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Talking to our canine friends... the Dalmatian Whisperer

Danny Gamble loves the breed so much he runs a holiday home for them in Co Londonderry

By Fionola Meredith

At the end of Dodie Smith's famous book, The Hundred and One Dalmatians, all the rescued dogs move into a big country house together, with plans to raise a whole "dynasty of dalmatians".

Danny Gamble, whose own love affair with these striking spotted dogs started over 15 years ago, might not be operating on quite such a grand scale – yet – but he's getting there. Danny and his wife Annette currently have eight dalmatians of their own, from top dog Winston to tiny newcomer Donny, living at their home in the Co Londonderry countryside.

And that number swells substantially when other spotty friends come to visit. Because Danny runs a holiday home for dogs, with a difference. All breeds are welcome, but dalmatians are his speciality.

Dalmatian owners from all over Ireland bring their dogs to stay with Danny when they go away, leaving them there safe in the knowledge that they'll be cared for by a man who has a deep understanding and connection with these scatty, cunning, charming animals.

When I whistle for my own dalmatian, Rudi, he frequently ignores me, eventually returning at a time of his own choosing. That's the nature of the breed. But when Danny calls him, he trots along instantly, ready to obey. If there's such a thing as a Dalmatian Whisperer, Danny Gamble is the man.

When you arrive at Mullabuoy Kennels and Holiday Home for Dogs, the first thing you see is a row of inquisitive spotty heads popping up along the front gate, ready to greet all comers with a volley of cheerful barks.

Danny passionately believes in free running for his dogs, and there's plenty of grassy space out the back for them to career around together.

For additional exercise, Danny sometimes rides his horse, Red, across the fields, with his own pack of dogs galloping alongside: a glorious sight. Back home, when they are tucked up in their pens, Danny plays the dogs classical music, the sound of Mozart's Clarinet Concerto lulling them to sleep.

They're never lonely when they're on a visit to Mullabuoy: Rudi always has a cute little bitch, usually Eve or Rosie, to keep him company at night. Fun, food, frolics with friends: what more could any dalmatian want?

And they usually leave feeling and smelling a lot fresher than when they arrived: on the last morning of their stay, Danny whisks them into a specially-customised grooming shed to give them a thorough soapy scrub, blow-dry and brush-up, ready to go out into the world again.

"We got our first dalmatian in 1998," says Danny. "Annette was just out of hospital and I wanted to get her a present. I was looking through the paper one day, and I saw an advert for an eight-month-old female dalmatian.

"I went to see her and she just came straight to me, she wasn't letting me go. That was Lady, and I brought her home for Annette. Lady was a pet, she wasn't a show dog, but I trained her for agility, and she was good. That got me thinking about getting back in the ring; I'd had dogs before, when I was growing up, and I'd won prizes for junior handling.

"By then, we were smitten by dalmatians, of course. So Beau came next, and he qualified for Crufts, then Rosie, and Rocco, who became an Irish champion and a reserve English champion, as well as winning the DOTY (Dalmatian of the Year) prize, which is the pinnacle of dalmatian shows."

But it wasn't until 2006 that the big daddy, Winston, came along. Named after Churchill because of his striking resemblance to the jowly British prime minister, Winston won best puppy at the Dublin Dog Show and since then has never looked back, scooping Irish, English and international awards, and fathering many litters of bouncing puppies himself.

Winston's son Junior (the very image of his dad) and daughter Julia, both champions themselves, are also part of the Gamble dalmatian dynasty.

The latest addition is little Donny, a playful, sweet-natured fellow who's just finding his place in the pack, under the ever-watchful eye of Winston.

It's true that once you own a dalmatian, you never look back. I grew up with dalmatians in the house, and my childhood memories are full of their ridiculous antics.

Dominic was my parents' first dog, standing guard under my high chair, ready to catch any tasty morsels – most dalmatians are incredibly greedy – but it's Nicky, the next in line, who I remember more clearly.

