LAFD History: Fire Dogs and Horses

November 30, 2018

Frank’s Note: Many visitors to our museums ask about fire dogs – especially about why Dalmatians were used as fire dogs and do fire stations still have dogs. This article will give some of the answers, followed by a short story about the LAFD Fire Horses. Now when people ask you about Dalmatians, you can give them an informed response!

My request is for those of you working in our LAFD fire stations to respond back to me if you have a mascot dog with a name and assignment. Any stories would be appreciated too.

Why are Dalmatians Firehouse Dogs? Here’s the Answer in Black and White
Written in 1992 by Mike Garot, LAFD Retired

Ever see a fire truck in a parade without a Dalmatian in the seat up front or in the lap of a smiling firefighter riding in back? Ever visit a firehouse without having one of those black and white spotted dogs come wagging up to you? Why is that? Why do Dalmatians and firehouses go together like smoke and fire? The answer is interesting and one you’ll likely recall every time you see the Dalmatian/firehouse combo from now on.

It all began in the days of stagecoaches. Horse theft was so common back then that many stagecoach drivers strung a hammock between two stalls at night, then slept behind their horses to guard against thieves. But if the driver owned a Dalmatian, he could sleep in the house or the stagecoach hotel. Why? Because it was observed that Dalmatians formed an amazingly tight bond with horses. When they became close with a team, no stranger would dare lay a hand on them.

Once the knowledge of this trait spread, more coach drivers went to great lengths to get Dalmatians to look over their teams. In fact, this practice became so common that Dalmatians were first called “coach dogs.” They were used by coach drivers centuries ago in England, Scotland and Wales.

Horses Best Friend?

“Dalmatians have always gotten along well with horses,” says Esmerelda Treen of Milwaukee, a recognized authority on the breed. “Horses are gregarious and feel the need for company. You can’t leave them alone too long. Dalmatians take to horses and become companions. Back in the stagecoach days, the “Dals” would run alongside the coaches, or under the rear axle of the moving coach. They’d keep up with the team as far as it ran, sometimes 20 or 30 miles a day.”

“When the coach reached the inn, the coachman left the dog to guard the team as well as the luggage on the coach,” Esmeralda explains. “If the coachman stayed to guard, a robber would sometimes try to distract him in conversation while others pilfered the goods. They couldn’t that ruse off on a Dal, since they are very alert dogs.”

When the horse population grew here in the New World, the number of Dalmatians grew with them for the same reason they were popular in the Old Country. Since every firehouse back then had a set of fast horses to pull the pumper wagon, it became common for each group of firemen to keep a Dalmatian. Again the spotted dogs not only guarded the firehouse horses, they kept them company during their long, boring waits between fires. And when they took off for a fire, the dog would run alongside the pumper.

The horses are gone from the fire stations today, but the Dalmatians remain. The tradition has been carried on, and it may be as much for the looks and appeal of these beautiful dogs as it is for their nostalgic tie to yesteryear.

While all the facts are well founded, there is a common but false rumor about these spotted dogs that breed enthusiasts would like dispelled. It’s that Dalmatians are kept at firehouses because they’re deaf and therefore the siren doesn’t bother their ears or spook them like other dogs.

“I once heard on national TV and couldn’t believe my ears,” says Chris Benoit, president of the Chicagoland Dalmatian Club. “It’s true that there is a problem with deafness in the breed, but that story is totally false!”

Spots in Fashion

Another fact about these dogs is that they have spots everywhere – even inside their mouths and on the bottom of their paws! And they’ve become the polka-dot darlings of advertising and fashion photographers, who say they like the high contrast of these black and white dogs. Still, the Dalmatians haven’t lost their old status as the firefighter’s friend. For example, in Middletown, Connecticut alone, individual firefighters own Dals named Hydrant, Chief, and Cinder. That tradition holds across America. Even today, where there’s smoke, there’s likely fire . . . and where there’s a firehouse, there’s likely a Dalmatian.

