Dalmatians are loyal to a fault and got their start in the fire service running alongside horse-drawn fire apparatuses and guarding the rigs. Photo courtesy of Merrimack Fire Rescue (https://www.merrimacknh.gov/about-fire-rescue/pages/dalmatians-in-fire-service)
One of the oldest traditions still honored in US fire departments is having a Dalmatian in the firehouse. Today, the black-spotted pups serve strictly as mascots, station dogs, and fire safety dogs. But the Dalmatian’s firefighting origin story is far more heroic than most people know.
The Dalmatian breed earned a reputation in Britain beginning in the 17th century for their role as coach and carriage dogs. The wealthy used Dalmatians both as society dogs and as guardians against thieves for their horse-drawn carriages. Stagecoach drivers also relied on the big dogs to guard horses and luggage. Great companions for horses, they formed strong bonds with their much larger animal friends. They were trained to run long distances beside them and would scare off aggressive street dogs that attempted to attack.
The leap into the fire service came with the emergence of the horse-drawn fire apparatus. The Dalmatian’s bark warned passersby they were responding to a fire.
“When a station call comes into an engine house the dog is out the instant the doors are thrown open, barking and prancing about, seemingly at least with the purpose of clearing the sidewalk,” a New York City newspaper called The Sun reported in March 1912. “They tell of one case in which the fire dog tugged at the dress of a little child that had remained standing in front of the door; and of another case in which the dog barked at the heels of a gentleman who hadn’t moved away quickly enough.”
Traditionally, when they arrived at the chaotic scene, the dog would keep the horses company to calm their anxiety. The presence of the Dalmatian prevented others from potentially stealing any of the valuable firefighting equipment on the rig. In some instances, they joined in on the action.
“They are in danger at fires,” The Sun writes, “for some dogs are great smoke eaters, and go right into the building with the firemen.”
Their low center of gravity made them ideal for running under the smoke into burning buildings to locate and rescue children and other people trapped in a fire.
Sometimes they were known for their antics just like other beloved pets. “Jack the Bum” was one Dalmatian that worked with Truck 9 from the station on Elizabeth Street. This pesky pooch had memorized the eating schedules of all the firefighters, and when he got hungry he’d beg for the crumbs. He’d even go as far as trotting past the entrance of Lyon’s restaurant and around back to the kitchen to eat the scraps.
The Dalmatians were heralded by the local communities they served. In 1910, the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show developed a category specifically for Fire Department Dalmatians. Mike from New York’s Engine Company 8 on 51st Street came in first place, while another Dalmatian named Smoke II of Engine Company 68 on Jay Street in Brooklyn took second.
Interestingly enough, The Sun posed the question as to what would happen to Dalmatians once the motor-driven hose wagons replaced the horse-drawn carriages. “Of course nobody knows for sure just what will happen in that day, but the general opinion among the firemen is that though the horses may go the dogs will stay.”
Their predictions were right, except the Dalmatians took on more of a mascot role than as working fire dogs. Yogi, an FDNY Dalmatian who died at the age of 15 in January 2020, enjoyed hitching a ride on the fire truck. He was also a really good boy who brought happiness to the men in the firehouse. Yogi took his name from Ruben Correa, a firefighter for Company 74 on the Upper West Side who was killed while helping people escape the Marriott Hotel at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. He earned the nickname Yogi playing softball with his firehouse teammates.
When Patti Trainor-Wrazej learned of Yogi the fire dog’s passing, she immediately began training JT for Company 74. JT was a quick learner and soon joined his human counterparts on fire runs.
“We built a small bed frame that attaches on and off [the rig] when we need to remove it,” senior firefighter John Keaveny said. “It fits him perfectly so he can lay down during runs and be comfortable.”
JT has become so popular he even has his own Instagram page, @jt_firedog.
Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.