The image of a polka-dotted dalmatian riding shotgun in a fire truck is indelible in American pop culture and lore, but the story of how they got there is lesser-known. In honor of National Fire Pup Day, I've delved into the history, evolution, and enduring legacy of the dogs who keep firefighters company. Early fire dogs were employed as far back as the 17th century where they dutifully rode with carriages. From that time on, fire dogs have served as a heroic symbol for their brave humans. Occasionally, however, fire dogs are asked to get in on the action. Well-over a hundred years ago, dogs were trained to trot alongside of horse-drawn carriages to protect both the human occupants as well as the horses that pulled them. Although there weren't any specific breeds used to guard the carriages, they did have to possess a few general characteristics; long legs, good temperament, motivation, energy, and endurance. "Enter the dalmatian. According to the American Kennel Club’s Complete Dog Book, quoted on the Dalmatian Club of America website, dalmatians were the perfect carriage dog because they have the “strength, vitality, fortitude and size to keep going gaily till the journey’s end.' Dalmatians also happened to have a reputation for getting along great with horses, and it wasn’t long before they became the favored carriage dog among wealthy citizens of England and America." In the late 1700s, carriage dogs became fire pups. "Dalmatians were perfectly suited for the job, not only because of their carriage-trailing abilities but their grace under fire. Dalmatians were known to have a calming effect on horses, so while firefighters battled the blaze, the fire dog could stay with the horses ease their stress. Back at the station, the fire dog would typically bunk in the stable alongside their equine charges."
But once motorized vehicles came along, it seemed that the graceful dalmatian was out of a job. Or were they? By that point, the public was used to seeing dalmatians alongside firefighters. Firedogs needed a new job description to suit the modern age of gas-powered fire trucks. In the 20th century and beyond, fire stations across England and America kept dalmatians on-site as firehouse residents and mascots. The tasks of a modern firehouse dog can include 1. Serving as companions to the firefighters; 2. guarding belongings in the firehouse and hunting vermin; 3. Riding along to fires and standing guard over the truck; 4. Acting as the fire company mascot.
During the 20th century, dalmatians and other fire pups also made an important move into education, helping firefighters demonstrate fire safety and emergency preparedness for school and community groups. But dalmatians are the only fire dogs around. It’s become common for firefighters (and sometimes entire fire teams) to adopt dogs rescued from fires. These lucky pups, whatever their breed, become symbols of the resiliency, bravery, and fortitude of firefighters and the individuals they help.
Moving ahead to the 21st century, fire dogs have taken on additional duties. "Other dogs take on important fire safety jobs outside the firehouse, such as accelerant-sniffing “arson dogs.” According to the State Farm Arson Dog Program, arson dogs are specially trained to “sniff out minute traces of accelerants (gasoline, lighter fluid, etc.) that may have been used to start a fire.” These super-sniffers are trained and work alongside individual firefighters or law enforcement officers to investigate the scene of a fire after the blaze has been extinguished."
Firedogs have come along way from their origins as carriage dogs running alongside wagons and buggies. These days, a fire dog can be any size, shape, or breed. Of course, dalmatians remain the most popular firehouse mascots thanks to their centuries-old reputation as the perfect fire dog. But whatever they look like, firehouse dogs are a reminder of the advances in firefighting technology, the lifesaving work of firefighters, and the loyalty of man’s best friend.
Tomorrow is, of course, Wednesday so that means my wise teacher and dear friend, The Dharma Frog will be here with my weekly life lesson. Whatever it is, I'm sure it'll be interesting and offer a powerful message. They always do. So please join me here tomorrow and see what Dharma has to teach us all. Until then, take care and stay safe.