Dog Idioms History and Meanings

A dog lays tiredly on the ground.

“Dog Tired”

Last month we observed “National Work like a Dog Day” on August 5th. I doubt any of us took the day off to celebrate… it’s just another one of those unusual days that someone decided would be a good thing to recognize. I looked up the origins of the “holiday” and no one seems to know how it started, but the day is used to honor those who make an extra effort at work, inspired by hard-working dogs, especially service dogs. Pretty cool, huh?

If you think about it, there are so many animal idioms, aphorisms and metaphors we have used all of our life that are “dog-related”. Have you ever thought about that? You can probably name several just off the top of your head… Gone to the dogs, Sick as a dog, dog-eat-dog… The list goes on and on. I thought it would be fun to find out where some of these more common sayings came from and the intended meaning behind them.

Work like a dog

Let’s start with “work like a dog”. I must admit, the phrase “working like a dog” always kind-of baffled me… My own dogs have never been that fond of working, unless it’s working to get a treat or find a doggie-biscuit. “Napping like a dog” would be more appropriate for my pups!

The person who came up with this saying is still unknown, but it has several different connotations. To some, it means working tirelessly, like a service dog, guard dog, or farm dog that works 24/7. Other people say it is referring to a person who is doing a lot of work for very little pay. Yet others believe the meaning points more towards the “work” being done and not the person, implying that the work is degrading or humiliating in some way. Lastly, the word “dog” is used as a demeaning term, as someone who is lazy, and thus the phrase suggests they work very little. Crazy, isn’t it? So I guess the next time we hear someone use this idiom, we need to ask them exactly what they mean!

Gone to the dogs

Gone to the dogs means that some sort of establishment has gone wrong or turned bad. For example, you may know of a restaurant that was your favorite many years ago, but now it seems their service and food quality have really plummeted. They have “gone to the dogs”. This idiom has more of a history than most, as it is believed to have originated in China. Years ago, dogs were not allowed within the city limits. They lived savagely on the outskirts of the city, eating garbage and being scorned and neglected by its citizens. I know… makes me sad too. So if an establishment has gone to the dogs, it’s reached the lowest of lows, likened to the dogs of ancient China.

Dog Tired

The vision that comes to mind is one of my dog after a long hike or a day at the beach, or of a hunting dog just back from a hunt. Totally worn out. Exhausted. Spent. Drained. Depleted. Remember when you were little and you played all day to the point of falling asleep at the dinner table? That was definitely dog tired. We all know what it means, but where did it come from?

Here’s an idea… who paid attention to Shakespeare in school? Think “Taming of the Shrew”, “Oh Master, I have watched so long that I am dog-weary”. He’s saying the same thing, right? Dog-weary/ dog-tired? And that was back in the 1500’s. Could that be where the saying originated?

Wordnik offers another origin for the phrase, and it happened waaaay before Shakespeare. England’s Alfred the Great would send his sons out with a ridiculous number of hunting hounds, and whichever son could collect the most hounds and bring them home gained the favor of their father and dined at his right hand that evening. Chasing after all those hounds made Alfred’s sons “dog-tired”. Hmmm… what a silly activity to do with your children… just sayin’.

In the doghouse

Someone has been really bad… That’s the only way you are sent to the doghouse. Figuratively, of course. If you’re in the doghouse, you have seriously done something to get on someone’s bad side. The saying originates from the act of punishing a dog by making him leave the home, banishing him to the outdoors – to his doghouse.

Interestingly though, many believe the idiom has nothing to do with an actual dog’s house! A “dog house” was a type of sleeping accommodation built for humans on trains & boats many years ago when there was not enough space to accommodate all of the travelers. It was a small space that some might refer to as a dog kennel. My guess is that the well-to-do were housed in the larger, nicer accommodations, and the peons of the time were sent to the doghouses, thus giving the phrase a negative spin.

Some trace the saying no further back to around 1904 when Peter Pan was first published. Those who remember from this childhood favorite, Mr. Darling places himself in the dog’s house as his own punishment, as he feels responsible for the disappearance of his children.

That dog won’t hunt

I can’t help but think of former President Clinton when I hear “That dog won’t hunt”. I don’t remember why he said it – in opposition to something, no doubt – but he definitely made it famous. “That dog won’t hunt” means that something said is just not going to happen; Some plan or idea is not going to work. It’s an old southern saying that is believed to have had a more literal meaning when a hunting dog just wouldn’t hunt. That example provided the perfect metaphor to use when defining other things that simply wouldn’t come to pass.

Hair of the Dog

Hair of the dog has an interesting history. It’s shortened from “the hair of the dog that bit you”, According to Wikipedia, in the late 1800’s it was believed that if a rabid dog bit you, you should place hair from the dog into the wound itself as a remedy. The literal meaning is that what hurt you can actually help you. Or, the solution to the problem is to have more of the problem. The present-day relevance is that if you drink too much and feel horribly the next day, taking another drink will make you feel better. It sounds ludicrous, but this is actually the premise behind homeopathic medicine.

