A few weeks back we had Ottumwa Fire Chief Tony Miller on KBIZ's "Dialog" program with Ken Williams. The Chief was talking about the usual things -- upcoming budget battles, the importance of fire prevention, and the Ottumwa Fire Department's newest acquisition, Tower One, a huge and impressive new million-dollar fire engine that was custom-made for the community. The Chief even talked about the department's pet banana tree, which they kept warm in the basement all winter and which they plan to replant in front of the station once the weather warms up enough.
During the conversation, a question came up that no one seemed to have an answer for -- not Ken or I, not the Chief, not even the usually knowledgeable callers of the daily open-line program.
The question: Why are Dalmatians considered the official dogs of fire houses?
The answer, I've found, dates back a couple centuries, to a time when Dalmatians played a much more vital role to fire departments than they do as mascots today. You see, back before there were million-dollar fire engines, there were horse-drawn fire carriages, and people soon discovered that Dalmatians would instinctively run alongside the horses that were pulling those fire wagons.
What's more, they would defend the horses from other dogs and other animals who would spook or even attack the horses on the way to the fire. Plus -- horses are afraid of fire, and the Dalmatians would distract and even comfort the horses, so that would stay put as the firemen fought the blaze, and they would guard and protect the firemen's equipment and other belongings -- both at the fire and back at the fire station -- after all, a horse strong and fast enough to pull a wagon of water to a fire would be very valuable and attractive to an enterprising horse thief. The Dalmatians didn't tolerate thieves, but the usually skittish horses tolerated their white and black spotted canine friends quite easily.
It was the perfect match -- firemen, horses and Dalmatians -- the three formed a perfect alliance all those years ago for the good of us all.
I don't know if there's a lesson here for us somewhere, something about getting along or tolerating each other or finding common ground for the good of society. I don't know if the horses and the Dalmatians can teach us anything about ourselves. Maybe if we want them to.
But I do know that those cute beer commercials with the Clydesdales and the puppies make a lot more sense to me now.