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A dangerously irresistible smell: The truth behind the seemingly suicidal dogs in Scotland

E.L. Hamilton

Sixteen miles northwest of Glasgow, in bucolic West Dunbartonshire, stands an elegant baronial mansion on rolling green acres overlooking well-tended gardens and the River Clyde, over which spans a stone bridge. Built in 1862 by a wealthy industrialist and since bequeathed to the town, Overtoun House has been used over the years as a convalescent home for war veterans, a youth center, and the backdrop for movies such as Cloud Atlas.

Today you can spend an afternoon imagining yourself as royalty at the Overtoun House Tea Room, called by visitors the “gold standard of tea rooms.” But underneath that tranquil civilized veneer lies several dark mysteries, featuring ghosts, murder, and suicide—of dogs.

James White was a retired lawyer when he bought the grounds that would become Overtoun in 1858. His son moved in after his parents’ death, and was elevated to the peerage in 1893. After her husband’s death in 1908, the grief-stricken Lady Overtoun was said to have paced across the bridge until her own death in 1931. Some locals insist her sinister presence haunts the grounds today, including one author, Paul Owen. “I was up there one summer’s day and I felt a very strong jab — like a phantom finger — twice in my back,” he told the Huffington Post U.K. in 2015. “It was the sensation you get when you fear someone might push you over the edge of a train platform.”

A truly gruesome crime occurred in 1994, when a schizophrenic suffering paranoid delusions threw his baby over the bridge and attempted to kill himself, but was restrained. His conviction was overturned by reason of insanity, and the man was committed to a mental hospital.

But perhaps the estate’s oddest claim to infamy is that it is said to be the site of dog suicides.

Overtoun house Author :dave souza CC BY-SA 3.0

Overtoun house Author :dave souza CC BY-SA 3.0

In the 1950s, locals began calling the stone Overtoun bridge the “bridge of death” because dogs had been leaping off it. Indeed, as many as 50 dogs over the past 50 years have jumped to their death, according to the U.K.’s Daily Mail; some 600 have survived the leap. Some locals theorized that a nearby nuclear base was emitting a terrifying frequency only dogs could hear.

Cassie, a springer spaniel belonging to a horrified local nurse who watched her dog go over the wall, lived after the leap. “There is no way my dog did it on purpose,” Alice Trevorrow told the Sun in 2015. “There is something sinister going on here. It was so out of character for her.” Donna Cooper’s collie, Ben, survived the fall, but with a broken back and sadly had to be euthanized.

Hold on just a second. Of course, we’ve all heard stories about old, sick, or lame animals who’ve crawled into hiding places to await their deaths. But can a dog intentionally and purposefully end its life? Can a dog commit suicide?

The answer, say canine experts, is no. It is “impossible for a dog to premeditate its own death,” according to Dr. David Sands of the Animal Behavioural Clinic in the U.K.’s Lancashire, a canine behavior specialist who was contacted in 2005 by a British TV show about the mystery.

Overtoun Bridge Photo Credit: Allan Ogg CC BY-SA 3.0

Overtoun Bridge Photo Credit: Allan Ogg CC BY-SA 3.0

So what was going on? If the bridge was not a platform for depressed canines, why were so many ending their lives there?

There were a few clues: Many of the dogs who’d leaped were long-nosed breeds, characterized by exceptional sense of smell. The dogs jumped between two ramparts on the right side of the bridge, on clear sunny days.

Dr. Sands visited the site with the eyes of a trained specialist. There he discovered that a wide,  flat path led to the entryway to bridge, which is covered in ivy—masking visual cues that mark it as a barrier on the other side of which lies a 50-foot drop. Water rushing beneath the bridge creates a kind of aural distraction. Under the bridge lives what you might expect: squirrels, mice, rats, weasels. But also mink, which produce a distinctive odor irresistible to hunting dogs; the scent is most pronounced on sunny, dry days, as rain and humidity would tamp down the smell. A naturalist who visited the area with Dr. Sands confirmed the presence of mink, which was introduced to the area during the 1950s, back when the doggy deaths first occurred.

Overtoun Bridge_Lairich Rig CC BY-SA 2.0

Overtoun Bridge_Lairich Rig CC BY-SA 2.0

So a scent-reacting dog gamboling on a bright sunny day might go charging over the wall without knowing what it was doing and without hearing his owner crying STOP!

“Suffice it to say my final verdict is one of misadventure rather than suicide,” concluded Dr. Sands on his clinic’s website.

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The explanation has not caused an end to the accidental deaths, alas. Today if you take Fido on a walk around the Overtoun grounds and come to the bridge, you’ll see warning signs: DANGEROUS BRIDGE: PLEASE KEEP YOUR DOG ON A LEAD. Good advice.