The Suicide Dogs of Overtoun Bridge
In the rolling green foothills outside of West Dunbartonshire, Scotland, stands the impressive Victorian stone mansion known as Overtoun House. It was originally built in the 1860s as the private retreat of industrialist and philanthropist James White from locally quarried granite. It has the ornate look and size of a classic Scottish castle, and leading up to it is a bridge that is no less imposing. The heavy granite structure spans the shallow, rocky creek called Overtoun Burn, 15 meters below the roadway. Something about the bridge has an unusual affect on dogs. The story goes that over the past few decades, at least fifty dogs have leapt the walls and fallen to their deaths on the creek bottom far below. This bridge of doggie doom is known to some as "Rover's Leap", the place that compels dogs to suddenly, and deliberately, commit suicide.
In 1995, a border collie named Ben, owned by Donna Cooper, jumped the wall and fell, injuring himself so badly that he had to be euthanized. Ben's death got picked up by the newspapers, and Overtoun Bridge became a phenomenon. Stories about the dog suicides at Overtoun became so widespread that even the Daily Mail newspaper — not exactly renowned for its responsible factual reporting — cited the work of Rupert Sheldrake in an article about the bridge. Sheldrake believes that dogs have psychic powers and maintain a psychic connection with their owners. The Daily Mail also pointed out a potential connection between human suicides in Dumbarton and the Overtoun dog suicides, stating that Dumbarton is "a site of economic decline and regularly voted one of the most depressing places in Britain to live." Thus their citation of Rupert Sheldrake: the dogs became suicidal because of their psychic connections to their suicidal owners. The Daily Mail concluded "So perhaps the dogs jumped to their deaths because they picked up on some human cues." There have been no reports of suicidal tendencies by owners of any of the dead dogs, but nevertheless, virtually every report on the Overtoun Bridge now includes the Daily Mail's nonsensical discussion of Rupert Sheldrake and his psychic dogs.
Some point to the idea of the graveyard of the whales, or the secret place in the jungle where the elephants all go to die, as if they are precedents for a specific location favored by dogs to end their lives. Most popular tellings of the Overtoun Bridge legend mention ghosts that are said to reside at Overtoun House, postulating that perhaps they spook the dogs or somehow haunt them into wanting to jump. It's also commonly noted that a disturbed man once threw his young son off the bridge, and proposed that this indicates some force affects the mind there and compels the dogs to jump. Such flights of fancy are what we call "explaining an unknown with another unknown," and are not explanations at all. We want to know what's actually going on.
And, as is so often the case on Skeptoid, the first question to answer is whether the story's even true or not. Before trying to explain a strange report, first determine whether it actually happened at all, or at least whether it happened as reported. Perhaps Ben the border collie was just a fluke accident. Did Overtoun Bridge genuinely have a history of dog suicides? Sources are all over the map. All have been reported only after Ben's 1995 jump. The Aiken Standard newspaper said "scores of dogs during the past three decades"; the Lennox newspaper in Dunbartonshire said five dogs; the Daily Mail said fifty dogs in fifty years, including six dogs in six months; and the Dumbarton and Vale of Leven Reporter said "around 50" dogs have died in the past fifty years. None of these newspapers gave a source for their counts.
In many of the stories I cover here on Skeptoid, it turns out that there's a person somewhere who obsessively collects every piece of data pertaining to their particular mystery: every newspaper clipping, every photograph, everything that anyone knows. When I find such a person, I often learn something new that's never made it into the popular telling of the story. And so, since every version of the Overtoun Bridge story I came across simply retold the same old vague facts, I tried to find the Overtoun Bridge guru. Professor Google did not seem to know of one. I spoke with the Dunbartonshire Chamber of Commerce; they did not know of either a local historian or of any records of dog jumps. I spoke with the Dog Warden for West Dunbartonshire Council; nothing. I even spoke with the Community Sergeant at the Dumbarton Police Office; she did not know of any such records. Finally, I went straight to the source.
