The Choking Doberman is an urban legend that originated in the United States. Urban legends are, as Patricia T. O'Conner of The New York Times described, "fictitious narratives that are passed from person to person in the guise of true stories and sometimes persist until they reach the status of folklore." The story of the choking doberman fits into this category of folklore and generally involves a protective pet found by its owner gagging on human fingers lodged in its throat. As the story unfolds, the dog's owner discovers an intruder whose hand is bleeding from the dog bite.
Jan Harold Brunvand, a folklorist and professor emeritus of English at the University of Utah, wrote about this and other urban legends in his book The Choking Doberman and Other "New" Urban Legends published in 1984 by W.W. Norton & Company. He provided the reader with several varying accounts of the story. While the basic elements of the story remain the same in each version, the details, such as the number of fingers found, the breed of dog, and the condition of the intruder when discovered change slightly.
A woman goes out for the evening with friends. Upon her return, she is greeted by her pet Doberman choking in the hallway. Alarmed, she takes the pet to the veterinarian. The vet announces that he must perform a tracheotomy on the animal and he will call her when he has news. When the woman arrives home, the vet calls and tells her to leave the house at once. The dog was choking on three human fingers. The woman calls the police, who search the house. They discover the burglar, hiding in a closet, passed out from blood loss caused by having three fingers bitten off.
In his book Brunvard cites an 1800 CE fable about Llewellyn and his dog Gellert as the oldest known ancestor of the story. In that story the prince Llewellyn leaves his son at home with his guardian dog Gellert. Upon returning from hunting the hound greets him with a bloody face and he, thinking the animal has eaten the child, immediately slays it. When he investigates the nursery the prince discovers the child playing with the hair of a slain wolf that Gellert had saved the baby from.
In her 1992 paper The Ambiguous Guardians Adrienne Mayor cites the fifth century CE narrative The Omen of the Wolf as an earlier echo of both the 1800 fable and the urban legend as it is today. In this myth the emperor Honorius's retinue was attacked by a pair of wolves. When the beasts were killed they were found to have a pair of human hands in their bellies. Their aggressive behavior - coupled with the awful last meal - were taken as a sinister sign and rumors lit a panic in Rome. The emperor's official propagandist, Claudian, attempted to counter the popular understanding of the sign with his poem The Gothic War.
First appearance in United States
The first verifiable appearance of the legend is in the Phoenix New Times on June 24, 1981, pictured to the right.
Gagging Dog Story Baffles Police
It happened in Las Vegas. A woman returned from work and found her large dog, a Doberman, lying on the floor gasping for air. Concerned over the animal's welfare, she immediately loaded the pet into her car and drove him to a veterinarian. ... According to the story, police arrived at her house and found an unconscious intruder, sans fingers, lying in a closet. New Times learned of the story from an employee of a large industrial plant in the Valley. He said he had gotten the story third hand from another employee who in turn had said he heard from a woman whose relatives in Las Vegas knew the dog's owner. As of Friday New Times was not able to nail down the identity of the Doberman's mistress. According to a spokesman at the Las Vegas Sun, that paper, too, was very interested in breaking the story. Unfortunately, even though the story was all over Vegas last Thursday, the paper - and police - weren't able to dig up one shred of evidence to prove the incident ever occurred. "The police are baffled," the Sun spokesman said.
- The number of fingers dredged from the dog’s throat varies, as does their color. Though in many tellings the race of the intruder goes unspecified, at times the discovered digits are described as “black” or “Mexican,” adding a racist spin to the tale.
- In the 1980s, a Doberman was the usual star in this story; in the 1990s, the dog became a pit bull when that breed gained media prominence as the decade’s fierce dog of choice. Other breeds of pooch have been known to report for duty in this tale as well — always large, scary-looking dogs.
- The thief is usually discovered hiding in a closet, the bedroom, or in the basement, but in some tellings he gets away from the house and is only brought to justice when his injuries force him to visit an emergency room. His missing fingers identify him as the culprit police are looking for.
