Barking Up the Wrong Tree

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by Barbara Freedman-De Vito

If dog is man’s best friend, then why does our language have so many expressions that portray dogs in a negative light? English abounds with sayings that focus on canine aggression or the sadness of “a dog’s life,” at the mercy of cruel human “masters.” Many of these date from past centuries when life in English-speaking nations was truly more harsh than it is today, and little thought was given to animal suffering. It’s interesting to examine our myriad dog references in everyday sayings from the past, and to appreciate whatever advances human society has made since then in its treatment of other creatures.

Let’s begin with metaphors of aggression which stem, no doubt, from behaviors observed in a “pack of wild dogs” (which is itself a commonly used expression) and from the barbaric practices of people who engaged in the so-called sport of dog fighting. Examples that jump to mind include “barking mad,” “his bark is worse than his bite” and the nickname “mad dog.” Who wouldn’t heed the warning inherent in the phrase “once bitten, twice shy?” In any dog fight there’s bound to be a “top dog” and an “underdog,” while ” it’s a dog eat dog world” brings a particularly vivid and gruesome image to mind. We even evoke images of interspecies animosity in such phrases as “fighting like cats and dogs.”

Humans have too often been instrumental in forcing dogs to hone their aggression and fighting instincts, training them for dogfights or to be used as guard dogs or attack dogs. Certain people still use dobermans and pit bull terriers as dubious extensions of their own masculinity, parading them around to impress or intimidate others.

It is therefore fitting to next discuss expressions that compare human circumstances in life to the sadness expressed in “it’s a dog’s life.” You might be feeling “dog tired” or be “in the doghouse” for something stupid that you’ve done, which night lead you to wear a “hangdog expression.” This sad sack quality that some dogs have in their faces may have also led to such phrases as “you ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog.” We even refer to our feet as “dogs.”

I’ll leave out some of the most unflattering and offensive comparisons of women to female dogs, but must point out that whoever decided that a homely girl was “a real dog” certainly didn’t have a very high opinion of dogs’ facial features. There is also the “dog-eared” book, which presents an apt image of something with tattered, uneven edges.

Other imagery that refers to the dog’s physical appearance or behaviors includes “don’t get your hackles up” or telling someone to “stop your whimpering” or accusing someone of being a “lapdog.” The term “mutt” oddly mixes a scurrilous questioning of a dog’s lineage with a more affectionate connotation of lovableness.

Interestingly, the term for steamy hot summer weather, the “dog days,” didn’t originate with the cruel treatment of dogs, but rather with the position of the “dog star” Sirius or Canis Major (big dog), which happens to be the brightest star in the night sky during summer months in the northern hemisphere. Speaking of natural cycles of seasons and weather, we also have “It’s raining cats and dogs” and the exclamation “hot dog!”

Some sayings, though, focus on a possibly more admirable quality that some dogs possess, their “doggedness.” You might “hound” someone or have a “nose like a bloodhound,” but it could ultimately lead you to erroneously be “barking up the wrong tree.”

Finally, there are those expressions that focus on canine offspring, from the desirable ” pick of the litter ” to the disadvantaged ” runt of the litter. “These inevitably lead me to perhaps the sweetest of all dog-related metaphors,” puppy love. “Oh well, I guess it’s time to wrap up this insightful look at dog sayings and metaphors in our culture. “Doggone it !”


Barbara Freedman-De Vito is a dog lover who owns an online shop for different dog breed t-shirts, gifts and clothing. Visit Dog Breed T-Shirts.

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About Author

Devoted pet owner and now, devoted pet editor, Judi spent her time working in traditional offices, keeping the books and the day-to-day operations organized. Taking her dog to work every day for over a decade never seemed odd. Neither did having an office cat. She knows what it's like to train a new puppy and she's experienced the heartache of losing beloved companions.

1 Comment

  1. Cute article… I had heard some of those terms for ages…

    I’ll choose “the dogs life” any day as long as its not “raining cats and dogs”

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