Dogs have been living with humans as helpers and companions for thousands of years. Dogs were among the first domesticated animals and are descendants of a more mysterious canine, the wolf. This duality may explain the mixed folklore and myths that exist about dogs. They are variously presented as friends to humans, supernatural entities, or even dark, menacing creatures.

Dogs were part of domestic life in ancientEgypt. They are depicted on many wallreliefs as hunters or pets. But the closest approximation to a true dog in Egyptian mythology is the god Anubis. This jackalheaded guardian of the afterlife guided the souls of the dead. Dogs were considered sacred to Anubis.

Dogs in Greek Mythology

In Greek mythology there was a powerful, supernatural watchdog, the three-headed Cerberus. This beast guarded the passage to the underworld. Only two mortals were able to get past Cerberus. The miraculous bard Orpheus used his music to charm Cerberus into letting him pass, and the hero Hercules took Cerberus captive.

Another dog in Greek mythology was the unfortunate Laelaps. This magical canine was destined to always catch its prey—until it tried to catch the Teumassian fox. This fox was destined never to be caught. The result of the chase was a paradox, which Zeus resolved by turning both animals to stone.

Greek mythology immortalized dogs in the constellations of Canis Major (Greater Dog) and Canis Minor (Lesser Dog). These dogs are said to be owned by the hunter Orion, whose constellation is nearby.

Argos was the name of Odysseus’s dog in the Odyssey (c. 700 B.C.E.). Argos was the first to recognize his master when he returned from his epic travels, even though Odysseus was in disguise.

Aesop’s fables include “The Dog in the Manger.” In this tale, a greedy dog refuses to share, even though what he has grabbed is not edible.

Dogs of the British Isles

Great Britain has many tales of mythic or fairy dogs. In Welsh mythology, the Cwn Annwn, “Hounds of Annwn,” are the white, red-eared hounds that belonged to Annwn, the ruler of the land of the dead. Fairy dogs are also usually depicted as white with red ears. An exception to this is the Cu Sith, or Fairy Hound, a large hound that is dark green and carries its long tail stylishly curled up.

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Great Britain is rife with tales of phantom black dogs. Nearly every county has at least one example of such a beast. The black dog
inArthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) was based on the folktale of a black dog on Dartmoor in Devon.

There is also a popular dog story attached to the town of Beddgelert in Wales. In this tale, a man comes home to find his baby’s crib empty and blood on the mouth of the faithful family dog. Certain that the dog has murdered his baby, the man kills the dog. He finds out too late that the baby is safe under the crib and the blood was from a wolf the dog had killed. The town where this sad event is said to have occurred was named for the dog, Gelert.

Asian Canines

In China, Korea, and Japan dogs are generally seen as kindly and protective. This was not always good news for dogs in ancient times. It was customary in China and Japan to pour dog blood over the frame of a new house to protect it against evil or illness. In about 676 B.C.E., King Teh, the ruler of Ch’in, the kingdom that was to give China its name, had four dogs killed at the four gates of his city to ward off evil. A less gruesome custom was to wear straw images of dogs as protective amulets.

On Japan’s Oki Islands, supernatural dogs were said to help wizards gain wealth. In the mythology of the Tinguian people of the Philippines, the supernatural dog called Kimat is the companion to Tadaklan, the god of thunder. The belief is that when Kimat bites, lightning strikes.

Other Traditions

The most important canine in Norse mythology is the terrible Fenris, although it is a wolf rather than a dog. Garm is a huge, four-eyed dog that is frequently described as being covered with blood. Garm guards the entrance of Helheim, land of the dead, for his mistress, Hel.

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Supernatural guard dogs are found in many myths and stories. In Persian mythology, two four-eyed dogs guard the Chinvat Bridge, which leads to paradise. In Hindu myth, the Sun and Moon dogs guard Indra, the chief of the Vedic gods.

Judaism and Islam view dogs as unclean scavengers. The term dog as an insult comes from Islamic tradition. In Christian belief, the dog represents faithfulness.

Urban Legend and Superstitions

In modern folk beliefs, dogs generally appear as heroes. “The Choking Doberman” isperhaps the best known of the urban tales about dogs: A family returns home to find their dog, usually a Doberman pinscher, choking on something. It turns out to be the finger of a burglar the dog attacked and chased off. There are many superstitions about dogs:

  • Dogs can see the supernatural (Wales, Scotland, China, Japan, and others).
  • Dogs can foresee evil (Greece).
  • Dogs can chase away evil spirits (China).
  • If a dog whines at night, that means it sees Yama, the god of death, and there will be a death in the house (Punjabi).
  • A dog howling or barking at night means a death in the house (worldwide).
  • A dog howling at night predicts an earthquake ( Japan).
  • A dog that climbs onto a roof predicts fire (Japan).
  • Black dogs are unlucky (Great Britain).
  • White dogs are lucky and three white dogs together are even luckier (Great Britain).
  • A strange dog visiting a house means a new friendship (Scotland).
  • Meeting a spotted dog on the way to a business appointment is lucky (Great Britain).
  • Dogs on a boat are unlucky (Great Britain and the United States).
  • Dogs at a gambling table are unlucky (Great Britain).
  • If a dog licks a newborn baby, the baby will be a quick healer (United States).
  • Dogs protect babies from sickness (China).
  • A dog’s death means that its master has been spared from death (Philippines).
  • The history of dogs is closely linked tothat of humans, and so dogs play roles inmany stories and folk beliefs around the world.