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A golden retriever dog with a red telephone handset in its mouth
figure 1  


call off the dogs. 1. To give up attacking someone. The implication in the first is that the dogs were loosed as a form of intimidation and now, having served their purposes, are returned to the kennel.

2. To give up on an unsuccessful chase. As Brewer's puts it, “to break up a disagreeable conversation. In the chase, if the dogs are on the wrong track, the huntsman calls them off. (In French, rompre les chiens).”reference 1

In most cases, the clear implication is that there are attack dogs who are to be recalled from the chase. The second usage is less obvious and in some cases both are invoked. When a New York Times editorial near the end of the grueling 2008 race for the Democratic nomination, states that Hillary Clinton “has to call off the dogs,” the editorial board means both to return her attack dogs to the kennel and give up on an unsuccessful chase.reference 2

However, it is not always obvious which meaning is intended. In 1994, when former Republican war horse Barry Goldwater suggested that his party let go of the Watergate issue, his constituents in his hometown of Paradise Valley, Arizona were aghast. KFYI talk show host Barry Young said, “Goldwater should know that when your party is hot on the trail and barking up the tree, you don't call off the dogs.”reference 3 Clearly Mr. Young felt that Goldwater was suggesting that the GOP give up on the chase. But perhaps Mr. Goldwater thought his party was barking up the wrong tree.




1. Brewer, E. Cobham. 2000. Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. 1898. Accessed Sept 5 2001 from http:// 81/5138.html.


2. Editorial Board. 2008. The Low Road to Victory. New York Times, Apr 23, A24.


3. Egan, Timothy. 1994. Goldwater Defending Clinton; Conservatives Feeling Faint. New York Times, Mar 24, 1.

photograph of a woman carrying a sign that reads 'call off the dogs'
figure 2  
Sadly, there are times when the need to call off the dogs is quite literal. Photographer Allan Koss took the picture in Figure 2 In front of a Woolworth's store on State Street in Chicago in 1963.  The placard carrier was participating in a protest of “Bull” Conner's police tactics in Birmingham, Alabama. Conner, a member of the Ku Klux Klan as well as a police official, infamously ordered the use of attack dogs and fire hoses against civil rights marchers.
About the illustrations: Figure 1 is from an online ad for a telephone service that is no longer available from a provider who seems to be out of business. In any case, a nice visual pun, but I cannot for the life of me discover the owner of the copyright.

Figure 2 “Call Off the Dogs,” by Allan Koss.reference 4 Used with permission.

4. Koss, Allan. 1963. Call Off the Dogs. (Photograph).
cf: let the dogs out; loose the hounds; unleash; who let the dogs out? Last updated: June 21, 2008
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