In 1996, a non-animated version of the movie 101 Dalmatians hit the silver screen.
It had an instant impact in the worlds of children, dog breeders and pet shops. Little girls across North America begged their daddies to get them one.
The experiment was not always successful.
Dalmatians are not like Golden Retrievers – house pets anxious to cuddle and show you love.
As Sarnia firefighter Trevor Mitchell puts it: “A Lab will look at you asking what it can do to show you more affection. A Dalmatian wants to know what you’re going to do for him.”
In other words, more like a cat.
Mitchell knows the breed well. His 70-pound Dalmatian, Lucky, has been deputized as the unofficial mascot of Sarnia Fire Rescue. Lucky makes appearances at events, school outings and parades to represent the fire service.
Dalmatians have a long and fascinating association with fire departments – for reasons not always understood even by some firefighters.
Hailing from what’s known today as Croatia, Dalmatians have long been known for having an odd, calming effect on horses.
As early as the 17th century they were known as “coach dogs.” A sturdy breed that craves exercise and doesn’t tire easily, Dalmatians would run with a stagecoach’s team of horses. In an era of rampant horse thievery, they were also used to guard the horses at night in the stables.
With the advent of horse-drawn fire engines they performed a similar task for fire companies, among whom they became immensely popular. They would keep the horses calm at fire scenes and guard both the horses and equipment while the firefighters did their job.
Over time, they became a fixture in firehouses across North America.
Trevor’s fiancée, Melissa Parker, was one of those little girls who fell in love with 101 Dalmatians. She grew up with one, named Pepper. When her firefighter boyfriend decided to get a dog, Melissa was determined it should be a Dalmatian.
Capturing the seventh pup born in a litter, she decided the name Lucky was a perfect fit.
Trevor says that there’s no question who’s in charge.
“Lucky sees Melissa as the Alpha Dog,” he explains. “I’m just a buddy.”
Dalmatians are not born with their spots, but acquire them over time. They are genetically disposed to hearing problems and, partly for this reason, can be known to bare their teeth when startled.
Today, Dalmatians remain emblematic of a fire service. It’s an identification that has long outlasted the era of horse-drawn fire wagons hurtling through town, the sleek dogs racing at their side.