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Great dog-related idioms you should know

  • Great dog-related idioms you should know

    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.

  • Alpha male

    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.

  • Ankle-biters

    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.

  • Bark up the wrong tree

    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.

  • Big dog

    This idiom encompasses two unique meanings. A person or company with a lot of power can be referred to as a big dog. In golf, "big dog” also refers to the driver—the biggest, longest club in a player’s bag.


  • Bird dog

    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.

  • Black dog

    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.

  • Bloodhound

    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.

  • Throw one a bone

    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.


  • Bootlick

    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.


  • Chase one's tail

    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. 

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