Dear Straight Dope:
Riding on the bus past the daycare at my university, I noticed they were doing a big fire-safety presentation. The visiting firefighters were accompanied by a large fuzzy mascot — a dalmation, of course. What I'm wondering is, how come this particular breed of dog came to be associated with firefighting?
Jennifer Whiteford, Peterborough, Ontario
SDStaff Songbird replies:
Fortunately, Jennifer, the relationship has nothing to do with a dog’s natural affinity for fireplugs.
Some breeders say dalmatians originated in Dalmatia (once a part of Austria, then Yugoslavia, and now part of the Republic of Croatia). The American Kennel Clubs say there are no clear indications where the breed started. But according to the Complete Dog Book from the AKC, experts do agree that dalmatians are an ancient breed (there are Egyptian hieroglyphics depicting a spotted dog running alongside a chariot), they have survived nearly unchanged down through the centuries, and they were spread across Europe by the Gypsies.
The English found the dalmatian physically fitted for road work, according to the Dalmatian Club of America. The spotted pup has the “strength, vitality, fortitude and size to keep running along under the carriage for hundreds of miles. The dalmatian’s penchant for working is its most renowned characteristic.” The dogs loyally stood guard over the coach when travelers stopped to eat or rest, and quickly developed a love for horses.
The first fire-fighting apparatus was also horse-drawn, so it was natural for the dalmatian to join the crew at the first firehouses. And the dogs also served a useful purpose as they ran in front of the horse-drawn steam engines, barking loudly to alert pedestrians and vehicles so the firewagon could pass unhindered. (The way my neighbor’s dalmatian’s bark wakes me up at night, I’ve no doubt the dalmatian made a great siren.)
When gasoline-powered fire engines and trucks came upon the scene with their electric sirens, the dalmatian was silenced. At least until fire departments saw the tremendous marketing potential of the spotted dogs. “The kids love our dalmatian mascot,” says Carbondale, IL, Fire Chief Cliff Manis, whose mascot poses for picture buttons with local children.
I personally have fond memories of Fire Inspector Dario Bella coming to my grade school with Sparky the animatronic fire dog, who passed on the basic rules of fire safety while moving and talking like Abe Lincoln in Disneyland.
Old Sparky might not have been an “E” ticket attraction, but at least he never needed to use a fireplug.
If you’d like to find out more about the dalmatian breed, you can reach The Dalmatian Club of America at http://www.thedca.org/.
SDStaff Songbird, Straight Dope Science Advisory Board
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