Go to the Dogs – Idiom, Origin & Meaning

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Danielle McLeod

Danielle McLeod is a highly qualified secondary English Language Arts Instructor who brings a diverse educational background to her classroom. With degrees in science, English, and literacy, she has worked to create cross-curricular materials to bridge learning gaps and help students focus on effective writing and speech techniques. Currently working as a dual credit technical writing instructor at a Career and Technical Education Center, her curriculum development surrounds student focus on effective communication for future career choices.

Idioms are excellent ways to help detail and define the message you need your audience to hear. They are words and phrases that originate from literal definitions but have taken on figurative meanings to create an analogy, allusion and symbolic meanings.

To go to the dogs indicates something has deteriorated or been ruined in some manner. However, like all idioms, it stems from a literal action that can confuse anyone unfamiliar with the term or new to the English language.

Let’s learn what the phrase go to the dogs means and how to use it in your speech and writing.

What Is the Meaning of the Idiom Go to the Dogs?

Go to the Dogs Idiom Origin Meaning

Going to the dogs describes something that has been downgraded, is worse than it used to be or is deteriorating. It is often used in a manner to describe the disappointment of discovering that something or someone that was once good or grand is no longer what it once was—and maybe, in fact, ruined due to the actions of others.

Sentence Examples Using Go to the Dogs

  • This once was a beautiful city, but decades of political abuse have left it to the dogs, leaving behind nothing but a shell of its former grandeur.
  • It was as if she had thrown her talent and education to the dogs: abandoning everything she once held in esteem and accepting less than her worth.
  • I’m so disappointed! This store used to carry such a fantastic array of supplies, but since the management change, it has gone to the dogs.

Go to the Dogs Origin

Go to the Dogs Ngram
Go to the dogs usage trend.

The origins of the phrase go to the dogs or gone to the dogs provide a literal reference to anything spoiled enough to be fed to the dogs. Dogs were not the household pets they are today but were working animals and were fed discarded foods and scraps unsuitable for human consumption. Likewise, livestock that was no longer good for breeding was often butchered and processed for dog food.

The literal use is likely thousands of years old, as even the Bible mentions throwing things to the dogs in Exodus 22:31:

And you shall be holy men to Me, therefore you shall not eat any flesh torn to pieces in the field; you shall throw it to the dogs.

Over time, the phrase was used to indicate that anything or anybody no longer worthwhile for use or ruined had gone to the dogs.

A figurative variation of the idiom was first documented in Shakespeare’s Macbeth in 1623, when Macbeth says, “Throw physic to the dogs, I’ll none of it.”

In 1775 in The London Review of Literature, the play Germanicus, A Tragedy includes the idiom in full:

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.

Let’s Review

When something is to go to the dogs, it means that things have deteriorated or become less than their original worth. It can be applied to people, places, things and behaviors.

Rooted in the practice of feeding discarded, spoiled or unwanted foods to dogs, the literal use is thousands of years old. The figurative, metaphorical sense of the phrase is likely older than our first documented source due to variations of the saying as well.