“If we can save just one life, it’s all been worth it,” remarks 2019 AKC ACE Award-winning dog owner Dayna Hilton.
Hilton, executive director of the Arkansas-based Keep Kids Fire Safe ® Foundation, has certainly saved far more lives than one, but she isn’t the star of the road appearances and Skype shows that keep her in motion year-round. That would be her soulmate, Molly, a 7-year-old, 60-pound Dalmatian.
An ideal archetype of her breed’s history as firehouse icons, Molly is the focus of presentations and exhibitions designed to help reduce fire-related deaths and injuries among children and their families across the country. The pair’s hard work hasn’t been overlooked, either.
This month, Molly and Hilton were named winners of the American Kennel Club Humane Fund Award for Canine Excellence (ACE) in the “Exemplary Companion Dog” category, one of five dog/owner teams who will be recognized at the AKC National Championships presented by Royal Canin in Orlando, Florida, in December.
A Life In The Line Of Fire
Founding the Keep Kids Fire Safe Foundation (KKFSF) in September 2009 seemed like an obvious transition for Hilton, a volunteer firefighter in Johnson County, Arkansas’s Rural Fire District #1, at the base of Ozark Mountains. She retired last year after 18 years of being on-call, but her fire safety education work with Molly has kept her plenty busy.
The pair bond with skill and gusto, while traveling approximately 25,000 miles annually, and battling Molly’s copper storage hepatopathy, a condition caused by an abnormal accumulation of copper, which can lead to progressive liver damage and scarring due to cirrhosis.
“Molly was diagnosed last year, but it was caught just in time before reaching the cirrhosis stage,” says Hilton. “She is monitored by a veterinary internist, and her primary veterinarian and will continue on prescription dog food and medicine the remainder of her life.”
Despite her disorder, Molly has become a fire safety icon and a bonafide celebrity. Hilton has been a huge fan of the popular NBC series, “Chicago Fire” for years, and she and Molly have traveled to Chicago several times to show their love for the show. Their favorite hangout on set the Engine 18 station, where they have Skyped and live-streamed several of their fire safety programs for children. If that weren’t enough, Molly’s photo now hangs on the wall, and she is on a first-name basis with many of the show’s actors.
A Burning Desire To Benefit Others
So what prompted Hilton to establish the Keep Kids Fire Safe Foundation a decade ago?
“I’ve loved animals since I was a small child,” she explains. “Little did I realize at the time that my love of dogs, my dream of becoming a firefighter, and desire to help others would one day culminate in my passion for launching a fire safety foundation.”
Hilton’s love affair with Dalmatians began when she and her husband, Robert, acquired a Dal named Sparkles in 2003. The pup had been rescued from a hoarding nightmare in Oklahoma, along with 62 other dogs. She went on to lead an amazing life, including helping to save the lives of seven children and two adults in fire-related situations.
Sparkles passed away in 2010, but her legacy was cemented a year earlier with Hilton’s establishment of the KKFSF. In 2012, Molly, who was just a puppy at the time, became the new face of the foundation.
Since that time, State Farm Insurance has become a corporate sponsor, helping Hilton to fund the Skype portion of the KKFSF’s popular fire-safety-program, “Learning About Fire Safety is Fun.” The interactive presentation has been conducted almost 500 times, and viewed by over 17,000 children and 1,800 adults in 45 states and 34 countries. Special Skype programs have been directed to university students, fire-safety educators, developmentally-disabled children, home-schooled students, and children in halfway houses.
A young Molly’s initial presentation was in a barn, complete with hay bales and a tractor. She demonstrated how to crawl low under smoke en route to escaping a burning building. Most presentations last around 30 minutes, with 15 minutes afterward devoted to petting Molly, handing out trading cards, and taking photos. On top of all the appearances, Hilton (as “Molly”) also writes a monthly fire-safety column for children for Fire Engineering Magazine’s FireLife blog.
A Difference-Making Dal
The versatile Dalmatian’s toolbox extends beyond her entertaining and engaging character, as well. Molly’s presence on the Skype screen has also proven to be an invigorating form of aid, as one grateful grandparent described.
“My 5-year-old granddaughter, Addison, was in an auto accident in 2017. She was hospitalized with multiple injuries, and suffered from emotional trauma. After a while, the injuries began to heal, but she continued to have nightmares and wake up scared,” says Trena Murphy of Tennessee.
“The next thing we knew, Addison started talking to Molly’s videos, telling the dog how she felt. It was like all of her emotions and fears were being released. She said that Molly is with her in her dreams, just like the fire fighters who had helped get her out of that car,” says Murphy. “Molly’s videos provided emotional comfort, support, and the encouragement to feel safe again. And it helped replace bad memories with good ones. I could never find words to express how truly grateful we are for the Keep Kids Fire Safe Foundation.”
On top of all of her other incredible traits, Molly has an intuitive side, as well. Hilton harkens back to an incident last year when they was visiting Joy Wright, a longtime KKFSF supporter and close friend, in a hospice facility.
“Molly was at Joy’s bedside, giving her comfort, hours before she passed,” recalls Hilton. “She wanted to climb in bed, but I had to hold her back. After we said our goodbyes and began to leave the room, Molly went back to Joy and put her head on the edge of the bed. It was a poignant, sweet moment. When I got back out to the truck, I cried. I called it the power of the paw.”
More On Molly
Molly has certainly set an excellent example of what a companion dog is capable of, and the AKC is proud to honor her as a 2019 ACE Award winner. If you want to learn more about Molly, you can find her on Facebook, where she has over 106,000 followers. For those itching for an even bigger fire safety Dalmatian fix, you can download the MollyMoji app to add fun stickers to your smartphone. Lastly, if you’d like to contribute to the cause, donations are always welcomed at the Keep Kids Fire Safe Foundation website.
The AKC National Championships presented by Royal Canin will take place Saturday and Sunday, December 14 and 15, 2019, in Orlando, Florida. Tune in to AKC.TV, or download the AKC.TV app on Roku, Apple TV, or Amazon Fire TV to catch the live stream.