Don’t Blame Disney for Dalmatians


Despite the prevalence of claims that Hollywood drives fads in dog breed popularity, there’s little evidence that this is true.  In fact, actual data sharply contradicts the unthinking mantra that popular movies make for popular breeds.  The converse is the more likely scenario: already popular dogs get featured in moves.  Hollywood mostly follows trends, rarely does it set them.

The often repeated conventional wisdom is that Dalmatian puppy popularity spiked following releases of Disney’s 101 Dalmatians: from the original in 1961 through the re-releases in 1969, 1979, 1985, and 1991; and the live action film in 1996 and its sequel in 2000 with a TV show between them.

The registration data just doesn’t support the idea that every time Disney comes out with a Dalmatian movie the breed experiences a popularity boom as we see just as many declines in popularity or stable runs of popularity as we see increases.  If Disney is a factor at all, it’s clearly contingent on a other factors coming together that simply aren’t present during most of their releases.

See if you can spot the complete failure in logic in the following account from multi-dog-book author Elaine Waldorf Gewirtz:

From 1951 until about 1960, the Dalmatian ranked around 30th in the United States, as indicated by AKC registrations. When the animated film 101 Dalmatians made its debut in 1961, the public rushed out and bought Dal pups because they seemed so cute and cuddly in the movie. Their ranking continued to climb from 27th place in 1988, to 15th place, then ninth in 1992. The media further catapulted the Dalmatian’s popularity by using its image in numerous television commercials, billboards and print advertisements.

So in the decade before the movie was first released the Dalmatian dog was ranked 30th in the country and after a supposed Dalmatian-puppy-rush the breed was still ranked about 30th nearly 30 years and FOUR trips to the big screen later.  So there was no evidence of any significant boost in popularity from the original film.

If the movie is a potent driver of popularity, how come we don’t see any effect at all from the 1960s to the 1980s?

But Dalmatians DID have a popularity boom.  Starting in 1983 and lasting until 1993 AKC registrations of Dalmatians had a string of positive yearly growth that quickly passed 10% per year and flirted with 40% growth per anum.  But 1983 was 4 years after the last  theatrical release and 2 years before the next release of 101 Dalmatians.  Is the 4th time the charm?

The dates of the movie releases do not represent profound shifts in Dalmatian popularity; rather, they are congruous with pre-existing trend lines.  The most significant rates of increase occur between releases and in the case of the 1985 release the rate of growth accelerates as we move away from the release, peaking BEFORE the 1991 release.  It’s a strange trend that grows stronger the further you get away from the supposed initiating event.

The rate of increase actually began to fall after the 1991 release turned sharply negative just two years later.

The 1996 live-action movie was released when the breed was already 3 years into a steep decline in AKC registrations and the two years following the film were the most significant declines.  By 1999 the registration numbers were lower than any time in the preceding twenty years.  The live-action movie and its sequel in 2000 not only didn’t create a fad they did nothing to stop an aging fad from dying rapidly.


This readily available fact doesn’t stop the bullshit-mill from repeating the story though.  Take this 1997 story from the New York Times:

In the movie, the Dalmatians are cute and fun. But at home, they shed, tend to snap and sometimes bite, and often do not particularly like children, former owners complain.

Animal shelters around the country have reported sharp increases in the number of unwanted Dalmatian dogs this year, many of them given to children as gifts last Christmas after the release of Disney’s remake of the movie ”101 Dalmatians.” Although nationwide figures are not available, some shelters say they have seen the number of abandoned dogs more than double and that they fear the problem will only grow worse with the new ”101 Dalmatians” television program on ABC.

A spokeswoman for the American Humane Association, Joyce Briggs, said that the group planned to survey members at its annual meeting next month to find out the extent of the abandoned-Dalmatian problem.

Well isn’t that fantastic? We have lots of CLAIMS of increases but NO ACTUAL DATA! (But we’ll look into it next month and um, not get back to you). I’ve already documented that the “Christmas Puppy” epidemic is a myth.

In South Florida, where animal control officers in Dade and Broward Counties say they have seen up to a 35 percent increase in Dalmatian returns, animal shelters say owners have found the dogs high-strung, willful and aggressive. The dogs also require lots of exercise and in some cases special care because of health problems associated with indiscriminate breeding.

Animal rights advocates say movie and television exposure can increase numbers. In the case of Dalmatians, they say, amateur breeders and so-called puppy mills flooded the market when the 1961 cartoon version was re-released in 1985 and 1991, and after the 1996 movie remake.

If the shelters are so sensitive to Dalmatian numbers, why on earth didn’t they report on the 9-fold increase in dogs you’d expect to see between 1980 and 1995?  By the time this article was written, Dalmatian numbers were in a nose dive.  And the only Flordia link I’ve found is by a single woman rescue, not “animal control officials,” and you’ll notice that they don’t include the AGE of the dogs that are supposedly flooding in to their shelters.  If they did, do you think they’d support the idea that these dogs were juveniles purchased because of the movie 6 months before or were they juveniles and adult dogs that were purchased during the huge boom which occurred outside of a convenient movie release?

