Firefighters provide invaluable service to people in any nation. They risk their lives entering dangerous environments to make sure no fire spreads too far or too wide. Along with their bright red fire trucks, you’ll also often find them with dogs, in particular, Dalmatians. Why do they have Dalmatians? You can even see a few Dalmatians in their stations, in their trucks, and they’re even brought along to discuss fire safety in schools.
But what is the purpose of Dalmatians to firefighters, why are they the unofficial mascots of firefighters in America, and how did this happen in the first place? Today we’ll answer those questions as we take a quick trip down the history of Dalmatians and their evolution as fire dogs.
1700 to 1900
In the 1700s, people thought that Dalmatians were just normal, unremarkable dogs but they began to notice that these dogs would run alongside carriages for long distances. They would often surround horses in one or two pairs. Not long after people allowed Dalmatians to accompany carriages because the dogs would have a tendency to guard the contents of carriages. Due to their long legs, sturdy body, endurance, high energy, and affinity with horses, Dalmatians became the perfect carriage dogs or coach dogs.
Dalmatians became a well-loved breed for guarding stables, and by 1870 the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) would become one of the first few fire departments to use Dalmatians as firedogs.
These dogs would be instrumental for firefighters in many ways. Whenever they hear the sound of a fire alarm these dogs would begin barking so that bystanders would move out of the way of the firefighter’s carriages. Not only did they help in clearing the way, but they also helped keep their horses from panicking from the fires. The presence of a Dalmatian often helped horses by keeping them calm or distracting them to make sure they didn’t run away in fear.
During those times, fire departments were privately owned and therefore had strong competition with other fire departments. Because of this competition, firefighters would often carry valuable possessions and equipment. As coach dogs, Dalmatians would make sure no one would steal their equipment, belongings, or the horse itself.
Throughout their career as fire dogs, Dalmatians would be bred and trained for their uncanny coach guarding skills. By 1910 the Westminster Dog Show would develop a category for fire department Dalmatians. This national and regional competition showcased the speed, endurance, and skill these dogs need to be excellent coach dogs. The competition also gave breeders an incentive to continue training these dogs and cultivate their talents. It’s believed that these dogs could run 25 miles alongside horses.
However, as time went on people stopped using horse-drawn carriages and firefighters began using fire trucks. By 1920, most fire stations phased out the use of carriages entirely. Because of these technological advancements, the specific coach guarding skills of Dalmatians became less valuable. Essentially these dogs were now out of a job, but that didn’t stop them from keeping one or two dogs around the fire station. Clearly, these dogs weren’t going anywhere!
The public was so used to seeing Dalmatians alongside firefighters, they became the unofficial mascot, and because of that, it’s tradition to keep a Dalmatian in the station. But keeping up with tradition isn’t the only job they do.
Without carriages to guard, fire dogs had a massive change in their job description. From the 20th century onwards, Dalmatians were kept on-site as mascots, companions, guardians, and even pest control. They’re even used for educational purposes! Oftentimes Dalmatians would help firefighters demonstrate fire safety education and emergency response preparation for schools and community groups.
Nowadays, no matter what shape, size, or breed, any well-trained dog can hold the title of fire dog. A good example of fire dogs that aren’t exclusively Dalmatians are Arson dogs. These dogs are specifically trained to be capable of sniffing out accelerants such as gasoline, lighter fluid, etc. Often these dogs would not only work alongside firefighters but also law enforcement officers to help them investigate fire-related emergencies or to see if fires have been completely extinguished.
While it is common to see firefighters adopt or keep dogs other than Dalmatians these days, Dalmatians still retain their title as great Fire Dogs. They remain the most recognizable, prominent, and popular mascot for firefighters due to their shared history. Today, these dogs serve as a reminder of the long history of firefighters, their lifesaving duty and obligation, and the lifelong bond between us and man’s best friend.
Shortly after the 9/11 attack, the FDNY Ladder 20 Company received a Dalmatian as a gift. This dog served as a source of comfort for firefighters during those trying times. She would help build morale and offer solace to firefighters for years to come. Twenty would continue to serve alongside these firefighters until she passed in 2016.
Molly is a fire safety education Dalmatian that helps her owner, Dayna Hilton, present fire safety tips. Hilton and Molly’s presentations were designed to help reduce fire-related deaths and injuries among children and families across America. Molly has even been awarded an ACE award in 2019.
Sparkles the Fire Safety Dog
Sparkles the Fire Safety Dog is a world-famous fire dog from Clarksville, Arkansas. Sparkles routinely travel the country and teach children the importance of fire safety across America. She’s even the main character in her own children’s book series about fire safety. This adorable Dalmatian is an enduring testament to the legacy of these black-and-white spotted dogs as brave firefighting dogs.