Overtoun House is now a bed and breakfast that supports a Christian shelter for local young women down on their luck. It's run by Bob and Melissa Hill, missionaries from Fort Worth, Texas. At the time I contacted them, they'd been there for over ten years, and I found them happy to share what they know of Rover's Leap. Turns out, it's not much. In those ten years, they've heard of three dogs who jumped, two of which walked away, and one of which was later euthanized due to his injuries. Those three include Ben the border collie and one other, Kenneth Meikle's golden retriever Hendrix, who jumped but survived uninjured. This number dovetails pretty well with that given by a doctor at the local Glenbrae Veterinary Clinic, who has treated four dogs who were injured in falls from the bridge over the past thirteen years.
To me it smacked of urban legend; there seem to be no records at all of any dog deaths, except Ben's; and no reason to suspect Ben had deliberately committed suicide. 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 the answer to our first and most important question, whether an unusual number of dog deaths actually happens at Overtoun Bridge, is unanswered. There are two named and a total of six documented cases, not fifty; and not one a month since the 1950s; a number that does not strike me as suprising. Dogs love to run around and explore. So in practice, I'd shrug this one off at this point until there's at least a proven phenomenon there to explain. But when one of the television crews did a TV show about the bridge, which of course began from the unsupported presumption that dogs truly do come here to deliberately commit suicide, they raised two interested points that made me inquire further.
The first interesting point arose when they asked the question of whether or not it's possible for a dog to commit premeditated suicide. Dr. David Sands, an animal behavioral specialist in Lancashire, thinks not. He does point out that it's common for dogs, cats, and other animals to seek out a quiet hole or cubby when they're near death; but this has to do with their deteriorating physical condition and it's not necessary to introduce anything like premeditation, and certainly not premonition. He states quite emphatically that dogs do not premeditate their own deaths, and therefore it's impossible for them to commit what we humans would call suicide.
However, it is the construction of the bridge itself that eliminates the need to introduce the question of deliberate suicide. Like Overtoun House, Overtoun Bridge is built from local granite. Its walls are solid granite, waist high on a man, and quite opaque to anyone who is dog height. The solid walls run end-to-end, and a dog has no way of knowing that he's even on a bridge. Trees and shrubs stand higher than the walls, and for a dog, there's no reason to suspect the wall is anything that couldn't or shouldn't be jumped onto in pursuit of whatever compelling adventure calls. But as noted by Ben's master, once he sprang atop the wall he had enough momentum carrying him that there was nothing he could do to prevent a fall. The solid wall virtually eliminates deliberate suicide as a possible cause: since the dog can't see through the wall, the dog doesn't know that death lies on the other side.
It was also David Sands who found a likely candidate for the second interesting point, and that suggested the compelling adventure that called the dogs to check out the other side of the wall. He took Hendrix, the dog known to have survived a fall, for a walk along the bridge. Hendrix was uninterested until they got to one end of the bridge, the end that dogs are said to favor. Hendrix tensed and studied the wall. She was 19 years old at the time and didn't have the strength to do much more than that, but it was enough to suggest further investigation. David Sexton from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and Wildlife poked around and found nests of mice, squirrels, and minks. So Dr. Sands set up an informal demonstration with ten dogs to see how they were affected by these scents. On a field prepared with canisters containing mouse, squirrel, and mink scent, one of the dogs went to the squirrel scent, two preferred to play with their masters, and the remaining seven all went straight for the mink scent, many of them quite dramatically.
It's really hard to get into the heads of dogs, as noted by Dr. Richard Wiseman in some of his critiques of Rupert Sheldrake's pyschic dog work. In most cases, we can't know what an animal was thinking when it did something; we can only guess at its motivation, and look for patterns. We know that the hillside below Overtoun Bridge is scented with a tremendous attraction for dogs, at least during times when minks are living there, as was the case during the investigation following Ben's leap. We know that in many of these cases, dogs tempted by this scent will be unable to arrest their fall as their momentum carries them over the wall. What we don't know is how often this has happened, nor do we know if anything else has enticed them to jump up there. We have a fairly complete explanation for what likely happened to Ben and Hendrix, but whether any mystery remains about the suicide dogs of Overtoun Bridge, only the dogs truly know.
Correction: An earlier version of this incorrectly said that James White was the first Lord Overtoun. The first Lord Overtoun was his son, John Campbell White. —BD
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