Black Dog – Poetic Metaphor for Clinical Depression



Winston Churchill had a black dog
his name was written on it
It followed him around from town to town
It’d bring him down
took him for a good long ride
took him for a good look around

Reg Mombassa: Black dog


Black Dog Depression

“Black dog” is a powerfully expressive metaphor that appears to require no explanation. The combination of ‘blackness’ with the negative connotations of ‘dog’, noun and verb, seems an eminently apt description of depression: an ever-present companion, lurking in the shadows just out of sight, growling, vaguely menacing, always on the alert; sinister and unpredictable, capable of overwhelming you at any moment. Further, the ‘dark hound’ is an archetypal object of fear, with a long tradition in folklore and myth. Black dogs in dreams are interpreted negatively, often representing death; from all over the world come tales of nightmares caused by oppressive black dogs crushing the sleeper’s chest.

Winston Churchill famously referred to his gloomy periods as his ‘black dog’, and many assume that it was another original contribution to English by the 1953 literature Nobel Prize laureate, succinctly characterizing his relationship with depression. But he was, in fact, citing none other than his beloved childhood nanny, as related by his private secretary, John Colville:

Of course, we all have moments of depression, especially after breakfast. It was then that [Lord] Moran [Churchill’s doctor] would sometimes call to take his patient’s pulse and hope to make a note of what was happening in the wide world. Churchill, not especially pleased to see any visitor at such an hour, might excuse a certain early morning surliness by saying, “I have got a black dog on my back today.” That was an expression much used by old-fashioned English nannies. Mine used to say to me if I was grumpy, “You have got out of bed the wrong side” or else “You have got a black dog on your back.” Doubtless, Nanny Everest was accustomed to say the same to young Winston Churchill. But, I don’t think Lord Moran ever had a nanny and he wrote pages to explain that Churchill suffered from periodic bouts of acute depression which, with the Churchillian gift for apt expression, he called “black dog.” Lady Churchill told me she thought the doctor’s theory total rubbish…

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Come over here black dog
and I’ll pat you on your head
you’ve been following me for a good long time
I guess you must be my friend
I guess you must be my good friend
I don’t want you to be my friend no more black dog:
I don’t want you to come around.

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The Black Dog (Depression) - Poem by Dallas Nyberg

Author: Dallas Nyberg

There’s a black dog scratching at my door - demanding he come in
Although I try to ignore him - the black dog always wins.
Once inside he haunts my soul and dictates my thoughts and deeds
and like a fool I heed him and I pander to his greed.

Those who’ve never met him would doubt his presence here
They scoff his very mention and scold my tears and fears.
Little do they realise that my world is falling down
and they just dismiss my feelings and ignore that I’m around

Late at night the black dog lurks and hinders me from rest
depression overwhelms me and my heart sinks in my chest
the tears I cry are done alone - and pray - never in a crowd
for a man to cry its just not done - such weakness - not allowed

Get a grip the wise ones cry - grow up and act your age
Only you can fix it – just turn another page!
If was that simple then it would be done and dusted
but the black dog says pay no heed - no ones to be trusted.

So on it goes each dreary day - this world of pain and sorrow,
I just wish I could go to sleep and not awake tomorrow
but the black dogs bark will bring me back to endure another day
where my sun has lost its wondrous shine and my sky is dank and grey

I have a sinking feeling that the black dog has a plan
that will test the very fibre of this backward sliding man
he will of course suggest that I just end this stupid life
and he will then simply wander off and destroy another’s life

until then I must pay him heed and succumb to his demands
and resign myself to tears and fears and make no worthwhile plans
and when my time on earth is done and my wasted life’s gone cold
you’ll have no need to feed my dog - he has feasted on my soul.

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I had a black dog, his name was depression – Video Presentation by Matthew Johnstone

The short clip below also uses a Winston Churchill analogy – The Black Dog.

"I had a black dog his name was depression" is a cartoon documentary that chronicles what it means to be depressed using an animated black dog to represent the condition.

The approach is innately appealing and uses clear and direct language without being patronizing or overly clinical. It charts the progress of depression, the effect it has on both the individuals and their families and the rock bottom before are seek help. The message and language is clear – this is a seriously dreadful experience, but with support, education and empowerment you can came through the other side. Using the black dog, as a metaphor was at once whimsical and wrenching, but the scenes of him ‘taming the black dog’ and reentering the world were especially engaging and thought provoking.

As the film itself points out depression is an ‘equal opportunity mongrel’ and can quite literally affect anyone and anytime. We can only hope that the tools and resources made available continue to reach this excellent standard.



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