Frank’s Note: As I recall from the stations I worked at, having a dog in the station required the full approval of all members that worked there. Questions like who would feed it, who wouldl clean up after it, who would train it, who owns it, would it respond, would it be in the station on all three shifts or one shift? There are many more. I do remember working at Fire Station 34 as an Engineer and Fireman Ron Blackie would bring his Lab into work once in a while. His dog’s name was Chief. That made it interesting because we were the headquarters for Battalion 3 and had a Chief assigned there.

Fire Horses of the LAFD

A great part of our history was created by the LAFD fire horses. Fortunately there were many stories recorded about them and photos taken so that we can all enjoy this era that lasted from the late 1800’s to 1921, when the last horse “Blackie” was retired to Griffith Park.

Did you know that the LAFD had a total of 163 horses in 1911? This is the most number of horses the department would ever have. That year three new fire houses were opened (Engine 23, 24 and 25) for a total of 32. These were the last houses built specifically for fire horses. I’m not sure how many of the old stations still exist except old 23’s at 225 East 5th St., old 22’s at 4352 So. Main St. and old 18’s at 2616 So. Hobart, where I worked as an Engineer in 1967. It was one of those stations that still had a hay loft. 1911 would be the last year that all 25 horse drawn steam fire engines remained in service. This was to be the first year of motorized apparatus on the LAFD and the beginning of the end for our great fire horses.

Back in those days there was no more memorable street scene than the traffic stopping spectacle of highly trained, high spirited horses racing to alarms pulling the LAFD hose and chemical wagons, steamers, hook and ladder trucks and chief’s buggies. There was always a strong bond between the firemen and their horses, and of course, many stories by the firemen who trained them for duty and tricks.

Horses were purchased from established breeders in midwestern and southern states where bloodlines and forage were known throughout the fire service for producing the highest quality horses. Cost was not the main consideration that precluded the purchase of purebred Morgans and Percherons, the two bloodlines most desired by fire departments. The purebred stallions were bred with crossbreed mares, known as grade draft horses, and produced colts with qualities that made them ideal for fire duty. Crossbreeds were smaller, lighter, faster, heartier, cheaper and less expensive to feed and maintain than purebreds.

The department would purchase horses between three and six years of age, and already trained by the breeders to wearing a harness and responding to the driver’s reins. They would then be shipped by rail and corralled at the LAFD’s yard on Pasadena Avenue between Avenue 19 and 20 (later to become the LAFD Division of Supply and Maintenance).

Crossbred Morgans were usually black or various hues of brown. Weighing between 1000 and 1300 pounds, they stood between 15 and 16 hands (around five feet) as measured from their shoulders to their hooves. Smaller than crossbred Percherons, they were usually assigned to lightweight chemical and hose companies and to pull chief’s buggies. The crossbred Percherons were black or gray (which turned snow white as they grew older), weighed up to 1500 pounds and stood about 17 hands. These huskier horses were ideal for pulling the heavier rigs like the 1887 Amoskeg steamer and the 1905 Gorter water tower in our museum in Hollywood. The horses were given one or two syllable names like Bob, Sam, Izzy, Rock, Rufus, and Pete to facilitate the horses response when the driver (a rated position) called an order. Firefighters sometimes named horses to appropriately signify specific traits. Among those was “Searchlight,” a chief’s buggy horse, who, the story goes, had an uncanny knack, especially at night, for seeking out shortcuts through alleys and streets while answering downtown alarms.

Officially, each horse was known by its assigned number which was branded on its skin. On May 12, 1910, the fire commission ruled that branding on the horses flank was cruel. Thereafter, numbers were branded on the horse’s right front hoof. The resulting indentation was filled in with the number in silver or gold paint. Another humane consideration was a rule against over-use of whips while urging horses to speed. Breaking that rule was cause for dismissal of the driver.

Submitted by Frank Borden

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