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The firefighters really are the ones providing the critical life-saving tips. The dog is simply a way to keep the children focused and reinforce the information. They calm children who may be afraid of firefighters who don't look like normal adults while dressed in their equipment. In turn, the kids learn that if they see such a figure during a scary fire, they should go to them. "They gain for the firefighters what we call the teachable moment," Krause said.
"Spanner," mascot of the Swissvale, PA, Fire Company, is the icebreaker for annual visits at Word of God School during Fire Prevention week in October. When the spotted bundle of energy bounds from the fire truck, kindergartners' faces immediately brighten. Expressions changed from uncertainty about the big yellow machine in front of them to amusement when Spanner ran among them, white tail wagging, pink tongue out. In seconds, the neat military-style line their teachers had ordered them to keep fell apart as the children crowded toward the dog, his head at least stomach-high on most.
Swissvale Fire Chief Ken Johnston tells the children Spanner was named after the type of wrench used to connect fire hoses. After a few minutes of play, however, he ushers a reluctant Spanner back to a fire van and takes center stage himself.
Photo by Paul Muschick
"Smokey" at the Wilkinsburg, PA, Fire Department.
Such efforts have paid off. A grateful father in Springfield told fire officials that his daughter is alive today because of the lessons taught by the late Becky the Firedog.
"The little girl was playing with another child when her clothing caught on fire," former Springfield firefighters union President Larry R. Giggy wrote in a 1991 commendation letter. "Because both children had seen Becky perform the 'stop, drop and roll' during a fire safety program, the man's daughter dropped to the ground and her friend rolled her over to put out the fire. I am very proud to say that the efforts of Springfield's firefighters to educate our children about fire safety are greatly enhanced through the efforts of Mrs. Krause and Becky the Firedog."
Debbie Stinnet, health and safety chairperson for the Parent Teacher Association at Hickory Hills elementary and middle schools in Spring-field, has watched Krause and her dogs teach children for more than five years. "It's a great program, it really is," Stinnet said. "I just think it's a very, very worthwhile program to teach the children. (Fire safety) can't be reinforced enough."
Dog experts and firefighters disagree on one area, though how the dogs are trained and where they live. Krause and Sharon Boyd, secretary of the Dalmatian Club of America, don't like to see dogs live in the firehouse because they feel they can be too easily forgotten about when the firefighters run out to emergencies. They also fear the animals could be killed or injured by the trucks. Rather, they prefer the dogs, whether Dalmatians or other breeds, live at home with a firefighter and receive professional training. "A responsible breeder would never place them with a fire department," said Boyd, of Rosenberg, TX. "This dog has much more to offer than that. This is a family dog."
Dalmatians are people dogs and require positive-reinforcement training, she said. "Train them carefully. Train them with love. Never, never hit them and you will have a dog of a lifetime. This breed is so attentive to their people, if you ever hurt them they won't forget it."
Krause has trained dogs for 10 years and is a judge for the American Kennel Club. She said fire dogs can't be expected to perform like hers by living in a firehouse. "Firemen simply have primary focuses in their lives and dog training is not one of them. I've heard too many unfortunate stories," Krause said. Her dogs are put through every possible situation, such as tail grabbing and ear pinching, to ensure they don't react negatively if a mischievous but well-meaning child hurts or annoys them.
"We're in enough unusual settings that their temperaments can be relied upon," Krause said. "We have never in 10 years had a single incident. Training, training, training are what make good manners possible. Almost any well-trained dog can be trained to do what my dogs can do."
When Wilkinsburg's Smokey sits outside the open firehouse door or in the shady garage, she lures children to come inside, meet the people and see the equipment that one day could save their lives.