The Legend of the Black Dog and Other Canine Folklore
Dogs have always been credited with the power of sensing supernatural influences, as well of being able to see ghosts, spirits, faeries or deities which are invisible to human eyes. In Wales only dogs could see the death-bringing hounds of Annwn; in ancient Greece the dogs were aware when Hecate was at a crossroads foretelling a death. Dogs are believed to be aware of the presence of ghosts, and their barking, whimpering or howling is said to be the first warning of supernatural occurrences.
In England, there are many instances of black dog ghosts which are said to haunt lanes, bridges, crossroads, footpaths and gates, particularly in Suffolk, Norfolk and the Isle of Man. Some black dogs are said to be unquiet ghosts of wicked souls, but others are friendly guides and protectors to travellers; the Barguest of northern England could also appear as a pig or a goat, but was most commonly a huge black dog with large eyes and feet which left no prints. Tales of packs of ghostly hounds have also been recorded all over Britain, often said to be heard howling as they pass by on stormy nights rather than actually seen; these hounds generally foretell death (or at least disaster) if they are seen and the proper action is to drop face-down onto the ground to avoid spotting them.
When a dog howls in an otherwise silent night, it is said to be an omen of death, or at least of misfortune. A howling dog outside the house of a sick person was once thought to be an omen that they would die, especially if the dog was driven away and returned to howl again. A dog which gives a single howl, or three howls, and then falls silent is said to be marking a death that has just occurred nearby.
Dogs were feared as possible carriers of rabies; sometimes even a healthy dog was killed if it had bitten someone, because of the belief that if the dog later developed rabies (even many years afterwards) the bitten person would also be afflicted. Remedies for the bite of a mad dog often included the patient being forced to eat a part of the dog in question, such as its hairs or a piece of its cooked liver. Dogs were also used to cure other illnesses; one old charm which was often used for children’s’ illnesses was to take some of the patient’s hairs and feed them to a dog between slices of bread and butter; the ailment was believed to transfer to the animal, healing the patient.
In Scotland, a strange dog coming to the house is said to mean a new friendship; in England, to meet a spotted or black and white dog on your way to a business appointment is considered lucky. Additionally, three white dogs seen together are considered lucky in some areas; black dogs, however, are generally considered unlucky, especially if they cross a traveller’s path or follow someone and refuse to be driven away. Fishermen traditionally regard dogs as unlucky and will not take one out in a boat, or mention the word “dog” while at sea.