We all know about black cats in folklore: they’re notoriously bad luck and often a witch’s familiar. But what about black dogs? Are they a thing?
Spoiler alert: yes, they are.
What is a black dog?
Easy question! It’s just a dog with black fur, right? Well, yes. But also no.
In folklore, black dogs are associated with hellhounds and are sometimes said to be a form of the devil. They’re also likened to ghosts, and other times they’re considered a type of faerie. It’s not confusing at all, right?
Different varieties have different names:
- the Barghest
- the Black Shuck
- the Padfoot
And that’s just a few of them.
In some tales, black dogs attack and straight up kill people. In others, their eerie appearance foretells death. But some are simply mischievous or even benevolent, protecting people who travel at night.
Most are described as enormous beasts with mangy fur and glowing eyes as big as saucers.
Because black dogs are so versatile and can fill so many different roles, they’re fascinating to explore in urban fantasy.
Demonic Black Dogs
Black dogs get compared to hellhounds for obvious reasons: they’re both big, scary supernatural dogs. “Urban Fantasy Books Featuring Hellhounds” is an article in and of itself, so for this post, I’ll focus on infernal canines that are referred to as black dogs rather than hellhounds.
The best example of this—and an extremely awesome book—is the aptly titled Black Dog by Rachel Neumeier.
The black dogs in this novel are shifters. They call the black dog side of their consciousness their “shadows,” and all shadows want to do is hunt and kill, so black dog shifters need an impressive amount of control to keep from going feral.
They also have ties to hell.
“Damn black dog son of a bitch,” Belliveau muttered.
“Don’t say that!” Natividad told him instantly. “Really, don’t. Black dogs walk so close to the edge of Hell anyway. Never damn a black dog. It could happen, do you see?”
Oh, and did I mention the villain of the story can raise the shadows of black dogs from hell and force them to serve him?
(Seriously, it’s a good book. You should read it.)
Black dogs have ties to faerie lore. The article “British Folklore: Legends of the Black Dog” mentions the Cu Sìth, or “fairy dog.” Not only is it a harbinger of death, but hearing its howl is a sign to lock your doors, because it’s hunting for people to steal away to Faerieland.
My favorite faerie hound in urban fantasy is Anwynn, the reluctant sidekick to the heroine of Changeling on the Job by A.G. Stewart. She’s a huge hairy hound, ferocious in battle—oh, and she talks.
“More Than a Woof: The Rarity of Black Dogs That Talk” states how uncommon this is in black dog folklore. But I’m glad Anywnn talks because she is a snarky delight, and I love her banter with the protagonist.
Anwynn cleared her throat. “Can I have a television in my room?”
“Are you threatening me?” “Yes. Can I have the television?”
“So what’s next? Back to the house where I most assuredly do not have my own television?”-Anwynn on a mission throughout the book
Black Dogs as Death Omens
Seeing a giant black dog with glowing eyes would freak anyone out, which is probably why they’re often considered death omens. “Legend of the Black Dog in the British Isles” mentions a black dog that haunts Ivelet Bridge in Yorkshire. Anyone who sees it reportedly dies within a year.
The heroine of Dog with a Bone by Hailey Edwards is half fae. She doesn’t shapeshift into a black dog but is called one because of the unique brand of death magic she inherited from her fae father.
Seeing her doesn’t cause your death, but if she gets you in her grasp and decides you’re a threat, she can literally drain your life force.
The Grim in the Harry Potter series also serves as a death omen, its appearance to Harry an ominous threat until it’s revealed to be Sirius Black. (This is probably the most well-known appearance of a black dog in contemporary fantasy fiction.)
Whether ghost, demon, or faerie, black dogs take three main roles in urban fantasy:
A black dog can be an interesting supernatural form for a shifter, and they can be the protagonist, love interest, or a side character.
There’s a folkloric basis to black dogs shapeshifting, as they’ve been known to take the appearance of other animals or even headless humans. Though in the Fabulous Folklore podcast episode “The Barguest: Demon Dog, Silly Sprite or Spectral Hound?“ Icy Sedgwick poses the (very good) question of how people who saw these different specters knew it was the same creature.
Whether a talking sentient hound like Anwynn or a regular pet who happens to be a huge supernatural canine, black dogs make good animal sidekicks. Folklore of black dogs as supernatural guardians or protective spirits lays good groundwork for this trope.
The fae villain of a story may sic their hounds on the protagonist. Or when the Wild Hunt rolls into town, spectral black dogs might dash ahead of the riders and attack first. Black dogs are intimidating, so it’s not surprising when they show up as a threat.
While black dogs appear in urban fantasy novels, I’d say they’re one of the more rarely used creatures in the genre. I always get excited when one shows up on the page.
Can you name any urban fantasy books in which black dogs make an appearance? Shout them out in the comments!
Books Referenced in this Post
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In a world where a half-hidden war has finally revealed to ordinary humans the supernatural creatures that surround them, safety is hard to find for a girl like Natividad. Born Pure, one of the rare girls able to wield protective magic against demonic forces, Natividad and her brothers are on their own and on the run, with terrible memories and terrible enemies behind them.
The only possible shelter might be found with their father’s kin, the infamous black dogs of Dimilioc . . . if they can win acceptance. But when their enemies track them to their new home, neither Natividad nor her brothers nor Dimilioc itself may survive . . .
Changeling on the Job
Nicole’s only been appointed as a legal Changeling for one month when the complaints all over town about souring milk grow louder. This seems the harmless prank of idle sprites, but when Nicole’s sleuthing leads her to a mortal man locked in a trunk, marked for sacrifice, she catches a whiff of something more sinister than fermenting lactose. Sprites may be mischievous, but they aren’t interested in blood rites.
If that weren’t headache enough, Nicole’s sarcastic Fae hound and only minion is determined to make her house into a more roommate-friendly zone…
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Dog with a Bone
Half-bloods with Thierry’s skill set are given two options. They can join the conclave’s marshal program, or they can pack their bags. Turn down the job offer, and you’ve just shredded your residency pass for the mortal realm and booked yourself a one-way ticket to Faerie.
Texas is the only home Thierry has ever known, and she’s not going anywhere. Even if it means following in her notorious father’s footsteps as a peacekeeper. But pinning on the badge opens her eyes to the fact sometimes fae need protection too, and that sometimes humans are the real monsters.
2 thoughts on “Black Dogs in Folklore and Urban Fantasy”
The War for the Oaks by Emma bull has a fabulous black dog, who is fae and also shape-shifter.
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Ooh. Thanks for the rec! I need to put that one on my to-read list.