Dogs and humans have enjoyed a long and storied relationship—one that predates Stonehenge, the pyramids of Giza, and even agriculture. Over the millennia, the story of humanity entwined with that of our canine companions to the point that dogs are now a permanent and highly visible fixture within modern culture. This is evident in the many dog-related idioms that pepper the English language.
Here, Stacker has compiled 100 dog-related idioms, some of which many might know and some of which might be more surprising. All words and phrases were collected from The Canine in Conversation, a comprehensive site that lists hundreds of idioms, explains their meaning, and tries to ascertain where each one originated.
From "hair of the dog" to "the dog days of summer," many of the idioms that appear on this list are common expressions frequently found in literature, media, and conversation. Read on to uncover the origins of these popular phrases.
Although some may think of the term "alpha male" as being specific to canines, it’s actually used across the animal kingdom to describe dominant males within a pack or community. Now, the term has come to describe men who assume a dominant role in professional or social situations.
According to Gary Martin, author of The Phrase Finder website, the earliest recorded usage of the term ankle-biters appears in Harper’s Magazine in 1850. The term began as an affectionate phrase for small, feisty dogs, but has come to include irritating children and those who display annoying behavior.
If one is barking up the wrong tree, they’re mistaken about something. This expression can be traced all the way back to the early 1800s, when it was common practice for hunting dogs to corner or tree an animal. The term describes a situation where a hound believes an animal to be treed, when in reality it has escaped.
To bird dog means to follow something or someone closely. Bird dogs, like pointers, setters, or retrievers, are trained to retrieve birds and other small prey by closely tracking the scent of the animal in order to bring it to their master. The term is also used to describe a popular core-strengthening exercise.
The term comes from British folklore and refers to a ghostly dog who is considered an omen of death. In popular culture, "black dog" has come to serve a metaphor for depression—combining melancholy, fear of death, and a trailing dread that follows the sufferer wherever they roam.
Bloodhounds have approximately 230 million olfactory cells— roughly 40 times the number of cells in a human nose. With biology like that, it’s no wonder they can track prey upwards of 100 miles at a time. To call someone a bloodhound means they will pursue something relentlessly, to the ends of the earth.
Even the most devoted master sometimes needs a break from the constant cycle of snoot boops and snuggles. Thus it becomes necessary to occupy Fido with something small and inconsequential. To throw someone a bone means to placate them with something minor or of little value.
When hunters used to return home with the blood of their game on their boots, dogs would jostle against each other for the honor of licking their master’s shoes. Although not often used today, the term bootlick describes the act of trying to gain someone’s favor by groveling.
To chase one's tail is to pursue a pointless pattern of behavior. In fact, most dogs chase their tail as a form of play, or to alleviate boredom. While it’s a common behavior in puppies and kittens, there are plenty of playful older dogs who engage in the behavior as well. But be warned: Excessive tail chasing in older dogs might be a sign of compulsive behavior.
If one loves proper grammar, they’re a comma hound. The term originated at a Madison Square Garden dog show when a canine destroyed a copy of the catalog, and a sports writer commented on the “destruction” of the first paragraph.
Mark Twain once described a river channel as “crooked as a dog's hind leg.” The expression is typically used to describe something or someone who is dishonest or corrupt.
The term “curb your dog” packs a lot of significance in three little words. It originated in the 1930s and means to restrain a dog from doing their business in a certain area, usually the side of the road.
Silence speaks volumes, suggests this expression, which originated in literature. When an inspector says to Sherlock Holmes, “The dog did nothing in the night-time,” Holmes replies, “That was the curious incident.” Holmes is suggesting that the dog didn’t bark because he recognized the intruder.
This turn of phrase refers to the hot summer months between July and September. Its name in Latin is “dies caniculares,” which translates to “Dog Star” days. The Romans believed that Sirius, the Dog Star, which rises and sets with the sun during this period, caused heatwaves in the northern temperate regions at this time of year. It is the brightest star visible from Earth.
If one is selfishly hoarding something they don’t need, they’re a dog in the manger. This phrase comes from one of Aesop’s fables: “A dog lay in a manger, and by his growling and snapping prevented the oxen from eating the hay which had been placed for them.”
