Man's best friend can be a family's best friend, too. If you plan to add a dog to your household, you have lots of varieties to choose from. At last count, the American Kennel Club (AKC) recognized 161 dog breeds, and that doesn't count the additional 49 breeds recognized by the U.K. Kennel Club or all the loveable mutts out there looking for good homes [sources: AKC, The Kennel Club].

If you think a distinctive appearance, energetic personality and unwavering loyalty make for a great canine pet, a Dalmatian could be the perfect dog breed for your family. The Dalmatian is an old breed, so old, in fact, that no one knows for sure where or when the Dalmatian's distinctive spots first developed. We do know that Dalmatians are valuable working dogs. They have a long association with firefighting, but before that, they were popular carriage dogs. They'd run alongside the carriages of wealthy English lords, calming the horses and standing guard. Back when fire trucks were horse powered, hiring a few Dalmatians to help control and relax horses reluctant to approach burning buildings must have seemed like a perfect pairing of brains and brawn. It didn't hurt that Dalmatians have a great deal of stamina and are powerful, agile runners in their own right.

Although Dalmatians are probably most famous as firehouse mascots, they're good overall canine workers who've assisted man in lots of ways over the centuries. They've been used as hunting dogs, retrievers and guard dogs during wartime. Being able to perform widely different tasks and do them well requires dedication and intelligence. It also takes a willing temperament and an ingrained desire to please.

Dalmatians make good family dogs in many circumstances, but like all dog breeds, they have strengths and weaknesses. Dalmatians are intelligent, playful, active, protective, gentle, social and relatively non-aggressive. They're patient and generally good with children, too.

When Dalmatians are left alone too much or improperly socialized, their impressive intelligence can lead to digging, scratching and chewing. Their protective inclinations can result in nipping, barking and even snapping if they're confronted with unfamiliar people and haven't been taught how to behave. The Dalmatian is one breed that really benefits from time and patient instruction. This dog can rise to almost any challenge if given affection and a learning, loving environment.