Nicky leaping streams, gates, hedges; Nicky digging a hole in the snow; Nicky groaning theatrically when it was time for him to climb off the comfy armchair, where he'd spent the evening snoozing, and be put to bed for the night.

Nicky was a great smiler: some dalmatians have the delightful ability to 'smile' when they're pleased to see you, pulling up their lips to show a devilish grin that, to the uninitiated anyway, can look rather fearsome.

Then came Danny, then Monty: both liver-spotted dalmatians, deep brown rather than black. And finally, my own dog, Rudi – also liver-spotted – a great, galumphing fool who is the source of endless hilarity, getting into all kinds of absurd scrapes and escapades, which are recounted afterwards in family stories.

Rudi is of the abiding belief that anything lying on the ground, whether at home or out and about in the park, is fair game: hats, footballs, sandwiches, frisbees, takeaway coffees, and – on one especially shaming occasion – an immaculate gentleman's overcoat, have all been snatched up into Rudi's eager jaws. Rudi also enjoys a brotherly relationship with my parents' current dalmatian, Rico, which involves much wrestling, biting and barking at each other.

No other breed seems quite as characterful or as funny or as affectionate. Or – it has to be said – as disobedient or as wilful or as stubborn.

Boisterous and energetic too, they can be quite a handful. After the success of the 101 Dalmatians film, there was a rush to buy dalmatian puppies, but sadly many ended up in rescue homes because people didn't realise what kind of commitment they were taking on.

Dalmatian Welfare UK, which rehomes abandoned dalmatians, advises prospective owners to find out about the characteristics of the dog before they commit. "This breed is not the perfect choice for everyone," advises a spokesperson.

"The dalmatian is happiest in a home where there is someone in during the day and also families who are active, enjoy the outdoors and are prepared to give our lovely breed all the exercise he or she needs."

Anyone who's at all house-proud should never consider owning a dalmatian: they constantly shed their short white hairs, which end up all over the furniture, all over the carpet and all over your clothes.

I haven't given up wearing black yet, but I spend a lot of time laboriously picking Rudi's hairs off my clothes, one by one. One answer might be to refuse to let him join me on the sofa for a cuddle, but that's never going to happen: one of life's chief pleasures is to curl up with a warm dalmatian for a snooze after lunch.

So what is it that Danny himself loves so much about the dogs?

"Their outgoing nature, that's for sure, as well as their beautiful character and appearance.

"Once they click in with you, they never leave you. They're so loyal. Especially the females, they cry for me, they look for me even more than the males would. There's always two or three looking for attention at any one time.

"It's really important for me to spend time with all of the dogs, so I might take Molly and Junior and Rosie out and give them that special time together, they really love the extra attention."

Annette helps with the dogs too, especially at the puppy stage, but she says that Danny is the one they all look up to: "Danny's the master, he looks after all eight of them the same way he looks after one."

How does Danny keep them all under his control, seemingly effortlessly? It's a question I have asked him many times, hoping to find the secret of dalmatian obedience, but it remains something of a mystery. "I really don't know. Body language, maybe. I just understand them," he says.

It seems certain that eight dalmatians won't be the limit of this dynasty of Derry dalmatians. In fact, it might only be the start. "Oh I never say never," smiles Danny. "When the right one comes along, well, you just can't say no, can you?"

Not quite 101 facts ...

Not only are they interesting to look at, dalmatians are fascinating for a host of other reasons:

  • Most puppies are born with all white coats, which only begin to show their spots at about two weeks old
  • They are often recommended to people with pet allergies as the fur doesn't trigger symptoms
  • The breed was made world famous by the animated classic 101 Dalmatians – and if you were to add up all the spots on every drawing of the 99 puppies, plus Pongo and Perdita, it would make a total of 6,469,952 spots
  • The story was also made into a live action film starring Glenn Close as Cruella De Ville
  • Dalmatians are well-known as great watchdogs, having been used by fire brigade units as guard dogs to protect their firehouses and equipment
  • Their origin remains disputed, though some believe it to be the Croatian region of Dalmatia
  • They are great companion dogs, as they are playful, easy-going and excellent with kids

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