If one has been working like a dog, they may be dog tired and ready for a nap. A similar expression can be found in the “Taming of the Shrew,” when Shakespeare’s character Biondello pronounces himself “dog-weary.”
Seven to one. That’s how much older one's dog is than them. To calculate how old a dog would be if they were human, multiply their age by seven.
This inefficient swimmer’s stroke mimics the way dogs swim—with the swimmer with their heads out of water, paddling their arms like the front legs of a dog. Don’t expect to see this stroke in the Olympics anytime soon.
Dog whistles produce sounds at ultra-high pitches that dogs can hear, but humans cannot. Dog-whistle politics means one is dropping clues about their political message without offending other constituencies.
This inverted yoga posture looks a lot like a dog stretching out its front legs. The term translates as "adho mukha svanasana" in Sanskrit and is one of the most common beginner yoga poses.
A dog with his tail low is considered to be submissive or unhappy. To drag one's tail, means one is sad or ashamed. The expression first appeared in George MacDonald’s children’s fantasy novel “The Princess and Curdle.”
Andy Warhol famously stated that everyone gets 15 minutes of fame. That’s the meaning behind this phrase. The origin of the phrase can be traced back to the 1862 epic poem “The Water-Babies” by Charles Kingsley: “Young blood must have its course, lad, And every dog his day.”
This expression describes a conflict of interspecies proportions. It first appeared in a humorous poem for children called “The Duel,” by Eugene Field, which describes a fight between a dog and a cat: “But the truth about that cat and pup is that they ate each other up.”
People used to believe that if a dog bit someone, its hair would cure them of the bite. Nowadays, the expression is used to describe a hangover cure—wherein the effects of alcohol withdrawal are negated by the continued consumption of booze.
A shamefaced, guilty, or somewhat sad expression. The word appeared all the way back in 1677 in Otway’s “Cheats of Scapin III,” but is still commonly used today.
This phrase is attributed to founding father Benjamin Franklin, who published it in “Poor Richard’s Almanack” in 1773.
This means a lot of happiness and pleasure. Hot diggity dog was featured in two popular novelty songs. The first was recorded by country singer Little Jimmy Dickens in 1952, and just four years later, Perry Como's “Hot Diggity (Dog Ziggity Boom)” reached #1 on the Billboard charts.
To go a hound-dog mile is to go a long distance. Specifically, the distance a hound-dog chases a rabbit before the dog drops dead.
Houndstooth fabric has a checkered pattern with pointed corners. This reference came about because the design mimics a canine’s sharp teeth.
A human with good manners has been house trained. Just as a dog who can do their business outside has been house trained, too.
Hush puppies are fried dumplings made out of cornmeal. It’s believed that this term originated sometime in the late 19th century and that dog owners tossed the fried cornmeal to dogs to keep them quiet.
This is an old Dutch saying. While not often used today, it means that someone is looking for something which is right under his nose.
A dog is man’s best friend, and often loyal beyond reproach, which is not always true of politicians. The line can be attributed to Harry S. Truman, who was cynical about Washington politics.
Some believe this reference, which means having to undergo a rigorous test, originated from having circus animals jump through hoops. History shows that various creatures, including dogs, jumped through hoops as popular entertainment, from the end of the 19th century up until World War II.
A lap dog is someone who is eager to take care of someone else's needs. The metaphor comes from tiny dogs who prefer to be on their owners’ laps around the clock. Think: Bruiser, Reese Witherspoon's canine co-star in the film Legally Blonde. Moonie, the canine actor behind Bruiser, died two years ago at the ripe age of 18.
Let bygones be bygones and don’t stir up drama is the meaning of this sentence. This can be traced back to a line in Chaucer's “Troilus and Criseyde,” which states, “It is nought good a slepyng hound to wake.”
When a character in Agatha Christie’s “Peril at End House” asks to see a will, another responds, “What shall I say? Let the dog see the rabbit?” The phrase means get on with it. It’s common among those who go to the dog track, as the dogs chase a fake rabbit around the ring.
The popular song from the '90s begs the question,”Who let the dogs out?” This turn of phrase means to let loose and drop one's inhibitions. It turns up a lot in literature, including in “The Inheritance.” One passage says, “They'd filch some strawberries and trifle from the kitchen. They could let the dogs out. They might take advantage of the empty billiards room.”
