Why Are Fire Station Dogs Always Dalmatians, Actually?

Written by Sharon Parry
Updated: October 14, 2022
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Dalmatians have been associated with fire departments for decades. Pictures of these proud polka dot pooches riding upfront on bright red fire trucks or posing in fire uniforms and helmets have been a staple of American popular culture for years. But why are Dalmatians fire dogs? How did the special relationship between our brave firefighters and these magnificent canines come about?

The answer lies in the 19th century when Dalmatians were used to clear the way for horsedrawn fire carriages and to guard them afterwards.

It is one we have explored starting from its beginnings in the 1600s and a closer examination of the important role these very special dogs have played alongside their brave human crewmates.

Dalmatian Early History

There is something truly unique about the Dalmatian dog breed. Their distinctive white coat and black spots make them instantly recognizable. When Disney released the 101 Dalmatians movie in 1996 it secured its place in history. Dalmatians were recognized as a breed by the American Kennel Club in 1888 and they are currently the 56th most popular breed in the US.

Their origins are something of a mystery but there are several theories! One of the most popular is that they were a cross between a Cretan Hound and a White Antelope Dog. The offspring had a natural inclination to run alongside horses and this would explain how they became the most recognized carriage dog that there has ever been.

The origin of their name is equally uncertain and there are countless theories for this too! It may be derived from “dama,” the Latin term for fallow deer, or from Jurji Dalmatin, who was a 16th-Century poet who mentioned the breed. But it could come from somewhere else entirely!

Dalmatians as Carriage Dogs

Before motor cars were invented, people traveled around the country on horseback and in carriages. Travel in the 16th and 17th centuries could be hazardous and aristocratic ladies and gentlemen and wealthy merchants faced multiple dangers including attacks by animals and robberies by highwaymen. It was during the 16th century that Dalmatians became popular as carriage dogs. They had all the attributes necessary to fill the role. Their naturally sturdy body, long legs, high energy, high motivation, endurance, and obedience were ideally suited to running at speed over long distances.

At the same time, they were small enough to fit under the axles of the carriages. But some preferred to run alongside or behind.

These dogs also had to be brave and have a desire to protect both their human masters and the horses pulling the carriage. This is probably where the bond between Dalmatians and horses started. To reinforce this, Dalmatians were kenneled in stables and most were born in stables. This ensured that Dalmatians were comfortable with horses even as puppies.

Even though other breeds such as the Great Danes, German Shepherds, and even Collies were used as carriage dogs, Dalmatians soon became the firm favorite. This is not least because they were the breed that got on best with horses. And thanks to their striking appearance were also seen as status symbols.  

As carriages were used to carry goods as well as people, the demand for these amazingly versatile and loyal dogs increased even further.

Two dalmations and a horse with two little girls

Dalmations have been used as equine companions for centuries for their calming influence on horses.

©Julia Shepeleva/Shutterstock.com

How Did Dalmatians Become Fire Dogs?

By the early 1800s, carriages were being used for a wide variety of jobs. Eventually, the horse-drawn water pump was invented and they faced the same problems as regular carriages. It was not easy to get the fire carriages through crowded streets. Also, the horses were left alone when the firefighters were busy putting out the fire which left them in danger of being attacked or stolen. Enter the Dalmatian!

These spotty hounds were perfect for the job as they were already experienced carriage dogs. They have a calming effect on horses (we still don’t completely understand why this is) and kept them steady whilst the firefighting was underway. This was especially important at the scene of a fire where there can be a lot of flames, smoke, ash, explosions, and general chaos. Dalmatians also assisted firefighters in getting to the scene by running ahead of the carriage and barking to clear pedestrians out of the way and stop them from being trampled. Back at the firehouses, the dogs and horses were kept together which only increased their bond even further.

Leading the way in using Dalmatians as “fire dogs” as they came to be known as the Fire Department of New York City. They started using Dalmatians in the 1870s and the dogs have been there ever since!

In the early 1900s, road trail and coaching competitions started up where dogs were judged on how well they stayed with carriages. The inaugural winner of the 1910 Westminster Dog Show Fire Department category was “Mike” a Dalmatian who worked at New York’s Engine Company 8 on 51st Street.

The breed proved itself indispensable and when horse-drawn trucks were replaced with motorized vehicles, no one wanted the dogs to go. So they stayed.

Dalmatian looking out of vintage fire truck

When firetrucks were pulled by horses, Dalmatians would run ahead to clear the streets from pedestrians.

©Joseph Sohm/Shutterstock.com

Why Are Dalmatians Fire Dogs Today?

The bond between firefighters and Dalmatians was particularly strong in the US and endures to this day. The dogs no longer run alongside the fire pumps though! These days they hold a place of honor in the firehouses. You will find them:

  • Acting as valued companions to firefighters who have a challenging and often stressful occupation
  • Guarding the belongings in the firehouse
  • Deterring vermin from the firehouse
  • Standing guard over fire trucks when attending fires
  • Acting as a mascot for the fire company

There are still competitions for carriage dogs and some firehouse Dalmatians compete. It is important to breed enthusiasts that the dogs retain their affinity with horses.

Also, these gorgeous dogs have taken on an important role in education. They visit schools and assist firefighters in getting over important messages relating to fire safety and emergency preparedness. Molly the Fire Safety Dog is a leading example with her own Facebook page and 99K followers.

Perhaps the most famous fire safety Dalmatian was Sparkle who sadly passed away in 2010 but beforea her death, she made lots of fire safety videos. Her website is still available packed with useful resources and is a fitting tribute to an iconic fire dog.  

The photo featured at the top of this post is © Timothy Sanders/Shutterstock.com

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About the Author

Dr Sharon Parry is a writer at A-Z animals where her primary focus is on dogs, animal behavior, and research. Sharon holds a PhD from Leeds University, UK which she earned in 1998 and has been working as a science writer for the last 15 years. A resident of Wales, UK, Sharon loves taking care of her spaniel named Dexter and hiking around coastlines and mountains.

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