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Where did that phrase come from - The guilty dog barks first
Stan St. Clair

by Stan St. Clair


The popular adage, the guilty dog barks first or, the guilty dog barks loudest, means that people try to cover up their wrongs by feigning innocence. Often when a group of people are confronted about which one did something, the one who immediately tries to point a finger and blame someone else is often the one who is guilty. 

Strangely enough, these sayings did not begin to be popular until the mid-20th century. The earliest such proverbs involve dogs that bark loudest. The first available citation is from the preface to English poet Terrance M. Hughes’ lengthy ode “Iberia Won,” chronicling the Peninsula War, published in 1847, where it is linked to a German proverb:

“The dog who barks loudest is least inclined to bite.”

In 1902, we find a slight move in the axiom. In Bolsaw Prus and Curtain Jeremiah’s historical novel of Ancient Egypt, The Pharaoh and the Priest, we find:

“Oho,” said the pharaoh, “then they threaten me thus from the first day of my rein. My mother, a dog barks loudest when he is afraid; so threats are of evil omen, but only for the priesthood.”

Another popular old saying, going to the dogs is older. It has been used figuratively for anything going to ruin. For example, it has meant something which shows moral decay since at least the late 18th century. A play entitled “Germanicus, A Tragedy” by A Gentleman of the University of Oxford was published in The London Review of Literature in 1775, and included this citation of the phrase:

“Sirrah, they are prostitutes, and are civil to delude and destroy you; they are painted Jezabels, and they who hearken to ‘em, like Jezebel of old will go to the dogs; if you dare to look at ‘em, you will be tainted, and if you speak to ‘em you are undone.”


Stan St. Clair is the author of the best-selling book “Most Comprehensive Origins of Clichés, Proverbs and Figurative Expressions.” If you would like to know the origin of a favorite expression, contact him at stan@stclair.net.