The English language has incorporated many phrases that relate to dogs. Other languages may have also added dog-related phrases. Some phrases can be traced to perceived dog behavior; some are complimentary, and some mischaracterize canine behavior.
Common Dog Phrases
Some of the more common phrases and their possible meaning and origin follow.
- Let Sleeping Dogs Lie. Dogs like to sleep between surges of activity, like chasing cats. They need their rest. When someone wakes up a sleeping dog, they are asking for trouble. When a sleeping dog is disturbed, you don’t know what problems you are about to encounter. The safer route is to let sleeping dogs lie undisturbed. Similarly, situations, which are not problems, are often best left alone instead of forcing a solution and potentially creating a problem.
- Throw the dog a bone. If you want something, offer a treat. If you want a dog to do something or you want to reward a dog for good behavior, give the dog a bone. If you want a human to do something or get a reward, offer them a present or recognition.
- The dog days of summer. This phrase refers to the hot and humid days of late summer in a slightly negative sense. Sports writers often talk about baseball teams playing during the dog days of August. From a dog’s perspective, summertime is a time of outdoor chasing, long walks, and outdoor play. It is a good time.
- That dog don’t hunt. We use this phrase to mean something does not make sense or some argument is flawed. This comment is often found in parts of the country where hunting is popular but grammar is not.
- Don’t jerk my chain. This represents a kind of human empathy for dogs on leashes. It usually means “don’t annoy me,” and it applies to people and dogs.
- He smells like a dog. Dogs have smelling ability about 400 times better than humans; they are smelling experts. People think dogs smell bad, but maybe people smell worse to dogs. It depends on one’s perspective.
- That is not fit for a dog. This means something is so bad that not even a dog should have to endure it. However, in Del Mar, California, where Sadie lives, and other dog-friendly communities, “fit for a dog” could as easily convey royal type treatment.
- That guy is a dirty dog. This usually means a guy is a bad person who does bad deeds like cheating and stealing. It is unclear what the connection is between a loyal dog that got dirty and a human crook.
- He is persistent like a junkyard dog. Sadie doesn’t hang out with dogs that live in junkyards but I assume they are resourceful. Some sports stars and even songwriters use this phrase to extol character.
- She is a show dog. Some consider this praise, but it’s not necessarily so. As a mixed breed, working dog, Sadie probably perceives a show dog as a pampered relative, who has been in-bred, is totally stupid and whose job is to trot around a ring and look pretty. This applies to human show dogs too.
- Dogged. This means tenacious, determined, and resolute.
- He is a sly dog. Someone who is sneaky and devious but in an endearing way. All dogs are sly dogs but only some humans.
- Sick as a dog. Everyone gets sick so why is a dog being sick seemingly more problematic than a human illness?
- Call off the dogs. This often means making concessions or giving up, and if you refuse, possibly vicious dogs will confront you. The phrase is probably better suited to “lawyers” – give up and we will call off the attacking lawyers. To avoid a lawsuit, someone probably changed the” lawyer” reference to “dogs”.
- The dog ate my homework. The only way a dog would eat someone’s homework if there were food wrapped in it.
- Dog and pony show. This often means some promotion or presentation pushing a product or politician. It often has a negative connotation and dates back to traveling shows that included dogs and ponies.
- To bird-dog something. A bird dog follows the birds and finds them in the bush or even in the water. He is persistent and a good hunter. When a human bird dogs an assignment, he or she stays focused until the assignment is successfully completed.
- You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. This applies equally to dogs and people.
- Don’t let the tail wag the dog. This phrase generally means do not lose sight of what is important and don’t be distracted by lesser issues.
- Never bite the hand that feeds you. People need to be sensitive not to alienate their source of support.
- My dogs are barking. This translates to “my feet hurt.”
- Doggone it. This is a polite form of “damn it.” Dogs are polite creatures.
- It’s a dog’s world or It’s a dog’s life. Life can be competitive, challenging and difficult.
- Every dog has its day. Everyone will find success at some point in his or her life.
- It’s a dogleg. This is a golf term meaning the hole layout bends to the right or left.
- Dog eat dog. It is a very competitive environment. There is more evidence of human cannibalism than dog cannibalism but it is hard to imagine a person using the phrase “human eat human” to describe competition.
- Think like a dog. Keep it simple, and don’t overthink things. Stay focused on your task and priorities.
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