Everyone remembers the “Lassie” movies, and the way that the dog barked to warn humans about something happening. “What are you trying to tell us, Lassie?” is a phrase that we all know, and most people are highly sceptical about the concept in the movies. Maybe dogs do have good hearing and an excellent sense of smell, but they don’t really behave like Lassie, trying to pass on messages to humans in such an intelligent way. Or do they?
Some years ago, Noel lived in West Cork, working on Mizen Castle Farm, close to Ireland’s most south-westerly point. He looked after horses and sheep in this remote, idyllic location, on the coast beside Mizen Head, bounded by high cliffs. The farm is the only inhabited place along that coastline. Noel lived alone, with two farm dogs – a Great Dane called Freya, and Ebi, a Labrador/Collie cross who he later came to own himself.
The “Lassie” incident happened shortly before 5.00 a.m. on November 23rd. Noel was woken by the frenzied barking of Ebi outside his cottage. When he came outside to see what was happening, she ran madly to the gate of the farmyard. Noel followed her, and when he opened the gate, she led him across two fields to the very edge of the cliffs facing Dunlough Bay and Mizen Head. Though the cliffs had been fenced with sheep-wire, Noel feared that some sheep had managed to get through, so he set about searching for them.
The powerful torch that he was using revealed no evidence of anything amiss along the cliff edge. At this point, Noel noticed that Ebi was not looking in the area of the cliffs but rather staring straight out to sea in a particular direction. She was listening intently, and they she resuming the frenzied barking, all the while looking at the same place out at sea, then looking back at Noel, as if trying to tell him “there is trouble over there”. To Noel, it was exactly like a Lassie movie, and he even found himself saying “What are you trying to tell me, Ebi?”
It was obvious that she was listening to something that was beyond human hearing. Noel searched the surface of the water with his torch beam but he could neither see nor hear anything.
A short time later, Noel saw blue flashing lights and a convoy of vehicles coming along the road from the nearby village of Goleen. It was the Goleen Marine Rescue Service and they told him that a passing aircraft had just picked up an automatic distress signal from a fishing boat in the Mizen Head area. A search was ongoing to find the vessel in distress, but so far, it could not be located.
Noel told them about Ebi and indicated the spot where she was looking. However the bearings they had been given placed the vessel about a mile further south and they proceeded to that point to launch their boat.
At about 06.30am, debris was seen in the area of Mizen Head and all rescue efforts were then directed to that area. By this time, the stricken vessel had been identified as the Irish fishing boat, the St. Gervase.
The following morning, on November 24th, a life-raft was found floating on the surface still attached by a painter to the sunken vessel. It was at the exact location where Ebi had been looking the previous morning.
Whatever Ebi heard remains unknown. However, it is clear that she raised the alarm because she somehow sensed the danger. Four men lost their lives in the St Jervase tragedy. It was a clear night and there is no doubt that if some of those seamen were on the surface at that time, they would have seen Noel’s searchlight and heard Ebi barking.
Noel hopes that, though they did not survive, at least they may have known that they were not entirely alone. Even that hope would not have existed if Ebi had not led Noel to those cliffs that morning.
Noel moved up to County Wicklow a few years later. He brought Ebi with him, and they now live together in the Wicklow countryside. Noel was profoundly affected by the St Jervase episode, and he is still astonished at the way in which Ebi was indicated so clearly that something was wrong. The incident created a strong bond between human and dog, and Noel has a continuing deep, long lasting respect for his canine companion.
As Ebi has grown older, she has begun to suffer from some of the common ailments that affect elderly dogs. She is a fortunate dog, and she could not have a more dedicated owner than Noel. She developed diabetes, and Noel now needs to give her insulin injections twice daily. When it became clear that she was going blind because of cataracts, Noel didn’t hesitate to pay for the surgery that was needed to give Ebi her sight back. She is also on daily medication for arthritis, and this helps to keep her fit and active.
Ebi may never again encounter a situation where she needs to warn Noel of a crisis, but if she does, he will be listening very, very carefully.
Dogs have abilities that humans often do not fully recognise
Many dogs are finely tuned in to their owners, and vice versa
If your dog does look as if it is trying to give you a message, pay attention!