Wag the Dogman
In the counties of Northern Michigan, folks tell tales of a strange creature stalking the night. At first, most who encounter it think it's just a large black dog; but then the beast rears up on its hind legs and reveals its true nature: a 7-foot tall, bipedal monstrosity with the head of a canine, surprisingly blue eyes, and the torso of a man. It lets out an unearthly howl that sounds almost like a human scream, sending all but most stalwart of witnesses fleeing in fear.
This creature, called the Michigan Dogman, was virtually unknown to the modern world before the last part of the twentieth century, though it is said to have been stalking the woods around the Manistee River since the days when the Odawa tribes lived there. In recent years, the Dogman has also become a creature of legitimate note and study in the cryptozoology community, even warranting an entire episode of Monster Quest. Is there really a half-canine cryptid loping through Northern Michigan in the dark?
The story of the Dogman begins in Traverse City, Michigan, in 1987, when radio producer Steve Cook wrote and recorded a song called "The Legend". In the song, he spins the tale of the dogmen, supernatural canine-human hybrids which appear every ten years to stalk the residents of Northern Michigan. The song tells of such happenings as a group of lumberjacks chasing what they thought was a dog, only to have it stand upright and scare them off; horses found dead of fright with dog tracks nearby; and a group of hippies in a van being confronted by a grinning dog face at the window. “The Legend” ends on an ominous note.
Cook was a collector of local folklore, and he used bits and pieces from the stories and tales he was familiar with to flesh out the song. The ten-year cycle of the Dogman, which just happened to coincide with 1987, the year the song was written, was clearly derived from similar recurring cycles in legends and lore. Canine monsters stalking the woods at night are also common in folktales, though Cook chose to make his creature a dog and not the more traditional wolf so as to keep the creature spooky, but not malevolent; the dogmen of the song never maims or kill anyone, instead simply frightening their victims. With tongue firmly in cheek, Cook played the song as an April Fool's Day treat for listeners of Traverse City's WTCM in 1987.
To Cook's surprise, listeners latched onto his little joke. Whether seriously or in the spirit of playing along, listeners began to call up with their own monster encounters. Those listeners prompted others to call in and share, and then the stories spread to front porches and local diners, and soon the newspapers began to pick it up. Then, there was an animal attack in nearby Luther, MI, and rumors quickly spread that it was the work of the actual creature. The Michigan Dogman was no longer a joke, but a legitimate threat.
Since that spring, the Dogman has increasingly shown up in books, websites, and television programs about cryptids as not just a fictional legend, but as a real beast. People relate tales of Dogman sightings, sometimes with photos taken during their encounters. Canine tracks deemed "unusually large" or "spaced too evenly" are sometimes found and photographed, or, in true cryptozoology style, collected as plaster casts. Researchers have dug into newspaper reports, history books, and local folklore for anything that could even remotely be connected to the beast to prove that the Dogman pre-dates the song, and have cobbled together a thread of stories going back centuries. The Dogman even has its own expert, in the form of author Linda Godfrey, who has not only written books about both the Dogman and Wisconsin's Beast of Bray Road (a similar regional monster legend) but also acts as a go-to source on the Dogman for the likes of Monster Quest and Coast to Coast AM.
So, what exactly has happened here? Is the Dogman real, or a hoax? And how does "The Legend" play into it all? There are two ways to read the Dogman's rise from April Fool's Day joke to serious cryptid.
First, one could read it as a cosmic coincidence: Cook just happened to write a song that unknowingly matched the descriptions and habits of an actual cryptid running around the woods in Northern Michigan for over a century. That seems to be the position that Cook himself prefers to take. He told the Detroit Free Press in 2011 that
The other possibility is that Cook's song served as a catalyst for the mass invention of a belief. In short, there had always been campfire stories and tall tales of strange monsters in the woods at night — scattered, unrelated, none of them true. But until Cook wrote his song, any individual stories about monsters in northern Michigan were just that: individual stories. What Cook unintentionally did was give those stories a shared identity to gather around, and in doing so gave northern Michigan a monster believable enough to be taken seriously.
