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There is an abundance of evidence that supports that dogs were domesticated, in part, to fire. Thousands of years ago, some wolves would scavenge carcasses and appreciate the warmth of the human camps. Over generations, these wolves became tamer and eventually evolved into the canine companions we know today.
Unlike their wolf ancestors, who still have a strong instinct to flee from fire, domesticated dogs often appreciate the warmth of a fireplace or outdoor campfire.
But do dogs know not to get so near fire that they will hurt themselves?
Dogs do know not to go near the fire. Just like humans, dogs can experience overheating and burning sensations if they are too near the fire. Since dogs are descended from wolves who evolved to be afraid of fire, dogs will usually instinctively avoid out-of-control fire and smoke.
The comfort level that dogs tend to have with fire, as well as a healthy dose of self-preservation to not get burned, means that dogs can be surprisingly comfortable around fire. Some dogs are even trained to work with smoke and fire. However unusual it is for dogs to intentionally get so close to a fire that they burn themselves, you should always be aware of your dog’s safety. A dog with sudden zoomies or a sudden out-of-control firepit could spell disaster for your safety and your dog’s safety, even if dogs do know not to go near fire.
Descended From Wolves
Any avid outdoorsman knows that campfires are usually a good deterrent for many wild animals, including coyotes and wolves. The light can hurt their eyes in the dark, the heat bothers them, and fire usually means humans; and wild canines try to avoid humans. Wolves not only avoid the danger of a human-made campfire, but a habit-destroying wildfire will force them to flee to a safer area.
Modern dogs do not avoid humans like their wolf ancestors and often appreciate the heat that comes from a fireplace or bonfire. On a chilly evening in my own house, you can often find one or two dogs curled up next to my roaring woodstove. People who have a firepit in their yard or go back-packing with their hiking dogs understand the comfort of seeing their dogs relaxing and appreciating the heat from the controlled flames.
The two dogs in this video are obviously enjoying the heat from the campfire, but because of their instincts to avoid smoke and extreme heat they keep a respectful distance.
However, as soon as the dogs start to overheat or get smoke in their eyes, whether it is a bonfire, a fireplace, or a woodstove, dogs seem to know it is time to move to a new area to cool off. Dogs do not like the sensation of overheating or the possibility of getting burned, and they know not to go near fire if they get too hot.
If a fire gets out of control, dogs know not to go near the flames because of the smell of the smoke and the scary stimulation of the rapidly growing flames. Like their wolf ancestors, dogs seem to have inherited a natural aversion to heat, and smoke, and will often avoid out-of-control fire and move away from it if they get too hot.
Will A Dog Go Near Fire If They Have Never Seen It?
What if a dog has never seen fire before, do they instinctively recognize it and know not to go near or get too close to fire? Most dogs will avoid fire even if they have never seen it before. They get close for warmth, but they have self-preservation and know not to get near enough to fire to overheat or burn themselves. The instincts they inherited from wolves warn them of danger, as does the overwhelming heat, and even noises made by the crackling of flames are incredibly frightening. If a dog has not been exposed to fire before, be extra vigilant. If they are too scared they might try to flee just like their wild ancestors!
Working Dogs and Fire
Properly socialized dogs who have been carefully exposed can coexist safely around controlled fires. There are even specially trained dogs that are useful tools for fire management. Think of the iconic symbol of firefighters in America: the Dalmatian!
Dalmatians had multiple jobs as firefighter dogs, the most important included: keeping pace with horse-drawn carts, barking to clear the way, and comforting the horses when close to the flames. Historically Dalmatians may not have been fighting fires, but dogs do have a strong sense of smell and can usually detect smoke before humans can. Dalmatians are still the mascot for fire departments, like Yogi in New York!
Some dogs can even be trained to detect smoke and fire to prevent forest fires. In Sweden, they are using specially trained dogs to scent out embers in forest fire areas to avoid future fires. The dogs can detect and find the smoky smell much faster than the firefighters. Once their human handlers have been alerted, the embers are put out before they can reignite.
Dogs do not necessarily need to be trained to recognize the smell of smoke and be aware of out-of-control flames. In Maryland, a family whose house was destroyed by a house fire was alerted to the flames by their pet Cairn terrier, Bear. Because Bear was able to bark and wake up everyone, none of the family was injured in the blaze that took their house.
Keeping Your Dog Safe Around A Controlled Fire
Even if it is a simple backyard fire pit that you and your dog have cozied up to a hundred times, you should always be aware and keep your dog safe around fire. Not only could they burn themselves if they accidentally get too close, but dogs can suffer smoke inhalation. If the smoke is bothering you, it is probably bothering your dog. Symptoms that could indicate smoke inhalation include:
- Trouble breathing
- Irritated red eyes
- Trouble eating and drinking
Do not worry though, you can still enjoy a bonfire with your furry friend if you follow some simple safety tips.
- Keep your dog on a leash for extra control in case they get sudden zoomies.
- Microchip your dog and have a tag with your contact information on their harness or collar in case they become scared and flee.
- Do not let your dog get too close to the fire.
- Do not let your dog sit in the path of smoke.
- Practice and research fire safety tips and be aware of fire restrictions in your area.
There is nothing cozier than a fire on a chilly night snuggled up with your dog. Since dogs and humans share the same instinct about the dangers of getting near a fire (both because of possibly getting burned and avoiding smoke), it is usually safe to enjoy the warmth of the fire with your canine companion. If they get overheated or smoke starts bothering them, they usually know to move to a more comfortable spot!
However, you should practice fire safety and have a fire-escape plan for your whole family, both human and furry, in case of an emergency. Keep your dog safe by not letting them be rambunctious around open flames and have your contact information on them in case they panic and flee. There are many reasons your dog might wake you up in the middle of the night, but if they are extra frantic, it does not hurt to ensure everything is okay. Dogs know not to go near fire, especially if it is out of control; and they want to keep you, their best friend, safe from it too!