Dalmatians are iconic dogs, and not just because of their distinct black spots on white fur make them instantly recognizable by people of all ages.
For centuries, Dalmatians have been the unofficial mascot for firefighters in the United States. In years past, they stood tall along those who risked their lives. Even today, Dalmatians are often brought into schools for fire safety education.
Where It All Began
According to Cheryl F. Steinmetz, the historian for the Dalmatian Club of America, the breed’s evolution to fire dog began as early as the mid-1700s.
“They were stable guards,” she says. “They also ran with the carriages to guard whatever was in the carriage, whether it was passengers or goods.”
There are various reasons why the Dalmatians served as stable and carriage (also known as coach) guards.
“‘As a companion, the Dalmatian is unequaled,'” Steinmetz quotes former Dalmatian Club of America vice-president Harry T. Peters as saying in a 1905 Field and Fancy article. “‘He can be broken as a pointer, he will even run a rabbit if need be. He will follow his master all day on foot, or after a carriage, and will be interested in everything that is going on.”
She also points to a theory that this role developed from the breed’s notable, albeit scientifically unproven, affinity towards horses. The ongoing curiosity about Dalmatians even led to a Harvard study to understand how the dogs were drawn to their coach positions. According to Steinmetz, certain dogs would automatically gravitate toward certain positions, whether it was the back or right under the horse.
The Fire Department of New York City can take some credit in making the breed famous as fire dogs. Due to their expertise as carriage dogs, it was logical that Dalmatians would serve well running with fire carriages. FDNY began utilizing Dals as early as the 1870s.
“Back then, the fire equipment was horse-drawn,” says Steinmetz. “The dogs came in as guards to clear the way in front of the horse. When the horses left, they stayed.”
The celebration of Dalmatians as fire dogs soon escalated and dog shows evaluating carriage guard skills began increasing.
“On the East Coast, there were road trial competitions and coaching competitions, to see how well the dogs would stay with the carriages,” says Steinmetz.
In 1910, the Westminster Dog Show developed a category for Fire Department Dalmatians. The inaugural winner was a Dal named Mike from New York’s Engine Company 8 on 51st Street. The tradition lasted for the next 30 years until being discontinued.
Certain national and regional competitions still evaluate carriage skills. These include the speed, endurance, and affinity toward horses that historically made Dalmatians such good fire dogs.
“There are titles for coach in road trial competitions,” says Steinmetz. “For the longest, the dog has to go 25 miles with the horses, with vets checking them along the way to be sure they’re in good shape. It’s something we do now to make sure they keep the affinity with the horses.”
A Lasting Friendship
In that same 1905 Field and Fancy article, Peters credited firefighters with keeping the breed’s allure alive.
“The firemen have done more to keep the Dalmatian from dying out during its eclipse from fashion than the stablemen,'” he is quoted as saying. ‘The firemen speak in high terms of the courage and fidelity of the spotted dogs.'”
More than a century later, even with no remaining need for Dalmatians’ specific coach skills, firefighters still embrace Dalmatians as their brave companions. And the Non-Sporting spotted dogs have long been returning the favor.
Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, two firefighters from Rochester, NY, gifted the FDNY Ladder 20 company a Dalmatian puppy, who was appropriately named Twenty. The pup served as a source of comfort to the firefighters, who lost seven members of the company. When Twenty died in 2016, the company mourned her loss deeply.
“She really helped to build the morale in the years following 9/11,” said FDNY Lieutenant Gary Iorio on Facebook after Twenty’s passing. “I can’t say enough about what she did to help us.”
Most recently, a fire safety education Dalmatian named Molly and her owner were awarded the 2019 ACE Award in the “Exemplary Companion” category, helping to prove that the indelible bond between Dals and firefighters remains strong to this day.