If the first possibility is the right one, then there should be evidence of such a creature; and in the years since "The Legend", people have certainly been looking. It's hard not to be supremely unimpressed, however, with what they have found. There's the aforementioned string of historical stories, which can only charitably be called evidence. Modern witness reports, which don't fare much better, most of them being completely uncorroborated. All the photographs taken to date, at least the ones not revealed as photoshop fakes, contain little more than the obligatory dark blob amidst the foliage (it turns out Dogman photographers can't focus their cameras any better than Bigfoot photographers). And those occasional canine tracks that are photographed and cast in plaster? Far more likely to be left behind by grey wolves or coyotes, both of which run wild in the area.
The closest the Dogman came to legitimacy as a cryptozoological curiosity was in 2007, when a video surfaced purporting to have captured a Dogman attack on camera. Dubbed "the Gable Film" after the label said to have been on the original 8mm film canister, the soundless film is filled with family shots that were dated to the 1970s. At the end of the reel is a thirty-second sequence where the camera person spots a hulking, broad-shouldered animal in the near distance. They move towards the creature, only to have it charge at them. The person runs; the camera drops; there's a hint of fang and claw; and then nothing. If real, the Gable film could have legitimately become the Patterson-Gimlin film of the Dogman legend.
Not surprisingly, the film, and a follow-up film which surfaced a year later, were both hoaxes, as confirmed by the very last episode of Monster Quest in 2010. The creator of the film was a Michigan resident, Mike Agrusa, who was a fan of the original song and who wanted to do something in 2007 to keep the every-decade-in-a-year-that-ends-in-seven cycle of the Dogman going. He ultimately approached the originator of the legend, Steve Cook, to help him perpetrate the deception by sharing the "found" video on his website. Cook played along, almost certainly in the same spirit as he had recorded the original song twenty years before.
That Cook was willing to join in on the Gable hoax speaks volumes about what he really thinks about the possibility of there being a real Dogman. Cook himself acknowledges this, saying of the possibility of a real Dogman that
Cook's reference to folklore is important. And it is that folkloric aspect that is almost glaringly obvious in the Dogman dogma. Here's one of my favorite examples, taken from Godfrey's book on the Beast of Bray Road (which, yes, has a whole chapter on the Dogman in it). It begins with
The story ends with the man saying he "swore off parking from that day forward."
If you are a student of urban legends, you should immediately recognize this motif. It's a classic "people doing something morally questionable are shocked back into moral compliance by an unsettling encounter" story. In fact, it is in form very much like the old story of the Hookman, where two teens parking in some out of the way spot get scared off by news reports about an escaped killer with a hook for a hand, only to find when they get home that there is a bloody hook hanging off the door handle. Like the man from Manistee, the teens are faced with a scare and a lesson about the dangers of sexual impurity. The parallel between the two stories is almost uncanny.
It's also easy to parallel the rise of the Dogman with the rise of another famous made-up monster, Slender Man. Like the Dogman, Slender Man has clearly documented fictional origins, but in the years since the lines between fiction and belief have blurred, such that some people think seriously about the Slender Man as an actual entity. In the case of Slender Man, this rising tide of belief sadly crested in 2014 when two girls allegedly stabbed a third girl in order to appease the made-up spook. Luckily, no such incidents have resulted from belief in the Dogman.
Ultimately, I don't think that very many people in Northern Michigan take the legend of the Dogman too seriously. Still, it's amazing how quickly one song was able create the creature and how seriously has been considered in the years since. If you want some evidence of how quickly beliefs such as this can take root, look no further than some of the discussions on the Internet about the Gable film. Ever since Agrusa revealed his hoax, there have been believers who voice doubt about his confession. They want the video to be real so badly that they persist in their belief despite the fact that not only could Agrusa produce every period prop used in the film for the Monster Quest episode, but he himself also appears on camera during the film.
Even though it's likely just a story, the Michigan Dogman has quickly become a part of the fabric of northern Michigan. Steve Cook travels to local fairs and festivals to share his famous song, selling CDs and donating the proceeds to local animal shelters. Local authors have written several novels based in the Dogman legend, and local filmmakers have even turned the Dogman into a movie monster. So long as the Dogman remains relatively inoffensive and scary but not deadly, the residents of Northern Michigan seem perfectly content to continue believing, with a wink and a nod, in their nocturnal canine cryptid.
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