It really is the most tragic thing. Overtoun Bridge in Milton, near Dumbarton, England, holds a curious, terrible power over dogs. It makes them want to jump off it. In the past 50 years, it has claimed 50 dogs, and there are sometimes spikes in the piteous graph of doggo-demise, like one six-month period last year, when a full five canines did a suicide leap.
The question is, of course, what turned this spot into the Beachy Head of the dog world? Are Scottish dogs particularly depressed? Would a depressed dog jump off a bridge or would it just poo in your shoes? Can a dog actually commit suicide? And if not, could this bridge – as some owners aver – be haunted?
On the issue of whether a dog would intentionally kill itself, professional opinion is unanimous: they do not. Dr Michael Hand of the University of London has written a paper on whether it is possible for animals to err, "whether, in fact, making a mistake presupposed psychological qualities that we can’t ascribe to animals, that are only properly applicable to human beings. But we found that, yes, they can make mistakes, a bird can build its nest too close to the ground."
Could an animal make the tragic mistake of taking its own life, though? "I would think not. Animals don’t have a sense of themselves as living creatures."
Stan Rawlinson, dog whisperer and behaviourist, concurs: "A dog can get depressed, certainly, and it can get anxious. But what it couldn’t do is commit suicide, because that would need a decision on a moralistic basis, and dogs, unlike humans, do not have the same moral sense."
There is also the problem that a dog has no sense of time so even the forward planning required in connecting its depression with a future course of action would be beyond it. Pressed on the possibility of haunting, he said dogs often seemed to have a sixth sense, but he didn’t believe in ghosts.
There is the possibility that a small animal’s burrow or bird’s nest is near the bridge. "Dogs will chase birds off a cliff," Rawlinson says. I thought all dogs that weren’t completely daft figured out pretty early on the futility of chasing something that could fly, but evidently not. There is also something strange about this bridge, where the land slopes away on one side and dogs lose their bearings. Plus, dogs are colour blind: they see in pastels and have perceptual problems with large swathes of green or red, so again, perhaps something in the lie of the land confuses them, leading them to leap to the navigable safety of 50 feet below. It could of course be an untimely combination of all these factors, which would account for it only affecting certain dogs. The consolation to families left behind is that the dogs definitely didn’t do it on purpose. They weren’t depressed, and would never have left the family so bereft. They loved the new baby …