Stupid Question ™
July 25, 2002
By John Ruch
Q: Why are Dalmatians associated with fire trucks and beer wagons?
A: Tradition is why Dalmatians have become the mascots of fire departments and Budweiser’s promotional beer wagon. And like much tradition, it’s founded on a poorly remembered version of actual history.
The origin of the dog breed is unknown. Even the name is a mystery, apparently capitalized out of a probably wrong guess that the dogs came from the Eastern European region Dalmatia.
Stranger still, their first symbolic association, in the early Renaissance period, was with the Dominican order of priests, which was sometimes allegorically represented in art by Dalmatian-style dogs.
However, by the mid-1600s, the breed had a more common use as “coach dogs.” In the days of horse travel, it was common to bring along one or more dogs as security. These weren’t pets; they lived in the stables and would typically trot alongside the carriage or wagon the whole way.
Dalmatians became popular for the job and were typically called simply a “coach dog” or “carriage dog.”
But while Dalmatians could make good coach dogs, they were mostly chosen as exotic status symbols for the wealthy. Breeders love to recount Dalmatians’ coach-dog history, but its importance is vastly overstated. It would be like a historian of the future reading all our glowing references to Porsches or Cadillacs and concluding everybody had one.
In fact, other breeds and plain mutts could and did do the same job on a much larger scale. Furthermore, Dalmatians have a genetic predisposition for deafness. In the early 1800s, one author dismissed the breed as “of no value except to contribute to the splendor of the stable establishment.”
The coach-dog concept was a natural for early fire departments, which used modified horse-drawn wagons as fire engines. Dogs provided companionship for firefighters and reportedly served as barking “sirens” as they ran alongside the fire engines.
But again, most of these gods were mutts or less exotic breeds such as bulldogs. Judging from old photos, many departments had no dogs at all.
Dalmatians entered the picture in their role as status symbols. Firefighters had enormous pride in their fancy fire-fighting equipment and paraded it around town as much as possible. A hoity-toity coach dog was a nice added touch.
But in those days, pedigree dogs were much harder to find for purchase, and in any case, most fire departments probably couldn’t afford them, relying instead on strays or unwanted puppies. Only a few well-to-do communities, such as Cambridge, Massachusetts, could afford a Dalmatian for the firehouse. But it is this extravagant ideal that has become the traditional “standard.”
Likewise, a late-1800s beer delivery wagon surely wouldn’t have a Dalmatian riding on top. The ones that today adorn Budweiser’s promotional Clydesdale-drawn wagon were added in 1950 as part of a brewery opening ceremony.