Even Wikipedia repeats the fable and provides a source.  But when we look at the link it’s to a 2003 Press Release from the Marine Aquarium Council and claims:

(Hollywood, Calif.) Rewind to the summer of 1996: Following the release of the Disney’s blockbuster 101 Dalmatians, families flocked to pet stores to buy Dalmatian puppies. Fast forward to the present: As Disney and Pixar are preparing to release their new animated feature, Finding Nemo, the marine aquarium industry anticipates a similar interest in a new type of pet—tropical fish.

Well, the live action film didn’t even debut until November of 1996, so no one was buying Dalmatian puppies that summer in response to the film.  And as we can clearly see no new rush happened in the summer of 1997 (or any year since) either! That’s not legitimate documentation, it’s simply another uninformed and unsubstantiated repeating of the rumor.  Rubbish!  The rest of the Wikipedia coverage isn’t any better.

101 Dalmatians

The Dalmatian breed experienced a massive surge in popularity as a result of the 1956 novel The Hundred and One Dalmatians written by British author Dodie Smith, and later due to the two Walt Disney films based on the book. The Disney animated classic[31] released in 1961, later spawned a 1996 live-action remake, 101 DalmatiansIn the years following the release of the second movie, the Dalmatian breed suffered greatly at the hands of irresponsible breeders and inexperienced owners. Many well-meaning enthusiasts purchased Dalmatians—often for their children—without educating themselves on the breed and the responsibilities that come with owning such a high-energy dog breed.[32]Dalmatians were abandoned in large numbers by their original owners and left with animal shelters. As a result, Dalmatian rescue organizations sprang up to care for the unwanted dogs and find them new homes. AKC registrations of Dalmatians decreased 90% during the 2000–2010 period.[33]

I’ve already established that no “massive surge in popularity” happened in the 1950s or 1960s or 1970s, so the entire first premise is simply not true for the USA.

I’ve already established that NOTHING happened following the release of the second movie, either and that breed popularity was already plummeting before and continued after its release.

The claim that Dalmatian registrations plummeted 90% between 2000 and 2010 in response to a backlash against the reality of owning a Dalmatian compared to the movie is a lie, too.  While the reasons for the drop are conjecture, the statistic itself is absolutely false.  The highest yearly registration for Dalmatians came in 1993 with 42,816 and by 1997–the first year we’d see an effect from a late 1996 release–the registration numbers were already down to 22,726 and 9,722 the next year.  By 1999 the total was 4652, an 89% drop from the high and this all occurred before the year 2000 when it was supposed to have started.  The decline continued but not nearly at the same pace and a new floor was established over the second half of the next decade at around 1,000 dogs registered per year.

If Disney movies had any appreciable effect on Dalmatian popularity, it’s a very curious phenomenon.  No measured increased associated with the landmark debut in 1961,  no bump from the 1969 re-release either.  No particular improvement from the third outing in 1979.

By 1985 we’re already seeing an upward trend and the year following the fourth release isn’t spectacularly abnormal either.  The 1991 release is right in the middle of the boom but even then the year before is more impressive than the year after, and if we’re to believe that the bubble has staying power from 1985, we don’t see it happening after 1991 when the tide soon begins to go out on the breed.

The live-action movie, the TV show, and the sequel don’t even move the needle from the precipitous crash even though the proceeding boom means that there must be plenty of breeding dogs available that could be used to expand the numbers to meet demand.

I was a child of the 1980s and after the disastrous Carter presidency and optimism and economic boom under Reagan there was a clear cultural shift toward conspicuous consumption and pampering the children of the baby-boom “me” generation.  I remember vividly how quickly and ferociously fads came and went, especially involving items marketed for children (He-Man and G.I. Joe existed as cartoons simply to push plastic action figures in stores).  The must-have toy of Christmas 1985 was a Teddy Ruxpin and my mother had to brave the brutality of other desperate mothers descending on Toy-R-Us stores to get me one.  As with most other children that year, mine was defective and had to take a “vacation” early in 1986 back to the factory for repair/replacement.

This is the very same time we see the huge increase in Dalmatian breeding and it’s possible that years of pent up lust for Dalmatians driven by over-exposure to the Disney film finally made parents relent and buy the dogs in celebration of good times and a desire to own one that they hadn’t displayed in the previous 20 years.  But I think it’s much more likely that the 4th release of the film is simply coincidental and not causal to the fad.  If it is causal, we most certainly have to acknowledge that other factors played a much larger part given that the exact same film released 6 years previous and two times before that, had no appreciable effect.

In my next post I’ll examine the concomitant blame for the rise and fall of Dalmatians that likewise doesn’t align well with the evidence.

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About Christopher

Christopher Landauer is a fifth generation Colorado native and second generation Border Collie enthusiast. Border Collies have been the Landauer family dogs since the 1960s and Christopher got his first one as a toddler. He began his own modest breeding program with the purchase of Dublin and Celeste in 2006 and currently shares his home with their children Mercury and Gemma as well. His interest in genetics began in AP Chemistry and AP Biology and was honed at Stanford University.