Random Thoughts From Distant Fires
If I said, " look at the fire dog" you would expect to see a beautiful black and white Dalmatian. This breed is universally excepted as the firedog. But was it really the firedog? Why this particular breed? Why even have dogs at all?
The Dalmatian was first used in England, as a coach dog. Wealthy aristocrats sought out the unusual looking spotted dog. These eye catching canines lent an air of superiority to the coaches of the wealthy as they traveled through villages. Locals would stop what they were doing and point at the sight of this remarkable looking spotted hound. Dogs were important members of any stable that housed teams of pulling horses. A stable dog has a calming influence on horses and makes them feel comfortable in their stalls. They would reside right under the horses in the stalls. Many dogs were known to have litters right in the stalls with no danger of the horses stepping on their tiny pups.
The use of canines as work animals in this era was wide spread. Consequently every household owned several dogs. They were used to pull small wagons containing a wide variety of materials such as wood, milk or anything else a household might need. These dogs were allowed to roam free whenever they were not being used as work animals. These free roaming dogs would dash out at passing teams of horses. They would nip at the legs of the horses and generally harass the equines. In addition to keeping the horses calm in the stable, the coach dog also had to fend off these marauding dogs whenever the coach traveled over the road. It was a very common sight to see the coach dog running out in front of the horses.
Early firefighters took tremendous pride in their companies. They would turn out and parade through the city at almost any occasion. Great care was taken in making your rig more fancy than the next one. Polished brass brilliant paint jobs and gleaming leather were always maintained. It was only natural that when word of this remarkable spotted dog was heard, companies had to have one. Dalmatians began appearing with fire companies and they had the expected impact. People pointed and gawked. They were that extra piece of fancywork that every Jake wanted on his rig. The Dalmatian did the job proudly but they had some drawbacks. They were hard to get and many of them were deaf. The American fire service was well served by this noble breed but the fact is that the mixed breed mutt was the real firedog.
A neighborhood stray of a mixed breed or a pup from some unwanted litter was the real American firedog. These dogs took to the fire companies like the men themselves. They kept the horses comfortable and ran ahead of them on every call. Fiercely loyal, they knew every member of the company. The dog immediately challenged any non-member who entered the firehouse. At fire scenes these salty looking mutts would take up a position on the rig and challenge any non-member who came near. I have seen some very old film footage of a firedog working. At the sound of the box the dog would get in front of the horses. Like a sheep dog he would bark at the team until they were in there harness hooked up to the rig. He would then stand facing them barking at one and then the other. He would run out the door, look down the street and then return to the team and bark some more. It actually looks like he is giving them directions. When the men were all turned out and aboard the apparatus the horses would start out the door with the firedog running proudly out in front.
Old photographs of horse drawn companies always have something in common. The members in the photo are beaming with pride. If you look at the driver’s area of the rig you will usually see a mixed breed mutt sitting with that same sense of pride. There is absolutely no question that this canine is a bonafide member of the company.
It’s interesting that a pedigreed Dalmatian is the dog most associated with Firefighting. A breed that was chosen by the aristocracy to display wealth and privilege, but it was the mixed breed mutt that really did the job. Like the actual Jakes that do the job, we have no pedigreed we come in all mixed nationalities, shapes, colors and sizes but we continue to answer the call.
Honoring our past makes us appreciate our future.
-- James L. Blanchard
James L. Blanchard is a Fire Captain in the Saugus Fire Department and a member of Saugus Local 1003.