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A Dog's Life



For over 200 years, the dalmatian has been the firefighter's most faithful friend


"Bessie would always follow me into a burning building in the old days," recalled a Manhattan Fire lieutenant in 1916, "and stay one floor below the fighting line, as the rule required ... Bessie knew as much about the risks we ran as we did ...

"The companies that have been motorized find their dogs will not run ahead of the gasoline engines and trucks. They miss the horses and are afraid of the machine; .. I'm afraid she is the last of the mascots."

But the lieutenant was wrong. In 1976, Rock Island Arsenal, Illinois, firefighters held a graveside ceremony 'for Shadow, their ll-year-old dalmatian recently deceased, noting: "We dedicate this stone not to a dog, but to a friend of the firemen of the Arsenal." In 1978, the Fayetteville, Arkansas, department used Sparky, a four-year-old dalmatian as a prevention tool. In 1979, another Sparky, a three-year-old dalmatian, joined Los Angeles' Engine 103 on runs. And in 1980, Caesar, a 10-year-old dalmatian, walked out with the striking members of Chicago's Engine 22. When the city attempted to evict the dog from the firehouse, the men protested and won his case, calling him "a symbol of the firehouse."

The dalmatian is more than that. For 200 years, he has been a symbol of firefighters throughout the United States. At fires, at prevention activities, and in the firehouse itself, the spotted, sleek dog has been in theory and in fact the firefighter's most faithful friend.

That relationship developed because of another, earlier, friendship between dalmatians and horses. In 1940, Clyde E. Keeler and Harry C. Trimble, two _ Harvard University researchers, observed: "Dogs of the Dalmatian breed have definite differences with respect to the eagerness with which they follow horses and carriages. Since approximately 70 percent of the animals [we] tested chose those positions which entitled them to be rated as 'good' coaching dogs, it is evident that this is well entrenched in the breed."

Alfred and Esmeralda Treen in The Dalmatian (1980), put it more simply: "The dalmatian is built to run hard for long distances ... he is the only dog that was traditionally bred and trained to run with the horse-drawn vehicles. When he has the chance he is still delighted to go with the horses."

The dog's origin is less clear. The Treens report that a young 16th century Yugoslavian poet, Jurij Dalmatian, owned dogs that could have been dalmatians. "The interest in my Turkish-dogs grows in all Serbia," he said in a letter. "These dogs are so popular that they call them by my name-Dalmatian. This new name is already more and more ingrained."

A. Croxton Smith observed in 1931: "Attempts have been made, without being convincing, to divorce [the dogs] from their association with Dalmatia, the pre- War province of Austria bordering the eastern side of the Adriatic. One writer in 1843 endeavoured to show their connection with the Bengal Harrier, whatever that was .. .In the absence of any better evidence, I think we are safe in assuming that the breed did come from Dalmatia or neighboring regions."

Rowland Johns noted in Our Friend the Dalmatian (1933): "No one seems to know when the breed began. There was once a story that he was part tiger and came from Bengal. That was a pretty idea but a poor invention. Far more plausible was the idea that he lived in Denmark and worked for the peasants as a draught-dog, but that theory has not much value. The dog used in Denmark being the harlequin Great Great Dane, which, being also spotted, no doubt was confused with the Dalmatian ... The only thing we know is that he has always been called the Dalmatian and he probably came direct from that part of Southern Europe."

The dogs became known in continental Europe during the Middle Ages as they accompanied Gypsy caravans across the countryside. In addition to teaching the dogs tricks, the gypsies found that the animals were good guards. The dalmatians would stand watch over the horses by night and run with the wagons by day.

The practice was carried over to 17th century England where the dogs (called coach dogs) were used to guard stables. "A good Coach Dog has often saved his owner much valuable property by watching the carriage," wrote T.J. Woodcock in 1891.

"It is a trick of thieves who work in pairs for one to engage the coachman in conversation while the other sneaks around in the rear and steals whatever ... valuables he can .. .I never lost an article while the dogs were in charge, but was continually losing when the coachman was ... "

It was also fashionable to have a dalmatian running alongside or under a coach when on the road (coining the phrase "putting on the dog," meaning to do something as a show of wealth).

Observed Woodcock: "In training for the carriage, it is usually found necessary to tie a young dog in proper position, under the fore axles, for seven or eight drives before he will go as required. Some bright puppies, however, require little or no training, especially if they can be allowed to run with an old dog that is already trained."

In America, mention of the dalmatian can be found as early as 1787 when George Washington noted in a letter to his nephew: "At your aunt's request, a coach dog has been purchased and sent for the convenience and benefit of Madame Moose: her amorous fits should theretofore be attended to, that the end for which he is sent may not be defeated by her acceptance of the services of any other dog."

