puppies, Dalmatians will show normal youthful behaviour, such as digging and chewing, and should be taught early with plenty of praise and encouragement, what is preferred behaviour and what is not, as a Dalmatian can as easily learn bad habits as good habits.

Dalmatians love to run, jump and climb, and these attributes can be used to entertain and train the dog, by participating in any number of canine sports, such as agility training. Dalmatians are not particularly renowned for being hugely successful competitors, as there are more athletic breeds of dogs, but they would still enjoy the mental stimulation and exercise.


Dalmatians tend to live between 10-13 years, with the occasional dog living as long as 16 years. Overall, the Dalmatian is a relatively healthy dog – its moderate size and proportional conformation minimises the number of health issues to which other purebred dogs are subjected. The two most common hereditary issues with Dalmatians include deafness and blocked urinary tracts:


Before deafness was recognised in Dalmatians, the Dalmatian was often accused of being unintelligent. Deafness in Dalmatians, as with many other breeds that are predominantly white, is linked to the absence of melanocytes (pigment-containing cells) in the inner ear. These melanocytes give the coat its colour, but also have other important functions throughout the body, including maintaining the fluid pressure (endolymph) of the intricate inner ear.

Dalmatians with blue eyes (blue because the iris contains no melanocytes) are over two times more likely to be deaf than brown-eyed Dalmatians. Sometimes the dog is only deaf in one ear.

Responsible Dalmatian breeders will usually have their pups tested by veterinarians, using a BAER/BAEP (Brainstem Auditory Evoked Response/Potential) test. Kennel Clubs have traditionally recommended euthanasia of deaf pups in order to prevent continuation of this genetic defect within the breed. The genetics of deafness are complicated, and involves multiple gene loci, and an accurate DNA test for deafness is currently not available. As long as a deaf pup is not bred, and is can be raised in a committed, watchful and caring environment, it can still become a very sweet pet.

Urinary Stones

Another unique feature of Dalmatians is that they produce a different type of urine to other dogs. Dalmatians excrete uric acid (rather than allantoin) as an end product of purine metabolism – purines are found in high concentrations in meat and meat products. The uric acid can crystalise into urate, and form stones. These stones can block the urinary tract, which is most likely to occur in the narrow and long urethra of male dogs.

All Dalmatians have this genetic defect, however, only a subset of dogs develop clinical disease. A DNA test is currently available to breeders, dog owners and veterinarians. Special diets, that are low in purine, are available for Dalmatians, and can help prevent disease, however, affected dogs are also generally subscribed medication.

Other Rare Health Problems Present in Dalmatians

  • Autoimmune Thyroiditis – Essentially the inflammation of the thyroid gland, which causes primary Hypothyroidism
  • Allergies – Like many other dog breeds, Dalmatians can suffer allergies, which can result in inflamed hair follicles and hair loss, infected pustules, oozing of serum, and permanent discolouration of the white coat. This discolouration is referred to as Bronzing Syndrome. Stress, heat and humidity can exacerbate the side effects of allergies.
  • Blood Transfusion Reactions – Some Dalmatians have a unique blood type, called Dal. These Dalmatians are at greater risk of a transfusion reaction, if they are unlucky enough to require a blood transfusion.
  • Iris Sphincter Dysplasia – This causes the dog to squint in bright light, as it cannot adjust the size of the pupil to the light. It is more commonly seen in liver-spotted dogs.
  • Epilepsy – Causes seizures
  • Liver Disease – Abnormal excretion of copper and accumulation of copper in the liver
  • Hip Dysplasia – An irregular formation of the hip joint that can cause lameness and arthritis in the joints
  • Sudden Onset Respiratory Distress – Inflammation of the lungs is the very rare and tends to be associated with a certain line of Dalmatians from Finland

Exercise and Activity Levels

Dalmatians are highly active dogs that require daily exercise. Puppies should not be over-exercised, but as adults (> 1 year), and with appropriate training, Dalmatians are capable of running long distances. Dalmatians can make great jogging companions, although care should be taken to avoid heat stress. Dalmatians are natural athletes capable of performing many types of canine sports.


Dalmatians do not require a lot of grooming, as they tend to remain quite clean and do not develop strong dog odours. In general, unless the dog is dirty or smelly, less bathing is better.

The short fine dense coat sheds hairs on a daily basis, and if the dog is allowed inside the house, the short stiff hairs can penetrate into furniture fabrics, blankets and carpets. Daily to weekly brushing can help minimise the amount of hair that is spread around the house.

Famous Dalmatians

With plenty of famous examples, Dalmatians are both popular pets and film stars. Here are just a few examples:

  • In 1789, the American President George Washington purchased a coach dog – a Dalmatian named Madame Moose
  • 101 Dalmatians is a book written by Dodie Smith, which became a Disney animated classic, and subsequently a live action film
  • Firehouse mascots
  • Budweiser Beer Carriage Dogs that accompany the Clydesdale teams


The Dalmatian-Pointer Backcross Project began in 1973 by Dr. Robert Schaible, using a single English Pointer in an attempt to introduce normal urine-producing genes to the Dalmatian gene pool. The project continued on in 2005 as the Dalmatian Heritage Project. Given their sweet demeanour and popularity as pets, Dalmatians have also been known to be used to create 'designer dogs'. One example includes:

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