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Ghost Dogs

by Amy Fernandez

From the archives of The Canine Chronicle

As a rule, dog people confront things head on without recourse to fantasy or rationalization. That overriding, collective personality trait is therefore difficult to reconcile with our secret vice– an enduring fascination with supernatural dog stories. Edward Ashe wasn’t the most meticulous canine historian, but his perceptive empathy for dog people remains unrivaled. He knew his audience well enough to devote an entire chapter to Dog Ghosts in This Doggie Business. “There is something very attractive about them. They make the world less dull, sharpening our brains as we try and find explanations of their extraordinary actions.” Not much has changed since he addressed this issue, except perhaps an additional century of unexplainable episodes to keep us enthralled. Even so, we never tire of those time honored classics like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s infamous canine phantom, the Hound of the Baskervilles.

That spectral guardian of the Yorkshire Moors wasn’t working its game alone. Its littermates enjoyed equally illustrious careers patrolling desolate roads, graveyards, rickety bridges, and ominous crossroads. From a behavioral standpoint, they demonstrate a consistent preference for locations that provide portals to otherworldly realms. This predilection isn’t the only uniform feature of this spectral canine clan. Although they vary in size, their black coats and red eyes are also acknowledged hallmark traits. And Britain certainly had no monopoly on them. Cultural lore from every continent confirms the sustained viability of this notorious strain.

North America seems to be a haven for them. Among others, the Shunka Warakin haunts the Great Plains. Farther north the Adlet, Waheela, and Amarok respectively patrol the eastern, central, and western Arctic frontiers alternately dismembering, decapitating and drowning unlucky victims. Actually, we’ve got one right here in Meriden, Connecticut. As its name suggests, Hanging Hills can be somewhat sinister. Bordering the Quinnipiac River, that ambiance is highlighted by cheery local landmarks like Misery Brook. Nonetheless, for centuries its soaring cliffs and magnificent views have lured admirers to this ancient Native American territory, especially West Peak’s sheer ridges packed with Jurassic treasures. Along with scientists and nature lovers, the Black Dog of West Peak also has an unshakable fondness for this spot.

By the late 1800s it was the acknowledged cause of numerous hiking and climbing fatalities when it made new headlines. Geologist William Pynchon first encountered the Dog in spring 1888. Reprising his experience for the Connecticut Quarterly a decade later he admitted, “It may seem strange that a man of science should believe a tale for the superstitious, but I do believe it. And if you would know why, listen…Many have seen him once, a few twice—none have ever told of the third meeting. It is a short haired black dog of moderate size, with nothing particularly noticeable in its actual appearance. His lineage was evidently uncertain. Yet there are two signs by which it is ever known:—men have seen it bark, but have heard no sound; and it leaves no footprint behind it on the dust of summer or the snow of winter.”

It shadowed Pynchon along West Peak’s desolate trails all day. “I took a great liking to that dog. So I let him go with me for the sake of his good company.” He never got a good close look at his elusive sidekick and eventually it vanished before his eyes. By then, he understandably decided to call it a day and headed back to Meriden for a drink where he shared his experience to a local bartender who gave him the 411. “See it once, it brings joy. See it twice it brings woe. See it three times, it brings death.”

In February 1891 the U.S. Geographical Survey sent Pynchon back to Hanging Hills to photograph rock formations, teaming him with fellow geologist Herbert Marshall. “Marshall had been all over the region thoroughly in his work for the United States Geological Survey and he had climbed West Peak many times and at all seasons of the year.” Naturally, the Dog came up in conversation. Marshall admitted to having seen it twice, “but he laughed at the legend, saying that he did not believe in omens unless they were lucky ones. So we turned in and forgot all about omens, good or bad.” Next morning they set off for West Peak summit, a normally hazardous trek worsened by ice, deep snow, and high winds. Mission accomplished, they began their treacherous descent when Marshall’s attention was diverted. “I did not believe it before. I believe it now; and it is the third time.” Reportedly, the Dog peered down at him from a cliff as he uttered those fateful words and sailed over an icy ravine. That was Marshall’s last geological survey and Pynchon should have known better. But as the New York Herald later reported, he was back a few years later, “at the head of the work on the West Peak area. On November 12th his body was found at the foot of the southern cliff of the Peak. Apparently he had fallen from the top, a distance of some forty feet. It is a singular fact that the body was found on almost the identical spot where his friend, Herbert Marshall, met his death six years before.”

