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The Canine in Conversation
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dog with mouth wide open showing teeth
figure 1  


bark is worse than his bite. “Don't let him scare you.” This phrase refers to someone who is all bluster, or at least more verbally abusive than physically so.

Perhaps there is an implicit assumption here that bullies often lose courage when challenged to back up their threats. Bartlett's attributes this one to the seventeenth century minister, George Herbert, in his tract Jacula Prudentum, no. 49 of 1651.reference 1 In contemporary popular media, such a term suggests a crusty and probably sad adult male who has a heart of gold; a beloved stock character who rarely exists in the everyday world.

An interesting non-English corollary: in Portuguese there is a phrase, “Cachorro que late não morde,” which translates literally as, “The dog that barks doesn't bite.”reference 2 To me this implies the inverse of suggesting that someone acts more threatening than he really is: a dog that might bite you will not bark. That is, you may get no warning. This, I suspect, is a truer reflection of how to walk in the world.

Perhaps another corollary is the line I am often fed on the street by my dog-owning neighbors, “Don't worry, he won't bite.” I confess that the more I have studied dogs and their behavior, the less confident I feel in such assurances. The Center for the Integrative Study of Animal Behavior warns that “... some dogs may bite and some may not. Be careful around a dog that is barking (not playfully) at you.”reference 3 This presumes, of course, that you can discern when a dog is barking playfully at you or otherwise.

1. Bartlett, John. 1980. Familiar Quotations: a Collection of Passages, Phrases and Proverbs Traced to their Sources in Ancient and Modern Literature. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 270

2. Berg, R. 2001. Re: Snake and Stick and Dog. Phrase Finder. Sheffield Hallam University. Accessed Aug 26 2001 from http:// 7/messages/ 1030.html.

3. Holder, M. K. 2001. Animal Proverbs & Clichés. Center for the Integrative Study of Animal Behavior. Accessed Sep 19 2001 from http:// ~animal/ fun/wordplay/ proverbs.html
red gash in tree trunk, looks as if it is bleeding
figure 2  

About the illustrations: While we can infer the dog depicted in Figure 1 is barking, the prominent canines make clear that the capacity to bite is quite present. I have been unable to find the original source of this book illustration, which I found among my father's picture archives. I scanned it and enhanced the redness of the dog's mouth in order to call attention to the threat that it implies. This image is in the public domain because its copyright has expired.

In Figure 2, it appears that perhaps the bite of this Red Bloodwood tree is worse than its bark. Photo by Marita Macrae. This image is copyrighted and unlicensed. I believe that the use of this scaled-down, low-resolution portion of an image to illustrate the article “bark is worse than his bite” qualifies as fair use.

see also: bark like a dog; bark up the wrong tree; beware of dog; at bay Last updated: June 21, 2008
by Alec MacLeod 2001-2008  Dogmatic Technologies Oakland Creative Commons unless otherwise expressly stated, all original material of whatever nature created by Alec MacLeod and included in The Canine in Conversation and any related pages, is licensed under a Creative Commons License. Please read the Terms of Use Agreement by Alec MacLeod Dogmatic Technologies