“Senator, your tongue's wagging like a blind dog's tail in a meat market!” comedian Fred Allen says in a 1965 Life magazine article. It means to be out of control.
Writer Maureen Dowd cites this as a favorite expression in Washington. It means to have something that one never expected to catch and has no need for, like a dog chasing a moving bus.
This is an old publishing industry reference that states in order for books to be bestsellers, they must be about Lincoln, dogs, or doctors. This prompted one author to title his book, which is about publishing in the 1930s, “Lincoln’s Doctor’s Dog.”
You’d be devastated if someone did this. And that’s the meaning behind this expression, which describes someone so sad they look like they just suffered the ultimate tragedy.
Montgomery Burns, who appears on “The Simpsons,” frequently tells his minion, Smithers: “Release the hounds!” when his estate is threatened. It means having someone to do your dirty work.
My companion and I are a package deal. That’s the meaning behind this statement. The expression is at least as old as the 1500s, when it can be attributed to John Heywood.
This phrase describes someone who has beaten the odds, perhaps even undeservedly.
Mad dog fighters are so crazed that they can’t even see straight. Dogs who are engaged in attack can easily embody this kind of behavior.
There’s no stronger bond between a dog and his companion. This cliché was popularized originally in a courtroom speech by George Graham Vest, a U.S. senator. Vest spoke on behalf of Charles Burden, whose dog had been shot by a neighbor. Vest won the case for him, largely as a result of his closing statement: “Eulogy to the Dog.”
Someone seeking the attention of the media. A letter writer to The New York Times once complained that the author of a story about George Lakoff was “framed” as an opportunistic publicity hound.
Pain is what this expression amounts to when Nietzsche writes, “I have given a name to my pain and call it 'dog': it is just as faithful, just as obtrusive and shameless, just as entertaining, just as clever as any other dog—and I can scold it and vent my bad moods on it, as others do with their dogs, servants, and wives.”
If one is following someone closely and aggressively, they’re nipping at their heels. The phrase still appears often today.
In its earliest usage, William Camden, an Elizabethan historian, said, “It is hard to teach an old dog tricks.” The phrase means that some people will never change.
If one does not have much responsibility or room to run, they might be on a short leash. White House correspondent Helen Thomas used this phrase to describe what the Bush administration did to their press secretary, Ari Fleischer: “He's a likable young man, but they keep him on a very short leash.”
In the “Beaver County Times,” town manager Sam Stockton quotes his surgeon as saying, “You were one sick puppy” after he had his gall bladder removed. It means to be extremely ill.
This is a phenomenon in opera where the singer makes no attempt to play a part and chooses to just stand and belt out the songs.
Purebred dogs are often spoken in terms of their pedigree, or the ancestral lineage. Humans, however, likely predate dogs in terms of having a pedigree.
Who wouldn’t want the pick of the litter? It’s the most desirable member of a group of prospects. It might be said of puppies, prospective boyfriends, draft picks, or practically anything else for that matter.
A tough fighter is known as a pit bull, often in politics. This is because pit bulls have a reputation as fighting dogs, though most are not, in fact, dangerous.
To surrender is to play dead. In her analysis of the Terri Schiavo case, writer Carol Marin says, “Washington, it's clear, is a place where Republicans run scared of the religious right and Democrats just play dead.”
You might have noticed labels on restroom door signs that indicate how each species uses the bathroom: a pointer versus a setter. What’s more, dogs designated as pointers literally point at their prey using a crooked foreleg. Setters, however, point at prey by standing rigid, or “setting.”
In football, it’s a short kick or a punt. The pooch kick is designed to keep the ball out of the returner’s hands.
You won’t see this ringlet-style haircut that mimics the cut of a poodle much anymore. Think Lucille Ball in “I Love Lucy.”
This poufy skirt is adorned with the image of a poodle, the dog most likely to be a fashion accessory. It was a popular fashion trend in the '50s.
A pup tent is nothing more than a miniature tent. Some believe they were actually tents for small animals, not people.
Holding a puppy may bring warm feelings of puppy love, when a puppy's big eyes and floppy ears woo one over. It’s used to describe the initial stages of infatuation in human romance.
The “Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins” says that “put on the dog” used to be a bit of a put-down, like putting on airs. It means to get dressed up or show off.