The Dog has kept the family banner flying high in these parts, but he’s nothing special. The foundation sire of this illustrious hellhound bloodline, Cerberus, the three headed dog of Greek mythology, established its reputation ages ago guarding the gates of Hades. In Norse mythology he is called Garmr. On the other side of the world the Maori call him Mohorangi. The list goes on. The universality of these legends stems from the ongoing historical record of mystifying dog behavior. We’re talking information overload, so I will skip the big list. However, most of this data sorts into a few major categories.

“Whenever hound was heard to bark

They thought the dead walk’d in the dark”

This traditional Danish ballad, Sveng Dyring, becomes progressively more gruesome, and definitely did the trick horrifying countless generations of children- myself included. Mythology worldwide cast dogs in a multipurpose protective role which ranged from heralding death to escorting souls through their subsequent life/death transition. The source of that connection is obvious. Dogs have always served as our instinctive defense against unseen dangers lurking in the dark. Like most middle management positions, this job description gradually expanded. Another major category of paranormal canine tales focuses on their ability to sense an owner’s impending injury, illness, or death.

Stories abound. This December 16, 1897 incident is well documented and falls within the same timeline as Pynchon’s headliner. At age 45 actor William Terriss ranked among London’s premier stage performers. A sold-out crowd awaited him that night. His wife, sons, and Smooth Fox Terrier, Davie, were cozy in front of the fire at their Bedford Park home until 7:20 PM when Davie erupted from a sound sleep and began racing madly around the room barking and howling “as if gripped by some unaccountable rage or terror.” His peculiar episode braced the family for more horrifying news later when they learned that Mr. Terriss had been stabbed in the heart by another member of his acting company while entering the theater for the evening performance at exactly 7:20.

Countless similar anecdotes form a logic trail to myths regarding canine powers to detect, ward off, and cure disease. Like the rest, these beliefs predate recorded history in cultures on every continent. However, new research suggests that a good portion of these purported supernatural incidents have some verified basis in fact. Okay, we still don’t know precisely how they do it, but there is no question that dogs can sense a range of human medical conditions. Likewise, many studies confirm that physical contact between humans and dogs inhibits cortisol production and triggers the release of oxytocin, thus lowering stress and disease risk and boosting immune function.

Plenty of territory remains unexplored and emerging discoveries will certainly resolve many longstanding mysteries formerly credited to supernatural forces at work. Think about this: We all talk to our dogs and experience intuitive feelings about their thoughts and behavior. However, we are conditioned to disregard these perceptions as products of overactive imagination. After centuries of established disregard for observational truth, recent empirical data suggests that we’ve been on point all along. For instance, science now confirms that dogs do indeed experience emotions. Moreover, gut feelings are a verifiable phenomenon. Apparently, both the gut and nervous system produce those potent neurochemicals that regulate mood, perception, and instinctive reaction.

Here’s another recent discovery to reassure you that you’re not crazy when you sense that your dog is telling you something. When studying someone’s face to determine emotional intent, humans instinctively look to the left. Dogs – and only dogs – utilize precisely the same visual recognition strategy for this purpose. Like many other aspects of the unique human/canine relationship, science has yet to determine the nuts and bolts details of our communication channels.

Throughout history, humans claiming to communicate with animals have been alternately respected, reviled and occasionally executed. Today this attitude has settled down to skepticism and condescension. But consider this: Before humans developed language, we relied on the same communication repertoire used by other species and we haven’t entirely forgotten how it works. Survival required the ability to interpret signals from individuals both inside and outside of our social group. We certainly understand the meaning of a growl, a whimper, or a hard stare. The adrenaline rush we experience when startled or frightened harkens back to the instinctive avoidance response shared by all species that regularly contend with predators. It also explains our ability to sense when we are watched or followed. These are just a few examples of sensory traits humans and animals derived from common experiences along our evolutionary trail.

Looking at the big picture, it’s easier to understand our natural tendency to suspend belief when it comes to supernatural canine powers. Generally, the scientific advances responsible for raising that mercurial standard of rational possibility hinge on technological breakthroughs that allow us to measure formerly indefinable phenomenon. Neuroscience is just beginning to develop tools to explore the mechanics of memory, perception, consciousness, and emotional response.

Even so, it’s probably going to take a while before experts verify the existence of ghost dogs, but next time you see your beloved departed dog stationed in its usual spot in the kitchen doorway or at the top of the stairs don’t doubt your sanity. Dog breeders are uncompromising realists, but we are also supremely insightful, and needless to say, this lifestyle also requires an element of audacious confidence to believe our personal perceptions. Eventually, the rest of the world will catch up with us.

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Posted by on Oct 21 2020. Filed under Current Articles, Editorial, Featured. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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