Pomp & Circumstance - by John Sealander

To a Dalmatian it's a parade

Pick up any decent book about dog behavior and you will discover that dogs like, and in fact often depend on, familiar rituals. But you already knew that, didn't you? The thing I'm curious about is whether it is the sense of familiarity or the ritual itself that is most important to the dog. With Dalmatians, I suspect it is the latter.

Spot, while making no claims to represent his breed, is a fairly typical Dalmatian. Even on the eve of his thirteenth birthday, he still loves to do new and different things. He enjoys new and different routes on his daily walks, he is always game to see if some new disgusting object in the park happens to be edible, and he'll never turn down the chance to say hello to a stranger.

The dog does love rituals though. In fact, the bigger the ceremony you can make of something, the more excited he gets. He will turn up his nose at ordinary dry dog food. But if you take two kinds of kibble and make a big show of mixing it together, making sure to stir frequently and make plenty of banging noises on his bowl with a spoon, he'll be drooling as if you were mixing fresh shrimp and prime rib.

Spot has always been this way. If I see him headed toward the bathroom to drink toilet water, all I have to do to get him to make a U-turn and head for the kitchen is ask him if he wants some "fresh water." This ritual involves pouring the water out of a dog bowl I probably filled less than ten minutes ago and adding new "fresh" water straight from the tap. I don't know why this little refilling ritual makes Spot's water more desirable, but it does. I know I could carry things one step further by keeping a special jug of water for him in the refrigerator, but with a Dalmatian, you've got to draw the line somewhere. Once you have made a ritual more complex, there is often no turning back.

Spot's sleeping habits are a good case in point. At some point when he was still a puppy, I put a blanket on him, thinking he might get cold during a dismal, rainy Winter night. He liked the blanket and never forgot it. Now, the ritual of bedding down for the night always involves getting under a blanket. Winter or Summer, rain or shine, the first thing he does each night is crawl under a blanket as he goes to bed. In the Summer, as you might expect, he quickly gets hot and crawls out again to lie on top of the blanket five minutes later. Sometimes, he'll repeat this process five times during the night. The blanket has nothing to do with warmth anymore. It has become part of the sleep ritual.

Collecting tennis balls is another ritual. We frequently pass a public tennis court on our walks and Spot quickly learned he could almost always find stray tennis balls hidden in the tall grass of a small wooded area behind the court. He must be able to smell them, because no matter how well the balls were hidden in the weeds, he would always go straight to them, often from as far as thirty feet away. At first these tennis balls were prized objects to be played with during the walk itself. Later, they just became collectible items, no different than Beanie Babies or Limoges Boxes.

Spot collects tennis balls. As soon as he finds one now, he heads straight for home to add the newest yellow treasure to his growing collection. He's become very particular too, only selecting fuzzy new balls with a lot of bounce in them. Several times, I've seen him drop a shabby looking ball from his mouth when he spotted something more appealing in the grass ahead. Now that Spot is older, he doesn't like to play ball as often as he used to. The balls are full of ritual value to him though. They're almost become like money. I keep a big basket by the front door where he deposits each new find. When he wants a treat, or to go out in the back yard, or just about anything actually, he will get one of these balls and bring it to me in hopes of trading it for what he really wants.

Being the observant dog that he is, it didn't take Spot long to notice that house keys are the true source of power in any house. The person with the keys has control of the house, with the almost magical ability to open and close doors at will. Keys are the Holy Grail for Spot. Grabbing the keys from a low table or open purse and proudly parading around the house with them has become a ritual of great significance. Sometimes, he will grab the keys and run immediately to the refrigerator with them, fully expecting that he can cause the door to open and provide him with a cornucopia of food. At other times, he will grab the keys from the last person to come home for the evening, as if to say, "I have the keys now, and nobody's leaving unless I say so." Whenever I see Spot having one of those periodic dog dreams where all four paws twitch delicately in the air, I imagine him thinking about the physics of doors and keys. Doors are the great mystery to dogs. If they could just figure out how the darned things opened and closed, life would be sweet.

With all these odd little rituals and ceremonies, it is sometimes hard to decide whether I have an unusually intelligent dog, or a neurotic one. I suspect the real answer is that he is completely normal. All dogs have their little ceremonies and rituals. The only difference is that while most dogs seem content to limit their ceremonial activities to burying the occasional bone in the back yard, Dalmatians have more of a flair for the dramatic. A Dalmatian can almost effortlessly turn the most innocuous of doggie ceremonies into a three act play.

Case in point. While most dogs seem content to just lift their leg and pee to cover another dogs sent with their own, Spot is determined to get the mystery dog's life story. He spends so much time carefully analyzing the scents of other dogs, that I'm convinced he was a chemist in a former life. He will carefully touch his tongue to the grass and then begin a strange and often noisy ritual of simultaneously snuffling and drooling as he mixes the new scent with his own saliva. You can almost see the gears turning in his head as he carefully analyzes the smell. "Hmm, three years old, female, gets chicken mixed in with her lamb & rice at dinner...this one is worth meeting." Only when he is fully satisfied that he has learned everything there is to know about the new dog on the block, will he finally pee on the spot and be on his way.

In his younger years, Spot was as wild and full of energy as any other Dalmatian at the end of a leash. Now, it's more like "walk ten feet, sniff ten minutes." He seems to enjoy his little chemistry experiments though, so who am I to criticize.

Dalmatians are always curious to see what's around the next corner. Whenever they find something however, they insist on making a huge production of the event. Maybe this is normal for dogs that are still prized as circus performers and were originally used to add a bit of flash and color as they ran smartly alongside their owner's horse and carriage.

At any rate, there's never a dull moment with a dog who enjoys the pomp and circumstance of day-to-day life as much as the earl or duke he probably thinks he is. If Spot isn't parading regally around the house trying to open doors with the car keys, he thinks he's Don Quixote, barking furiously to defend the neighborhood from the big black trash bags that mysteriously appear on the curb every Thursday morning. Simple things have great significance to Spot. There is a time and place for everything. Cats are to be barked at and squirrels are to be ignored. Morning heartworm tablets and vitamins are always eaten first and then breakfast comes later. It's all about food and territory really. "Pizza" is a word with almost religious connotations. In fact, in this house it has to be spelled out, because once you make the mistake of saying the word out loud, Spot will sit by the front door barking until the Pizza man arrives. Some rituals must be frustrating for a dog. No matter how loud Spot barks, the pizza man never comes any sooner.

Of course, each day ends with the most curious little ritual of all: exactly three and one half clockwise turns before lying down to go to sleep. I guess that's just the way it is done.

If you enjoy these stories and would like to help this wonderful breed of dogs, please consider making a donation to Dalmatian Rescue of North Texas. Your donation will help Dalmatian Rescue continue to rescue and rehabilitate the hundreds of Dalmatians that are abandoned in North Texas every year. To help give a deserving Dalmatian a second chance, just click on the button to your left. You can use any major credit card to make your donation instantly and no matter what you choose to give, you can feel a little better knowing that you have helped a dog very much like Spot find the one thing it really needs: a home.

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copyrightę1999. Contact John Sealander at: john@sealander.com 25327 readers since 12/2/99