As American cities grew and volunteer fire companies were organized, dalmatians were employed to protect engine company horses that transported equipment to the fire scene. The dalmatian's outgoing and loyal personality endeared it to firefighters, and soon the spotted faces could be seen in many firehouses as guard dogs and mascots.

After work, dalmatians would often run alongside a trolley, following a firefighter home for a free meal. Noted one firefighter: "I got a street car pass for [our dog] and I guess she is ... the only dog in this city that could hop on and off a car without causing trouble ... She knew the right comer as well as I did and travelled the line alone if she missed me."

The Treens report that in 1910, "the Westminister Kennel Club offered a special class for Dalmatians, dogs and bitches, owned by members of the New York Fire Department. The results of the show indicate that first place was won by Mike [of Engine 81. .. Bess, owned by Lieutenant Wise [of Engine 39], was second. Smoke II, owned by Hook & Ladder No. 68, came in third ... "

With the switch to horseless carriages, the dalmatian disappeared from the firehouse--at least for a time. Kate Sanborn, in Educated Dogs Of Today (1916), writes: "For five and a halflong years Bessie cleared the

crossing at Third Avenue and Sixty-seventh Street for her company, barking a warning to surface-car motormen, truck drivers, and pedestrians, and during all that time she led the way in everyone of the average offorty runs a month made by No. 39. Then like a bolt from the sky the three white horses she loved were taken away, even the stalls were removed, and the next alarm found her bounding in front of a man-made thing that had no intelligence--a gasoline-driven engine. Bessie ran as far as Third Avenue, tucked her tail between her legs and returned to the engine house. Her heart was broken. She never ran to another fire."

The dogs disappeared, but firefighters missed them. During the 1930s and' 40s, mascots began to reappear in firehouses. While many kinds of animals were kept, including cats, monkeys, birds, dogs of other breeds, and even

a pig, firefighters seemed to gravitate toward their traditional mascot.

During the mid-1950s, dalmatians reached their height of popularity in the U.S., partly because of the Walt Disney film 101 Dalmatians. After the film, the breed soared in popularity, becoming a favorite among American dog owners.

With the revived popularity of the dog came the old stories of their intelligence and loyalty, as well as their ability to sniff out fires and perform heroic deeds. One dog, while hospitalized for laryngitis, tried to break out of his ward when he smelled a fire nearby. The commotion he raised helped uncover the fire. In Boston, during the Second World War, fire commpany dalmatians were trained for civil defense emergency service. They carried messages and Red Cross supplies and guarded property during and after air raids, as well as locating wounded persons under debris. In the late 1940s, one fire magazine reported that dalmatians were "again in the driver's seat."

But dog popularity changes. In 1976, the dalmatian was only 33rd on the American Kennel Club's new registrations list. Nonetheless, firefighters still enjoy the breed (see box), and dalmatians can now be found in firehouses throughout the country. Their special place with the firefighter is symbolized in New York's Greenwich Village. A painting on a firehouse door shows a fire engine racing to a blaze. Two firefighters are sitting in the front seat; between them is a friendly, speckled face, on its way to another fire. ~



Engine 44 in Manhattan is housed ina firehouse that is old-fashioned in ways other than appearance. Neighborhood residents bring cakes and cookies to the men on duty, children know the firefighters by name, and a frisky dalmatian called Sparky bounds around the station.

"We had another dalmatian before," says firefighter Frank Nolan. "He spent 15 years of service with us." When he died two years ago, a Long Island kennel donated a new dalmatian, six months old, to the bereaved company.

Sparky is very playful and makes "a lot of noise" when strangers come into the station house. He stays out of the way when the men are preparing for runs and remains in quarters when they're out.

"It took awhile," says Nolan, "but he seems to be getting engine-wise now. He's a bright dog." The junior man on duty takes him for his daily walks around the community.

"He gets us known," notes Nolan.  "He's an asset to the firehouse. The children come in and give him a cookie. People come to see him. It's a nice rapport: he brings the neighborhood in. f They come to see the dog, not the firemen.”


New Dog, Old Tricks

Teaching a new dog old tricks is part of the job at the Fayetteville, Arkansas, Fire Department. For the past five years, the men of the "A" shift have used Sparky, a six-year-old, 50-pound dalmatian, to spread the fire prevention message. As trained by Lt. Larry Poage, Sparky demonstrates the dos and don'ts of fire safety to school children. A don't: Sparky stands up in the smoke. A do: Sparky crawls to safety by following the family escape plan.

"The lieutenant lectures and Sparky performs," says Fayetteville firefighter Dennis Ledbetter. "The children really like the show better than anything else we have tried." ~

Firehouse/July 1980 


Ray Parker has written for Quarterly Shorts. This article was prepared with material supplied by Paula Reisenuiitz, Elaine Gewirtz, Dennis Ledbetter, and Collette Coyne