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an illustration of an old and feeble dog
figure 1  


like an old dog. While the most common quality attributed to old dogs is a lack of cognitive flexibility, that is, the canard that they cannot learn new tricks, this simile is used to evoke a surprising range of significance.

An old servant, ready work up until the very end, until death, would seem to be the most common implication. “Isn't it about time the Macintosh was simply discontinued—put down like an old dog?” asks PC Magazine's John Dvorak.reference 1 In the play, Death of Salesman, Willie Loman's wife follows her famous line that “attention must be paid” by saying, “He's not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog.”reference 2  In the first, it's time to put a loyal dog out to pasture, or out of its misery. In the latter, the implication is that Loman's loyalty was taken for granted, like that of an old dog.

While some old dogs are apparently either disposable or at least euthanizable, others are seen as icons of familiarity and reliability. Speaking of attention being paid, Integrated Solutions calls on the simile in a plug for one of its products: “Magnetic tape technology is a bit like an old dog that's been in the family for years. The pooch is as familiar as the wallpaper, and you often forget he's around. But, even if you haven't paid him much attention lately, he predictably stays right where you hope he would be.”reference 3 Sometimes even the valued experience of the elderly is part of the reference. “Like an old dog, I knew something was coming. I sniffed the air and smelled a buyout,” declares Don Park in his blog entry of April 26, 2006.reference 4

At other times , the simile refers to a specific aspect of an old dog, one that we can readily bring to our mind's eye. In Jaybar Crow, Wendell Berry expands the simile to describe a rickety house. “The whole thing was slung a little askew like an old dog half minded to lie down.”reference 5 Berry quite adeptly brings to mind an elderly dog struggling to control his hindquarters. This is a good reminder that any qualifiers are likely to be important.

1. Dvorak, John C. Jun 172002. E-Mac, I-Mac, No Mac. PC Magazine. Accessed May 29 2006 from http:// article2 /0,4149,1885,00.asp .

2. Miller, Arthur. 1980. Death of a Salesman. New York: Dramatists Play Service. 40.

3. von Gunden, Tom 2003. Tape WORM Has Legs. Integrated Solutions. Corry Publishing. Accessed May 29 2006 from http:// www. integratedsolutionsmag. com/ Articles/ 2003_11/ 031113.htm.

4. Park, Don. 2006. RSA Buys Passmark Security. Daily Habit. Accessed May 30 2006 from http:// blog/ donpark/.

5. Berry, Wendell. 2000. Jayber Crow: A Novel. Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint. 99.
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illustration of a man looking in a mirror and seeing a younger self in a mirror spacer
figure 2

Sometimes the allusion is enigmatic. “History — like an old dog — is willing to wait for answers,” say Thomas Lynch in an NPR commentary.reference 6 I am willing to concede that puppies seem less than willing to wait, but are old dogs more patient than middle-aged ones?

“Life's a funny old dog,” says Sam Waterston's character Jack McCoy on Law and Order.reference 7 Is this really an old saying, or just a line that Dick Wolfe, René Balcer, and the other writers concocted to seem like one?

6. Lynch, Thomas. 2006. Diggiing for Hidden Bodies in Michigan. In All Things Considered: National Public Radio. May 29.

7. Pierce, Charles. 2004. The Return of Slacker Friday. Accessed May 29 2006 from http:// id/ 660887 6/ #storyContinued.

I strongly suspect that the range of use of this phrase reflects the ready extent to which we project just about anything onto dogs. So sometimes the simile is quite specific, but beware of reading too much into any of them. Writers who are less evocative than Berry may wish to toss in a seemingly portentous turn of phrase such as this just to add a gratuitous sense of gravitas.

Finally, I came across some humor involving this likeness in a pair of riddles:

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illustration of a pickup truck with a motorcycle in the back spacer
figure 3

How is a Harley Davidson like an old dog?
They both like to ride in the back of pickup trucks.

What is the difference between a Harley Davidson and an old dog?
The dog can get in the back of the pickup by itself.reference 8
8. Motorcycle Jokes. 2004. Jokes N Jokes.Net. R. Carver, ed., ed. Accessed May 29 2006 from http:// funny.jokes. amusing.humor. laughs/ Transportation/ transportation. motorcycles.001.htm.
About the illustrations: Figure 1 is an old dog taken from a Dover illustration. Figure 2 depicts an old dog seeing whatever it is he wishes to see in the mirror, a younger man perhaps. Figure 3 is a Harley in the back of a pickup. © 2008 Jupiterimages Corporation.
see also: old dogs will not learn new tricks; there's life in the old dog yet; dog years Last updated: August 29, 2009
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