Want a Dalmatian? Not if you've lived with one, says Rachel Halliburton
If your dream of Christmas includes Dalmatians, forget it now. Harden your heart to pups that colour co-ordinate with gifts from Accessorize; blank out visions of Disney-sized eyes gazing up at you. Imagine instead the scene of devastation at our house one Christmas: the turkey mangled by breakfast time, the presents under the tree ripped to shreds, the paint stripped from doors.

Our family, you see, has done Dalmatians: three of them. We had some difficulties with each, but one in particular gave new meaning to the word delinquent. Alas, poor Poppy. She was an unhappy dog. She had been rescued by Battersea Dogs' Home from an owner who bought her as a cute pup, got bored, and left her tied up in a shed for weeks. Dalmatians, particularly in their first two years, need constant attention and exercise, and a dog that is neglected will develop neurotic characteristics. Poppy, typical of her breed, could not cope. By the time she came to our house she was a compulsive eater, putting away not just dog food, but whole cakes, packets of biscuits and tubs of margarine (neat). In addition she suffered from "top dog syndrome": she was the liveliest of the litter, active and boisterous in the extreme, and was the kind of dog even experts find difficult to handle.

Meal times became a battlefield. Guests who hesitated as they lifted a forkful of food to their mouths would be taken unawares as a flash of black and white hunger came between them and the plate. If lucky, they would lose only the food on the fork. One guest lost five pieces of garlic bread in a row.

Dog experts told us we should punish her. When a firm slap, and "naughty dog", fell on deaf Dalmatian ears, we were advised to throw glasses of cold water over her each time she stole. Unfortunately, none of our family is very good at aiming. We would flee soaking from meals, while the dog cleared the rest of the table.

Her obsession had made her crafty enough to open doors if left outside a room. But the strain of standing on her hind legs would lead to another of her less appealing qualities: flatulence. This would generally take centre-stage on long car journeys, when with six people in the car plus all their luggage, one fart could lead to a stifling atmosphere. Two people would therefore be placed on window-duty, ready on the cue of "fart alert" to roll down the windows and let the deadly fumes escape.

Sadly, Poppy's eating habits eventually got the better of her. After one Christmas she suddenly became very subdued and lost her appetite. The vet diagnosed acute abdominal obstruction, leading to kidney and liver failure, and put her down. When he opened her up, he found enough chess and Scrabble pieces to start a new Waddington's factory.

Not all Dalmatians are like this, of course. But, reader, be warned. A dog like Poppy could drive you barmy for life, not just for Christmas.