Dog eat Dog

Did you ever play that game in school where you line up and whisper a sentence to someone at the beginning of the line, and by the time the sentence got to the end of the line, it ended up being something altogether different? That’s what this idiom reminds me of… The actual phrase was “dog does not eat dog”. Now it is “dog eat dog”. We know what it means… It speaks of the mean, cutthroat treatment by people to others in a competition to succeed. But why dogs? It’s from an old Latin proverb from the 1500s that simply reads, “A dog does not eat the flesh of a dog.” I don’t know if that’s a biological fact, or what the reason was for this proverb. Dog eat dog signifies the ruthlessness and, perhaps, the savageness of competitive situation, in direct contrast to “dog does not eat dog”.

Sick as a dog

I’ve said it before, and chances are, you have too. When you are as sick as a dog, you’re reeeally sick! Which is kind of an odd analogy, because dogs are known for avoiding any show of sickness. Why not sick as a goose? Dogs seem to be associated with some very unpleasant things in our history. The only reasonable explanation I have run into is that dogs eat all kinds of yucky things and we sometimes see them vomit it all up. We don’t often have the chance to see other animals vomit (thank goodness), so it would almost have to be a dog. Except maybe a cat. Yeah, that’s it. Cats vomit up furballs all the time. Sick as a cat makes more sense to me.

It is generally believed that “sick as a dog” originated back in the 1700’s when dogs did not get medical treatment. It was hard enough to find anyone back then with medical knowledge for humans, much less a dog.

Further, a dog was considered “undesirable” during that time in our history (imagine!) and so many idioms and aphorisms reflect that negative sentiment. Sick as a dog could have been just a phrase indicating the worst of the worst sickness.

Mean as a junkyard dog

This saying is pretty self-explanatory. We’ve all seen plenty of movies with the dog guarding the junk yard, chasing away the intruders… foaming at the mouth, vicious as all get-out. If you are said to be as mean as a junkyard dog, you must be about as nasty and despicable as anyone can possibly be.

I can find no information on the origin of this phrase, so I’m going to give Jim Croce credit! In 1973, he wrote a song entitled “Bad, Bad, Leroy Brown”. In the song, he says Leroy Brown is “badder than old King Kong, and meaner than a junk yard dog”.

Dog and Pony show

This started way back when… I’m thinkin’ “Little House on the Prairie” times, when small circuses would travel through towns to entertain people. These circuses usually included performing dogs and horses! The term itself has a negative connotation in that it is referring to a “performance” that is overdone, over-staged, perhaps even suspicious in content. I’m not sure how the negative slant became associated with the dog and pony show. One source states that these shows were often fronts for some kind of illegal activity, like alcohol. Another reason could be because these shows were often held in old run-down barns or other less-than-appealing facilities. But if you ask me, I think a true dog and pony show would be fun to see!

You Can’t teach an old dog new Tricks

Guess what? This is one of the oldest idioms of the English language! It’s from John Fitzherbert’s The boke of husbandry, published in 1534. Husbandry is the care, cultivation, and breeding of crops and animals, so it only makes sense that Mr. Fitzherbert touches on dog training. In the book, he is talking about teaching a dog to bark and run on command. He says that the dog must learn these things when he is a puppy (whelp), or else he will get too old to learn it. Isn’t that interesting?

BTW, according to the Professional Dog Trainers at Holiday Barn Pet Resorts completely disagree! You CAN teach an old dog new tricks!

Three Dog Night

What do you think of when you hear “Three Dog Night”? Most of us think of the rock band from the late 60’s, early 70’s! Well, the phrase did not originate with the band, but the band was literally named after the phrase. It is believed that the phrase originated with the Australian Aborigines. When it was a cold night, they would cuddle with a dog in their bed to keep warm. If it was bone-chilling cold, it might take three dogs to keep warm. Don’t you just love that idea?! Back to the rock band… A friend of the performers in the band suggested the band name of “Three Dog Night” after reading an article about the aborigines sleeping with dogs to keep warm. That was really random, wasn’t it?

Tail Wagging the dog

This saying is not all that interesting, but I love it because it reminds me of our guests at Holiday Barn Pet Resorts! The idiom is referring to how a dog wags it’s tail so hard that the whole body wags or wiggles. It will bring a smile to your face every single time!

Where did it come from? The phrase, “Tail wagging the dog” was used as a political reference in the 1800’s, meaning that something small or insignificant is controlling the whole shebang. Maybe like an intern running the white house.

More Catchy Dog Phrases?

Wow, I’m sure you can think of many more dog-related idioms, like “Every Dog Has it’s Day”, “Let sleeping dogs lie”, “raining cats and dogs”, “let the dog bark”…, Dogs are more of a part of our lives than we even thought, right? I chose these particular idioms because I thought they were the most interesting from a historical or just plain ole humorous stand point! Hope you’ve enjoyed it!

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