Why Are Dalmatians Fire Dogs?
By Dr. Carly I. O'Malley June 22, 2020
Dalmatians are iconic dogs that may be associated with specific memories for some people. Many of us are familiar with Dalmatians because of the Disney movies. The original animated movie, 101 Dalmatians, was first released in 1961. The live action remake was released in 1996, with a sequel released in 2000 called 102 Dalmatians. These movies caused Dalmatians to become very popular companion dogs, especially after the 1991 re-release of the animated movie. Most Millennials that are familiar with Dalmatians were exposed to this dog breed through this 90s release. Besides the films, people of all ages are familiar with Dalmatians as fire dogs. They are frequently kept as fire station pets and are often historically depicted riding horse-drawn fire trucks. You may even have seen Dalmatians in Budweiser commercials along with the iconic Clydesdales. Even those of us who are used to seeing Dalmatians in these contexts may not fully understand the reasoning behind these depictions of Dalmatians. Why are Dalmatians known as fire dogs and why are they often shown with horses? We will answer these questions and more in this article.
Dalmatians are a breed of dog that is very recognizable because of their white coat with black or brown spots. Dalmatians are very distinctive from other dog breeds because of their coat patterns. Every Dalmatian has a unique coat pattern with no two Dalmatians being identical. Puppies are born white, and their spots start becoming visible around 10 days of age. It may take up to 18 months for the spots to be fully developed. They are a medium-sized dog breed that is typically 19-24 inches in height and 45-70 pounds in weight. They are part of the non-sporting group of dogs (AKC). Dog breeds in the non-sporting group are those that are used for a variety of purposes, rather than for specific purposes like those classified in the sporting group. According to the American Kennel Club, there are 7 dog breed groups including: sporting, non-sporting, hound, herding, working, terrier, and toy (AKC, 2019).
Dalmatians are suspected to have originated in the Dalmatia region of Croatia, although their exact origin story is still unknown. They were bred to be coach dogs, or dogs who work alongside horse-drawn carriages to guard the horses and carriage. Dalmatians have long been used to trot along next to carriages and to keep the horses in line. There are even depictions of Dalmatians running along carriages in Egyptian tombs (AKC, 1992; Ripley, 2016). Dalmatians have also been used for hunting, herding, and catching rats (Ripley, 2016). They are tenacious, intelligent, protective, loyal, and highly energetic.
Because of these characteristics, they are not great dogs for your typically family home. They require a high amount of mental and physical stimulation, including up to 2 hours of daily exercise (PDSA). Dalmatians can also be weary of new people, and if not properly socialized, not great around kids. After the surge of popularity in the 1990s, many Dalmatians ended up in shelters or rescues because many families realized these dogs were hard to keep. Due to overbreeding during their heightened popularity, Dalmatians are also prone to a number of health issues including allergies, deafness, hip dysplasia, and epilepsy (PDSA). In the proper home, however, Dalmatians can make great companions especially for highly energetic people who like to run and hike.
What Do Fire Dogs Do?
Historically, fire dogs would ride along to the fires and protect the horses and carriage while the firefighters put out fires. More recently, fire dogs serve as companions to firefighters, mascots at fire stations, ambassadors for fire safety, and excellent rodent hunters to keep fire stations vermin free (Sharpe, 2019).
When Did Dalmatians First Become Fire Dogs?
Horse-drawn carriages first started being used as fire vehicles around 1800. It was around this time that Dalmatians were adopted as official fire dogs because they had the skills to be successful in the role (Sharpe, 2019).
Why Were Dalmatians Chosen To Be Fire Dogs?
Dalmatians were chosen to be fire dogs because of their history as coach dogs. Dalmatians were bred to work alongside horses and to trot next to horse-drawn carriages. Their natural instincts are to protect the horses and the carriage from threats which allowed firefighters to focus on protecting the public from fires without worrying about their horses and equipment being stolen. The New York City fire department began using Dalmatians as fire dogs around 1870. They became so popular and celebrated as fire dogs that the Westminster Dog Show started recognizing fire department Dalmatians in 1910 (Sharpe, 2019).
