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Do dogs really commit suicide at Overtoun Bridge?

An examination of a Scottish phenomenon

By B. JesseePublished 7 months ago 7 min read
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Overtoun Bridge, upstream facing side - north. (Rosser1954, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Apparently, hundreds of dogs have attempted to commit suicide by jumping off of a bridge in Scotland. Stories about Overtoun Bridge and its dog suicides are all over the internet, but just how true are they?

And if they are, then just what is behind the mystery of Overtoun Bridge?

THE STORY

Overtoun bridge on the approach to Overtoun House (dave souza, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Built in 1895, the ornate bridge leads up to Overtoun House, a 19th-century manor built by wealthy industrialist James White on the outskirts of the village of Milton in the Scottish Lowlands. It spans Overtoun Burn, a deep gorge with a small river.

Dogs who are taken onto the bridge, apparently seized by some undeniable compulsion, leap over the side and onto the jagged rocks 50 feet below. All of the dogs who have jumped were long-nosed breeds like retrievers. (So each had a strong sense of smell.) The incidents typically happen on a clear day and the dogs all jump off the same side of the bridge.

Most tabloid reports say that around 600 dogs have leaped from the bridge. Other reports claim that local researchers say the number is closer to 300. Supposedly, at least 50 dogs have died after making the leap.

Most versions of the story say that this has been happening since the 1950s. According to the Glasgow Skeptics, the earliest online mention of dog suicides at Overtoun Bridge was in the comments section of a 2005 blog post. The story hit mainstream media in the following year and has become a popular tale of unexplained phenomena.

IS IT SUPERNATURAL?

Of course, there are those who believe that the suicides are caused by otherworldly forces. They point out that the bridge's location fits the description of a "thin place" - a lush, quiet place where heaven and earth meet in Celtic pagan belief.

Many blame the tragic incidents on the "White Lady of Overtoun," who haunts Overtoun House. James White's son, John, died in 1908, leaving his widow to grief for over thirty years. After death, she supposedly became the specter known as the White Lady, seen around the house and grounds, still grieving.

Some say that the White Lady is the force compelling the dogs to jump, although it's unclear why or how she would do so.

Others point to a tragic 1994 murder on the bridge as proof that there are evil forces at play.

WHAT ABOUT A RATIONAL EXPLANATION?

Before trying to come up with a scientific explanation, let's consider whether there is even a phenomenon to examine.

In his investigation, Brian Dunning of Skeptoid found varying and contradictory reports about how many dogs have jumped and how long they've been doing it, none of which provide primary sources. The earliest media account he could find was of a border collie named Ben in 1995.

Trying to find someone who had been keeping records of dog jumps, Dunning consulted the Dunbartonshire Chamber of Commerce, the Dog Warden for West Dunbartonshire Council, and the Community Sergeant at the Dumbarton Police Office, but could find no such records.

He spoke to Bob and Melissa Hill, who had been running Overtoun House for over a decade at the time he contacted them. They claimed that in their time there, they had only heard of three dogs jumping. The fall was only fatal to one of the dogs, whose injuries proved too great and had to later be euthanized. One of those dogs was Ben the border collie from the 1995 report.

A vet that Dunning spoke to at Glenbrae Veterinary Clinic said that he had treated only four dogs in a thirteen-year span who had been injured by jumping or falling off the bridge.

There seems to be little or no official record of dog deaths at Overtoun Bridge. But as Dunning himself points out: "However, if your dog does jump off a bridge, there's no reason that you would go to the nearest house and report it, or call the police and report it. The lack of official records says very little about whether or not it really happens."

So, we don't know if it's true that hundreds of dogs have jumped. We only have a total of six documented cases. But even if it was just six dogs, we're still left with questions.

What made these dogs jump off of a bridge? Were they really committing suicide?

Some people have theorized that the dogs were depressed and wanted to die, or that their owners were suicidal and the dogs - empathetic creatures that they are - also became suicidal.

However, this theory is a non-starter. Many animal behaviorists say that dogs can experience depression severe enough for them to enter a semiconscious state that leads to them wasting away and dying. However, it is impossible for dogs to even understand the concept of deliberate, active suicide - let alone attempt it.