Most dogs love to eat, and they love to eat fast; that’s what this means. The expression was first used in a children’s book “Shakespeare’s Scribe.”
You might be looking out the window and thinking, “It’s really coming down out there.” To rain cats and dogs is an expression whose origins are hotly debated. Jonathan Swift often gets credit for the first use of this term in “Polite Conversation,” written in 1708.
This expression can be used in a card game or in football. If it’s the latter, its origins are rooted in the San Francisco 49ers. It was coined by Bob Fouts, a sports commentator who saw a photo of his red-colored dog with his legs on the quarterback for the 49ers. It is used today to describe a type of football defense.
A red dog democrat is so good he or she can win red states typically held by Republicans. The term appears to have been coined in 2004 when the Democrats came up with their strategy to retake the White House.
If one collects rocks, they're a rock hound. Dr. Niles Eldredge, a paleontologist and educator at the American Museum of Natural History, says “the would-be rock hound still has many opportunities,” even in the Big Apple.
The reference here is a strategy for housetraining a puppy, by rubbing its nose in wherever the puppy had an accident. Used in common language, it means to call one's attention to a mistake or blunder.
To run with the big dogs means to fraternize with those in power, a phrase that shows up often in today’s culture. If one rubs shoulders with the movers and shakers, this is what they’re doing.
If one wants it both ways or is refusing to pick sides, then they might be running with both hounds and hares. The expression comes from the English children’s game of Hare and Hounds.
It isn’t easy being the runt, the smallest puppy in a litter, who often can’t seem to compete with others for food. It also is used to refer to a short person.
A pitiful look could be described with this expression. It originates from the droopiness of a hound’s eyes, which make them appear sad.
If one had a salty dog, they might not remember it. It’s a cocktail that calls for vodka, grapefruit juice, salt, and a lime wedge. It’s also an American novelty dance done to the "Salty Dog Rag."
To screw the pooch is to screw up in a major way. When used in aviation, screwing the pooch means dying while piloting an airplane. The expression was used in the film “True Lies.”
If one is a sea dog, they’re an experienced sailor. The term was used in “Treasure Island,” written by Robert Louis Stevenson, in describing the main character Long John Silver.
This baseball reference is used when someone hits a ground ball right between two infielders, as if it had eyes of its own and knew where to go. The reference is akin to a seeing eye dog helping the blind.
A tale that goes on and on forever and might be of interest to the narrator, but not so much the listener. That’s called a shaggy dog story. Another interpretation says that while the stories might be drawn out, they typically end with a pun.
Lee Child’s novel “Killing Floor,” uses this phrase, which means a condition that has been in existence for a long time. “I’ve been in this joint since God’s dog was a puppy,” Child writes.
Remember those amazing olfactory cells? They’re the origin of this expression. It means to recognize or detect something, as dogs often do by using their noses.
While not a common expression in the U.S., it is used in Britain often, and it means to have been swindled. Winston Churchill reportedly used it when he discovered his underground wartime headquarters were not, in fact, bombproof.
To stack a dog in a dog show means to show off the dog by adjusting his or her legs and body to create the perfect appearance. When applied to humans, it means that someone is attractively proportioned.
These are actually bright rainbow-like spots that appear on either side of the sun, depending on the weather conditions. Allegedly, they received their name because they were loyal to the sun, as if they were dogs that followed the sun-god Apollo, as if they were on a leash.
Imagine being cold enough to want three dogs in bed to keep you warm. Some believe this expression originated from the Australian outback.
In chiding President George W. Bush for his commutation of Scooter Libby's prison sentence, New York Times columnist Frank Rich said it was like “throw[ing] a bone to the last grumpy old white guys watching Bill O’Reilly in a bunker.” It means to placate someone.
Every dog wants to be the dominant one. This refers to a person who has the position of highest authority and who shouldn’t be crossed.
Selling a woof ticket is a threat, either real or a bluff. Athletes do it all the time. Famed boxer Muhammad Ali did it best.
To wriggle like a puppy is to squirm about and emulate the sheer excitement that puppies express all the time.
This is allegedly a nickname for the Yazoo Delta, a southern railroad, although rail historians disagree whether this route even existed. Some say there was a man stuck at a train depot who sang a song about “going where the Southern cross the dog.”