Many people who have worked with Dalmatians say the dogs are very fond of horses and are good at working with them, especially at keeping them calm. Once fire stations started using horse-drawn carriages as their vehicle, Dalmatians seem like the perfect choice of coworker. Not only could they easily keep up with the carriage, but they could also work to calm and control the horses. Horses would get nervous at fires, and the Dalmatians would actively work to distract them while the firefighters were busy. Dalmatians are also brave and intelligent dogs who took to work as fire dogs easily. It is reported that when the fire alarms would go off, the dogs would run out in front of the fire station, barking at anyone nearby to get them out of the way. Once the fire carriage was out of the station, they would run along to catch up. Dalmatians are also great guard dogs, and would actively protect equipment, the carriages, and the horses (AKC).
Dalmatians continue to be used as fire dogs mainly because they have become such an iconic mascot. Firefighters and the public have grown fond of seeing them at fire stations and on fire trucks.
Can Any Dog Breed Be A Fire Dog?
It takes a special kind of dog to be a working dog. Working dogs typically have to be strong, sturdy, energetic, have good endurance, and have the temperament and obedience for the job they are being trained for (AKC). There are many working breeds out there, and often times specific lines of dogs that are bred for specific jobs, especially for high stress jobs like firefighting. However, even within a breed, there are individual differences that have to be considered. Dogs have distinct personality types, meaning that not every dog is suitable for the job they were bred for. They need to be motivated and willing to perform the work. Some dogs may be timid or lazy, preferring to be couch potatoes over fighting fires or doing fire safety demonstrations. Other dogs are bolder and enjoy having a job to do.
Historically, Dalmatians were used as fire dogs because they were bred as coach dogs. More recently, fire stations are adopting dogs of various breeds as fire dogs. It is common for firefighters to adopt dogs they have rescued from fires and use them as the fire station mascot. Breeds such as Labrador Retrievers, Border Collies, Pitbulls, and mutts have all been successfully used as fire dogs.
Are Dalmatians Still Used As Fire Dogs Today?
Eventually fire stations traded in their horse-drawn carriages for large fire trucks. This made Dalmatians obsolete. However, many fire stations still have Dalmatians that live at fire stations as mascots. The dogs provide company to firefighters while they are at the station and even sometimes still get to ride along in the truck to guard it. Fire stations may also use Dalmatians for educational programs on fire safety for kids and other groups. Dalmatians in fire stations also help control vermin, being known to hunt and catch rats.
Are There Any Famous Dalmatians?
- Sparkles the Fire Safety Dog
Sparkles is a Dalmatian from Arkansas that educates the world about fire safety through her book series.
- Mike from NY Engine Company 8
Mike was the first Dalmatian to win the Westminster Dog Show fire department Dalmatian award.
- Twenty from FDNY Ladder 20
Twenty was given as a gift from Rochester, NY firefighters to comfort the firefighters at this station in New York City after 9/11.
- Molly the 2019 ACE Exemplary Companion Dog
Molly is also the mascot of the Keep Kids Fire Safe Foundation.
- Pongo, Perdita, and all their puppies
We can’t forget the Disney characters that made Dalmatians famous, even if they are fictional.
Dalmatians are loyal, energetic dogs with an interesting history as fire dogs. Dalmatians were used as fire dogs when fire fighters used horse-drawn carriages to attend to fire emergencies. Dalmatians were bred as coach dogs, meaning they had the ability to run along the carriage and the ability to work well with horses to protect them and keep them calm in emergencies. Nowadays, fire stations use trucks, resulting in a different role for fire dogs. Many fire stations still have Dalmatians as their official mascots, although dogs of all breeds have been welcomed in as fire dogs.
American Kennel Club (AKC). Dalmatian. Retrieved on June 16, 2020.
American Kennel Club (AKC). 1992. A short history of the Dalmatian. The Complete Dog Book.
American Kennel Club (AKC). 2019. The 7 AKC Dog Breed Groups Explained. Retrieved on June 16, 2020.
PDSA. Dalmatian breed information. Retrieved on June 16, 2020 from:
Ripley, K. 2016. 6 Things You Didn’t Know About the Dalmatian. American Kennel Club. Retrieved on June 16, 2020.
Sharpe, S. 2019. The History of Dalmatians as Fire Dogs. American Kennel Club. Retrieved on June 16, 2020.