The close relationship between humans and dogs has developed over tens of thousands of years. An archaeological investigation in Israel found one human internment which contained the remains of the dog and dated from 30,000 years ago. We are used to providing care and attention for our dogs, having them groomed and taken to the vets when necessary. However, the relationship has not always been amicable and this can be seen in the language and idioms used throughout the centuries.Looking through my dog eared copy of Brewer's dictionary of myths and fables I was surprised just how many phrases came to light. For example, to be in the dog house or to lead a dog’s life and have to work like a dog until you are dog tired is something we would wish to avoid. Pity the poor person or country that has gone to the dogs.
The behaviour of the dog or its body language have always been mirrored in the everyday phrases we use, for example we can turn tail and leave with our tail between our legs, having spent our time foolishly barking up the wrong tree. Whilst we might admire someone’s enthusiasm and doggedness we certainly would not wish to be hounded by them. Nor would we choose to be as sick as a dog. As the Bible noted every dog returns to its own vomit which is a necessary behaviour when, as a pack animal, you must grab as much food as possible before a larger animal drives you away, but then can vomit into a corner and re-eat the food at one’s leisure, though here the admonition is about sinners returning to their sinful ways. Worthless things so the Bible informs us are as valuable as a dead dog. In fact the Bible has no good word for Man’s Best Friend.
Given that a third of all bites to children come from disturbing their own dog, it is a truism that one should let sleeping dogs lie. Another truism is that a barking dog won’t bite. In the ritual pattern of aggression the bark is a low-level warning whereas a lip curl or snap comes without vocalisations. Furthermore it is true to say the majority of dogs which have good bite inhibition, their bark is worse than its bite. Then again would you want to approach someone who was like a dog with a bone?
In mediaeval times the dog was given a bad name, literally. The phrase “give a dog a bad name and hang him” which we shortened t “ give a dog a bad name”comes from the practice of sending animals to court, where if found guilty of crimes, they would be hung.
The use of the word dog as meaning valueless or messy is often appended to other nouns: the dog rose, dog Latin, dogs meat, dog’s dinner are a few examples whilst the more pejorative naming of someone as a dog or bitch or even hound dog requires little explanation.
But every dog has its day and in recent times the dog has also become a symbol of faithfulness, love and other positive attributes. Fido, is a dog’s name from the Latin fidelis meaning faithful. The use of dogs in statuary and paintings reflects the changing attitude which occurred in post-mediaeval times. Probably the story of the most famous faithful dog is that of Greyfriars Bobby, the Skye terrier who visited his owners grave every day until his own death many years later. However, recent research has shown that this is something of a shaggy dog story, and that History has been sold a pup, there being two dogs which were provided by local restauranteur and graveyard keeper as a means of boosting tourism. You might enjoy being called faithful but would you really want to be called a lapdog or be termed as someone’s poodle?
Perhaps it is too late to change people’s attitudes and expressions, especially if you believe you can’t teach an old dog new tricks (you can, it just takes more time and patience, after all there is life in the old dog yet!,). But before you set the dogs on me and become like a dog in the manger (or perhaps happily like a dog with two tails) consider that it’s better to be a live dog than a dead lion, especially in a dog eat dog world where people fight like cats and dogs.
Well that’s the end of my own shaggy dog story because I have to go and see a man about a dog!