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The Canine in Conversation
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a miserable dog looking back over its shoulder
figure 1  


die like a dog. Die miserably or shamefully.reference 1

Perhaps it is ironic that one of the tricks that humans teach dogs to play is dead. The reason that it is relatively easy to get dogs to do this is that the gesture is one a dog would use among its superiors to signal submission. Indeed, this is the way a dog would plead for mercy. It may be that the reason dying like a dog is shameful is because, when threatened in such a way, a dog will beg for its life. For a human to do so can be considered cowardly.  To die “like a man” is to be stoic, not pleading.

According to mafia boss Sammy Gravano, when his comrade John Paruta was dying of cancer he begged Gravano to kill him. “Don't let me die like a dog.” Gravano goes on to say, “He tried to get me to understand that a swift bullet was the best gift a true friend could give him. He couldn't stand the pain no more.”referene 2 Clearly, Paruta feared reaching the point of groveling and whimpering like a dog.

However, not all usage supports my interpretation. Ethnographer Ruth Behar offers a vivid description in Translated Woman: Crossing the Border with Esperanza's Story.

Mama had said that he ought to die like a dog, with no one to look after him. In his filth, in his sty, just like a pig. Mama used to say “My only consolation is that when he dies, there will be no one to look after him and he ‘die like a dog.'” Mama got her wish. I said to her, “You pay for everything in this life. He died like a nobody.”reference 3

The man in question died alone, a nobody, like a pig as well as like a dog.

1. Pearsall, Judy and Bill Trumble. 1996. The Oxford English Reference Dictionary. Oxford, England; New York: Oxford University Press.






2. Maas, Peter. 1997. Underboss: Sammy the Bull Gravano's Story of Life in the Mafia. 1st ed. New York: HarperCollins Pub, 223.



3. B Behar, Ruth. 2003. Translated Woman: Crossing the Border with Esperanza's Story. Boston, Mass.: Beacon Press, 221.

About the illustration: A very scared dog, fearful of dying. Illustration by Lucille Holling from The Book of Cowboys.reference 4 © 2008 Jupiterimages Corporation. 4. Holling, Holling Clancy, and Lucille Holling. 1936. The Book of Cowboys. New York: The Platt & Munk Co. inc.
see also: dead dog; play dead Last updated: February 9, 2008
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