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The Doggone Origins of Popular Dog Expressions

Dog-and-pony show? Dog days of summer? Here's the truth behind some familiar canine sayings.

 |  Nov 29th 2012  |   1 Contribution


How many times have you heard an expression or saying and wondered where the idea came from? Lots of expressions turn out to have perfectly logical explanations, but there are also some that make you go “Hmmm.”

Here are five expressions involving dogs that I’ve heard a gazillion times and never really knew the origins. So I decided to investigate.

1. Dogged determination

I thought I would find more on this one, but it pretty much means what we all think it means: the persistence of a good hunting dog who stays on the track despite all obstacles.

2. Dog days of summer

I’ve heard this one all my life, but never knew the origin of the expression. I always envisioned an old hound dog lying on the porch with his tongue lolling out and eyes half closed. Turns out it has to do more with the stars than the sun. (Okay, the sun is, in fact, a star, but you know what I mean.) Here’s what I found out, via Wilstar.com:

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The brightest of the stars in Canis Major (the big dog) is Sirius, which also happens to be the brightest star in the night sky. In fact, it is so bright that the ancient Romans thought that the earth received heat from it. Look for it in the southern sky (viewed from northern latitudes) during January.

In the summer, however, Sirius, the dog star, rises and sets with the sun. During late July Sirius is in conjunction with the sun, and the ancients believed that its heat added to the heat of the sun, creating a stretch of hot and sultry weather. They named this period of time, from 20 days before the conjunction to 20 days after, "dog days" after the dog star.

How cool is that? I totally furrgot about there being a dog constellation, let alone two of them!

3. Dog-and-pony show

A derisive expression intended to belittle someone making a presentation, usually politically or business related. The origin of the expression comes from actual dog-and-pony circuses of the late 19th and early 20th century.

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According to wiseGEEK, “During the period in which their popularity peaked, the most famous troupe was Professor Gentry, which actually consisted of a band of four brothers. Professor Gentry was only one of a few shows that eventually evolved into a full-scale circus with more than 50 dogs and horses. Two other famous dog-and-pony shows included Sipe & Polman and the Harper Brothers.”

I know it’s supposed to be derogatory today, but I bet those dogs (and ponies) were pretty cute. Human nature being what it is and always has been, however, the quality of life for many circus animals back then would probably make us cringe.

4. Like a dog with a bone

This expression has a couple of meanings, at least for me. The first is somewhat similar to the "dogged determination" which started us off, but the second meaning is the one I like: pure, unadulterated joy. Is there anything happier than a dog chewing on a good bone? 

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I rest my case.

5. That dog won’t hunt

Our last entry is an expression I hadn’t heard much despite growing up around prime hunting country in rural Pennsylvania. My brother and I never did any hunting. Dad hunted as a boy growing up on a farm and later did some hunting in retirement, but it’s not something he passed along. Perhaps he sensed that we didn’t really have that sort of mindset.

Over the years, I have heard the expression “that dog won’t hunt” a time or two, but I can’t say as it was a favorite until just recently, courtesy of an article written by Donald Knaus for his Woods and Wilds column. My mother sent me the Wellsboro Gazette article because Mr. Knaus was none other than Coach K, my old high-school track coach.

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Despite our having remained friends over the years, he’s never been “Don” to me. He’s always been and forever will be "Mr. K” or “Coach K.” He also taught English, poetry, and drama, which instilled in me a lifelong love of Shakespeare and the dramatic arts. Classes were always fun, never boring, and allowed for just the right amount of irreverence for the overly conventional.

What I did not know at the time I was running the half-mile (best time 2:01.5 –- couldn’t resist) and studying Shakespeare, is that Coach K was an avid outdoorsman and hunter who owned and loved several good hunting dogs. In his column "Woods and Wilds: That Dog Won't Hunt," he explains the origins:

“Imagine a committee meeting convened to solve a problem. Suggestions are floated around the table. With the proposal of one idea that everyone agrees will not work, someone adds, ‘That dog just won't hunt.’”

I also love how Coach K explains why a good dog is a better companion than most people:

“If a dog makes a mistake, its owner can chalk it up to a misunderstanding and improve training to correct the flaw. But humans. How do you say to your good buddy, 'You know that guy you brought hunting with us last week? Well, he's a jerk. He's dangerous and I won't hunt with him again.' Dogs don't shoot and most of them try to please.”

The best part of the column is where Knaus writes about his last two dogs: Meg and Baby. Meg was the “huntingest, barkingest” dog he ever owned and was a great hunting dog despite being a housedog, to the delight of his wife and daughters. Baby was the ibest example of "that dog won't hunt."

It took a few years for my wife to even consider another dog. Then one day, on a whim, I drove her past the kennels at the SPCA. Big mistake. There was a female Beagle there. Of course she had a new home. She was two years old -- too old to teach new tricks. She had been treated horribly by her previous owner and was in sad shape. So, after $350 in veterinary bills, we had a “free” dog. The Missus named her Baby. How apropos! The dog spends all day napping on “Mom's” bed, cuddles with Mom while she reads or watches TV and then snuggles all night next to Mom. 

I thought hunting was in Beagles' genes, so one day I took Baby out hunting. I figured that Baby would take the scent and a baying Beagle would be born. I glanced back to my truck and there was Baby, her paw caressing the door, silently saying, 'I thought we were just going for a ride. I didn't want to get out and walk around in those bushes!” I didn't raise my voice but called in my softest, most encouraging tone. I stomped back to the truck, determined to carry the dog into the bunny patch. No dog.

I called and called. I panicked and raced around all the roads that bordered the patch looking for Baby. No dog. 

I raced home and phoned my bride. She suggested I pick her up from her office. I did. We raced back to where I had last seen the doggone dog. She said, “You stay in the truck.” She got out and called once. Baby came racing to Mom, tail wagging, glad to get a ride home so she could catch up on her nap. I never took her out again. That dog just won't hunt.

Those are my five. What about you? I’m sure I missed one or two or a dozen. Post them in the comment section. If you know the source or origin, post that too, but if not, post anyway and we’ll dig around and see what we can come up with using some (wait for it) dogged determination.

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