- With very few exceptions, the troubled dog owner is female. Moreover, the setting of the tale makes it very clear she lives alone.
- Most of the time, the dog’s presence in the woman’s life passes uncommented upon; nothing of the dog’s history or her reasons for keeping him are mentioned. Occasionally though, we’re told the dog was given by her father when she went off to college in a distant city, or that in the wake of her divorce her lawyer recommended her getting a big dog for protection.
Appearances and tie-ins outside the story
Ronald B. Tobias cites the story as an example of oral tradition that through repeated retelling has become plot perfect.
This story appears in the 1991 Judith Gorog novel On Meeting Witches at Wells.
- Encyclopedia of Urban Legends by Jan Harold Brunvand (ABC–CLIO, Inc. 2001) (ISBN 978-1-576-07532-6) (pp. 3-18)
- The Choking Doberman and Other "New" Urban Legends by Jan Harold Brunvand (W.W. Norton & Company, 1984) (ISBN 978-0-393-30321-6) (pp. 3-18)
- The Mexican Pet by Jan Harold Brunvand (W.W. Norton & Company, 1986) (ISBN 0-393-30542-2) (pp. 41-47)
- Too Good To Be True by Jan Harold Brunvand (W.W. Norton & Company, 1999) (ISBN 0-393-04734-2) (pp. 51-52)
- Tales, Rumors and Gossip by Gail de Vos (Libraries Unlimited, 1996) (ISBN 1-56308-190-3) (pp. 208-213)
- The Book of Nasty Legends by Paul Smith (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983) (ISBN 0-00-636856-5) (p. 98)
- On Meeting Witches at Wells by Judith Gorog (Philomel, October 11, 1991) (ISBN 978-0399218033)
- Jan Harold Brunvand (17 December 2003). The Choking Doberman: And Other Urban Legends. W. W. Norton. pp. 15–. ISBN 978-0-393-34654-1.
- O'Conner, Patricia T. (14 December 1986). "New & Noteworthy". The New York Times (Late City – Final Edition). p. 38; Section 7; column 1.
- Nicolini, Mary B. (December 1989). "Is There a FOAF in Your Future? Urban Folk Legends in Room 112". The English Journal. National Council of Teachers of English. 78 (8): 81–84. doi:10.2307/819495. JSTOR 819495.
- Helmer, Dona J. (Winter 2001). "Encyclopedia of Urban Legends by Jan Harold Brunvand". Reference and User Services Quarterly. American Library Association. 41 (2): 191, 193. JSTOR 41241093.
- Bethke, Robert D. (April 1985). "The Choking Doberman and Other "New" Urban Legends by Jan Harold Brunvand". Western States Folklore. Western States Folklore Society. 44 (2): 147–149. doi:10.2307/1499565. JSTOR 1499565.
- Ashliman, D.L. "Llewellyn and His Dog Gellert and other folktales of Aarne-Thompson-Uther type 178A". Llewellyn and His Dog Gellert and other folktales of Aarne-Thompson-Uther type 178A. Retrieved 12 April 2018.
- Mayor, Adrienne (December 1992). "Ambiguous Guardians: The "Omen of the Wolves" (A.D. 402) and the "Choking Doberman" (1980s)" (PDF). Journal of Folklore Research. 29 (3): 253–268. Retrieved 12 April 2018.
- "Gagging Dog Baffles Police". Phoenix New Times. Phoenix New Times. June 25, 1981.
- Mikkelson, David. "The Choking Doberman". Snopes.com. Snopes. Retrieved 11 April 2018.
- Ronald B Tobias (15 December 2011). 20 Master Plots: And How to Build Them. Writer's Digest Books. pp. 2–. ISBN 1-59963-539-9.
- B., Matt. "The Choking Doberman Margarita". yelp.com. Yelp. Retrieved 11 April 2018.