THE DOG EXPERT INVESTIGATES

In 2006, the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals called on Dr. David Sands, a canine psychologist, to investigate.

Overtoun House and Bridge (Rosser1954, CC BY-SA 4.0)

He noted that the way the bridge is constructed probably factors into the phenomenon. The walls of the bridge are human waist height and completely solid end-to-end. There are also trees and shrubs that rise higher than the walls. So there are no visual cues for the dogs to realize that they are on a bridge or that there is a drop on the other side of the wall.

A television show that Dr. Sands appeared on, The Unexplained Files (The Science Channel), illustrated just what the bridge would look like from a dog's perspective:

The tops of the walls are also slightly tapered, so if a dog jumps to the top of one, it will probably tumble over even if it realizes its mistake.

This all explains why a dog would be unaware that jumping would be dangerous. But why would it try to jump in the first place? Dr. Sands had a theory for that, as well.

He pointed out that minks (which were introduced into Scotland in the 1920s) began to start breeding in large numbers in the 1950s - the same period as the "suicides" supposedly started. Investigation revealed that not only were mink present in the undergrowth under the bridge but mice and squirrels as well.

Dr. Sands proposed that the scent of one or more of these animals might grab the dogs' attention. The dogs, wanting to chase down the source of the scent, jump over the wall without realizing the danger.

This theory is supported by the fact that all of the incidents happened on dry, sunny days when scent would carry more clearly. Scotland doesn't have those sorts of days very often, which is why dogs don't jump more frequently.

Dr. Sands experimented to see which of these scents would be most attractive to dogs. He took ten dogs - of the same breeds that were to reported to have jumped - to a field. In the field were three plastic containers, each containing an animal scent. Seven of the dogs headed straight for the container of mink scent. Minks emit strong-smelling secretions, so it's not surprising that it would grab a dog's attention first.

A CONFLUENCE OF FACTORS

Dr. Sands' theory seems the most sound and has the most data to back it up. It seems to be a convergence of different factors that lead to tragedy:

On those sunny days when scent carries well, long-nosed dogs (who have a great sense of smell) that are crossing Overtoun Bridge catch a whiff of mink in the undergrowth below. Driven by hunting instinct and unaware of the drop because of the way the bridge is constructed, they leap over the wall in pursuit of the scent and fall into the gorge below.

As sad as the whole thing is, it seems that the mystery behind Overtoun Bridge has a perfectly rational explanation.

SOURCES

Dunning, Brian. (2012, July 24). “The suicide dogs of Overtoun Bridge,” Skeptoid podcast #320. Transcript retrieved from https://skeptoid.com/episodes/4320

Coren, Stanley. (2010, Aug. 23). Do dogs commit suicide? Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/canine-corner/201008/do-dogs-commitsuicide

Glasgow Skeptics. (n.d.) Flogging a dead dog? Retrieved from https://web.archive.org/web/20190412172336/http://glasgowskeptics.com/floggingdead-dog

McMahon, James. (2018, Apr. 24). The mystery of the ‘dog suicide’ bridge. Retrieved from https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/evq98m/the-mystery-of-the-dog-suicidebridge

Midgley, Dominic. (2015, Jun. 25). What’s caused 600 dogs to hurl themselves off this bridge? Retrieved from https://www.express.co.uk/life-style/life/586793/600-dogshurl-themselves-off-bridge

Sands, David [DR DAVID SANDS]. (2011, Jun. 16). Dogs don’t do suicide (Wild Case Files) Dr David Sands updates the Overtoun Bridge story [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z8nLf2H3eIY

[Science Channel]. (2014, Oct. 17). Scotland bridge leads dogs to their death [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oI7iPb3qtZM

Yeginsu, Ceylan. (2019, Mar. 27). ‘Dog suicide bridge’: Why do so many pets keep leaping into a scottish gorge?. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/27/world/europe/scotland-overtoun-bridge-dogsuicide.html

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About the Creator

B. Jessee

Appalachian writer & nerd. Writes about the strangest bits of history and science as well as science news.

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