Animal LoreEnglish FolkloreFolklore

Off-leash: Exploring the Fascinating Role of Dogs in English Folklore

Everybody loves dogs! Okay, not everybody. Some people don’t, and that’s fine. But given the sheer length of association between humans and dogs, no one can deny the links between our species. Dogs have been a part of human history since before recorded history began, so it makes sense that folklore would have many stories about them, giving them direct links to humans. Dogs in English folklore in particular are direct links to human health, whether as death omens or a sort of proxy for human health, like sympathetic magic. This doesn’t have anything to do with the well-known ‘Black Dog’ stories. Those are typically considered some kind of spirit rather than actual dogs.

Table of Contents

Death Omens

The howl of a dog portends death. We see this all over England. The specific details vary, but it’s always the howling that signals it. This doesn’t imply that dogs are the cause, just that they sense it coming. Let’s take a look at some of the specific beliefs.

A dog howling at night is always prognostic of a decease in the family.(East Riding – York, pg. 37)

The howling of dogs is a sign of ill-luck.(Gloucestershire, pg. 8)

Belief in death tokens is very prevalent ; three raps at a bed’shead, and the howling of a dog in front of your house during the night, are warnings that the death of some member of the family is at hand. (ibid. 29)

The howling of a dog at night under the window of a sickroom is looked upon as a warning of death’s being near. (ibid, pg. 39)

I. Dogs are said to sit down and howl before the door when any one is about to be sick, or die. A death is considered certain if the dog return as often as driven away.

2. Dogs are hence considered to be somehow acquainted with the spirit world, ” or else,” as one said, “how should they know when a person is going to die ?” This is firmly believed in about Mellor and Blackburn. In Burnley and neighbourhood equally so at present.(Lancashire, pg. 142)

If a dog howl under the window at night, a death will shortly happen in the house.(ibid, pg. 153)

The howling of a dog is thought to presage the death of any one sick in the neighbourhood.(Northumberland, pg. 9)

The specific details vary from area to area, possibly even from household to household. The howling foretells death or even just general bad luck, but whose death varies. Sometimes it’s just general howling in front of one’s house that serves as the warning. Other times it has to be specifically under the window of a sick person. Nothing says that it needs to be the family’s dog and sometimes it’s literally anyone in the general vicinity who happens to be sick.

Healing/Health

Folklore also gives some peculiar links between dogs and human health. One of the more whimsical comes from Gloucestershire:

You should always burn a tooth when it is drawn, because, if a dog should find it and eat it, you would have dog’s teeth come in its place. (pg. 132)

Less cheerful are the beliefs surrounding rabies. Being bitten by a dog has such an effect that links the human and dog, such that should the dog ever become rabid, the human would as well:

If any one be bitten by a dog, it is believed that if at any future time the dog goes mad the person bitten will also do so. To prevent this the dog must be killed. (East-Riding York, pg. 37)

This belief apparently was reasonably widespread, since we see it attested in both East Riding and Durham.

The sympathy assumed between the cause of an injury and the victim is in Durham held strongly to exist between anyone bitten by a dog and the animal that inflicted the bite. An inhabitant of that city recently informed me, that, having been bitten in the leg by a savage dog about a month before, he took the usual precautions to prevent ultimate injury, but without satisfying his friends, more than twenty of whom had seriously remonstrated with him for not having the dog killed. This alone, they said, would insure his safety; otherwise, should the dog hereafter go mad, even years hence, he would immediately be attacked with hydrophobia. (Folklore of the Northern Counties, pg. 143)

Beyond rabies and madness, we also see dogs used as remedies for illnesses, whopping cough in this case. Obviously, this doesn’t work. Don’t try it. I shouldn’t have to say that, but…internet.

A similar notion lies at the root of a mode of cure practised in Northamptonshire and Devonshire alike. Put a hair of the patient’s head between two slices of buttered bread and give it to a dog. The dog will get the cough and the patient lose it, (Folklore of the Northern Counties, pg. 143)

“Put some of the child’s spittle in a piece of meat, and give it to a dog”(Norfolk Folklore, pg. 117)

General

Many of these have been negative, possibly because of the human tendency to accentuate the negative and forget the positive. But some lore about dogs is less depressing. One has to do with the general protective nature of dogs. This is the “church grim” that occasionally shows up in stories as a benevolent spirit dog.

It was the custom in ancient times to bury a dog or a boar alive under the cornerstone of a Church, that its ghost might haunt the churchyard and drive off any who would profane it, i.e.^witches or warlocks. (Gloucestershire, pg. 107)

And on a happy note, in Lincolnshire one person noted:

Good fortune was predicted for one of my sisters because a strange dog followed her when she was a babe in arms. (pg. 164)

Conclusion

Overall dogs occupy a negative place in English folklore, though not as an inherent part of what they are. They are closely associated with death, but that stems mostly from the fact that they seem to sense it rather than them being the cause of it. They are deeply connected to people, being death omens as well as living remedies for disease, as well as potential disease vectors. That’s mostly what the lore shows: the deep connection between dogs and people.

Bibliography

Norfolk Folklore, Mark R. Taylor. Folklore, Jun. 30, 1929, Vol. 40, No. 2 pp. 113-133

County Folk-Lore Gloucestershire. Edited by Edwin Sidney Hartland, F.S.A.

County Folk-Lore Vol. V. Lincolnshire. Collected by Mrs. Gutch and Mabel Peacock

County Folk-Lore Vol. IV. Northumberland. Collected By M. C. Balfour and Edited by
Northcote W. Thomas

County Folk-Lore Vol. Vi. East Riding of Yorkshire. Collected And Edited By Mrs. Gutch

Lancashire Folk-Lore: Illustrative of the Superstitious Beliefs and Practices, Local Customs and Usages of the People of the County Palatine. Compiled and Edited by John Harland, F.S.A. and T. T. Wilkinson, F.R.A.S.

Notes on the Folk-lore of the Northern Counties of England and the Borders by William Henderson

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