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The Canine in Conversation
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canine leaning on rock barking at tree
figure 1  


bark up the wrong tree. To follow a red herring, i.e., a distracting bit of evidence or scent.

Dogs will tend to “tree” their or their master's prey. They sit at the base of the tree up which they have chased their quarry and bark or bay. William Safire helpfully points out that “it's not the tree, beloved of environmentalists, that is wrong, it's the dog.”reference 1 Dogs act on instinct, especially in hunting mode. However, the process of domestication often results in arrested development in one aspect of predation or another. Therefore dogs will engage in predatory acts, such as baying or barking even when there is no prey. Safire suggests that even when chasing actual prey, perhaps “the dog is deceived.” However, as a lexicographer and not a zoologist or animal psychologist, I presume that he is engaging in mere speculation about this aspect of dog behavior. I would submit that while the dog may indeed be deceived, he or she might also be “playing” or just plain wrong.


1. Safire, William. 2005 Metaphor Madness. New York Times Magazine, Feb 6, 18.


About the illustration: Here we see a dog-like creature barking up a tree. Whether it is the right or wrong tree is not discernible from this picture alone.reference 2 The image is taken from an illustration from Aesop's Fables by Milo Winter. © 2008 Jupiterimages Corporation. 2. Aesop and Milo Winter. 1947. The Aesop for Children. New York: Checkerboard Press.
see also: at bay; bark; tree
cf: that dog won't hunt
Last updated: June 21, 2008
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