This photo of "Hercules, the World's Biggest Dog" is one of the best known "hoax" viral images on the Web. It started circulating in early 2007, initially on its own, but soon the Internet had supplied an explanatory caption:
Hercules: The World's Biggest Dog Ever According to Guinness World Records
Hercules was recently awarded the honorable distinction of Worlds Biggest Dog by Guinness World Records. Hercules is an English Mastiff and has a 38 inch neck and weighs 282 pounds.
With "paws the size of softballs" (reports the Boston Herald), the three-year-old monster is far larger and heavier than his breed's standard 200lb. limit. Hercules owner Mr. Flynn says that Hercules weight is natural and not induced by a bizarre diet: "I fed him normal food and he just grew".... and grew. and grew.
The information in this caption is correct, but not when applied to the dog shown above. The text is actually taken from a description of an English mastiff named Hercules that was owned by power lifter John Flynn (shown below). So wrong dog!
But what are we to make of the top photo, the one of the giant dog being walked by the man and woman alongside the white horse? We know he's not Hercules, but who or what is he? Is he really that big?
The top debunking sites feel that the dog can't really be that large. For instance, David Emery calls the photo "an obvious hoax." Hoax-Slayer says, "It seems clear that the image has been cleverly manipulated, perhaps by replacing a picture of the man's horse with a disproportionally sized picture of a dog." TruthorFiction.com says, "the picture appears to be fabricated." Snopes alone is a little ambivalent. It says the photo appears to be "a digital manipulation," but it leaves open the possibility that the dog is a "freakishly large example of its breed."
The reason for the skepticism is that the dog appears to be a Neapolitan Mastiff (not an English Mastiff), and that breed is not known to get that big. Breeders say Neapolitan Mastiffs top out at 31 inches at the shoulder. But the dog in the photo seems to be around 36 inches at the shoulder, easily.
Also, just look at that beast. He's horse-sized! The photo has to be fake!
But it's worth noting here that the photo is actually one of a set of three photos of the dog, the couple, and the horse. Although the top photo is often detached from the set and circulates alone. Here are the other two photos:
The existence of three photos of the same dog gives me pause. Because it's easy to dismiss one image as a fake, but three photos is unusual, especially since the dog looks similarly massive in all three shots. Yes, all three photos could be fake. But then again, perhaps that dog really is freakishly big.
I'll say this: if the images are fakes, then they're good ones. Particularly the one of the couple sitting down with the dog. The shadows and the lighting look right. There are no obvious signs of manipulation — except for the bizarre size of the dog.
Often it's possible to debunk a fake image by finding the original, unaltered version of the photo. But other versions of these giant dog images have never surfaced. This suggests to me that if the images are fake, then the faker possesses the original copies of the images and has never made them public.
Nor have the man and women ever been identified, which is a shame because they could obviously shed light on what the deal is with the giant dog. Perhaps they have no desire to be Internet celebrities.
But wait! There could be a fourth image. While searching for pictures of Neapolitan Mastiffs, I came across this photo.
Perhaps I've been staring too long at my screen, but that looks to me like it could be the same dog and the same guy. Sure, the guy is a little older, wearing different clothes, has a goatee, and is squinting into the sun. But his features look the same. And the dog has a white patch on his chest like the dog in the "Hercules" photo, and he's wearing a studded collar (if you look closely you can see that the dog in the "Hercules" photo appears to be wearing a similar studded collar).
The dog in this fourth photo doesn't look quite as massive as the dog in the viral "World's Biggest Dog" photo. Nevertheless, it's a very big dog! Far bigger than most other Neapolitan Mastiffs.
Which suggests to me that there really is a giant Neapolitan Mastiff out there. Now perhaps his size was digitally exaggerated in the top photo that went viral. Or perhaps the angle of the shot exaggerated its size. Or perhaps the man and woman aren't that tall, which made the dog look larger than it really is relative to them.
I just don't know. But I don't think the "World's Biggest Dog" photo is the slam-dunk, has-to-be-photoshopped case that most other debunking sites have listed it as. I'd go with Snopes and leave open the possibility that the dog in the photo might actually be a "freakishly large example of its breed."