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What Does It Mean If Something Has "Gone to the Dogs"?

By Cynde Gregory
Updated May 23, 2024
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Even folks who aren’t interested in betting love to go to the horse races to watch those well-muscled, elegant creatures and their well-dressed, elegant owners take to the track. It’s the perfect opportunity for the sociologist in anybody to come out and play. After the experience of box seats at Saratoga or sipping mint juleps at the Kentucky Derby, a visit to the dog track is, to say the least, a letdown. It brings to mind the idiomatic expression, “This place has really gone to the dogs;” in other words, it’s depressing, shabby, and trashed.

Ironically enough, the expression "gone to the dogs" came into existence an uncountable number of years before dog tracks were popularized. Linguists trace the idiom’s start all the way to ancient China. While dogs have always been a part of human society, they haven’t always been a particularly welcome part.

Long ago, city walls in China not only kept out the enemy, but they also kept out the dogs, which were banished from within the city walls by law. No doubt the wealthy and well connected were allowed their shih tzus secreted within their family compounds, but dogs who didn’t have owners to hide them away and feed them delicate morsels by hand ended up on the wrong side of the wall. As garbage was dumped over the wall on a regular basis, these feral creatures managed to survive.

For a dog, survival is not only about food; it’s about belonging to a pack. There were no doubt plenty of blood-drawing squabbles to determine who would be top dog, with lesser canines falling into their various social places. While it wasn’t the best life, and certainly not as luxurious as it could have been inside the royal courts and homes of the wealthy and educated, the dogs themselves had "gone to the dogs," mated, raised pups, and increasingly dominated the lands beyond the walls.

In ancient times, criminals were by and large dealt with in one of two ways. Depending in part upon the severity of the crime and in part upon how well connected the criminal or his or her family was, the options were death or banishment. Thieves, murderers, and the like who weren’t executed were, literally, shown the door. While no doubt some of these undesirables made their way to other towns and other lives, others quite literally had gone to the dogs, fighting them for anything edible among the garbage, wearing filthy, tattered clothing, and living a life far below what it once had been.

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Discussion Comments
By gravois — On Apr 26, 2012

I actually like dog tracks quite a bit and I have always preferred dog racing to horse racing. There are more races which means more chances to bet. And as impressive as a horse is, I think it is just more fun to watch the greyhounds.

By Ivan83 — On Apr 26, 2012
That last paragraph in the article really got to me. Imagine having to walk around outside the walls of a city, competing with dogs for food and water and living a life that is barely better than their own. In fact, it is probably worse. At least dogs may not know how much they are struggling. That criminal is reminded of it constantly, especially having the city and all that he lost right there next to him constantly.
By truman12 — On Apr 25, 2012

Gone to the dogs is one of my friends Sam's favorite expressions. He is a pretty cynical guy and he is convinced that the world is going to end in his lifetime. He seems to see signs of decay and ruin everywhere he looks. He is always saying, look at that, hear that, see that? It's gone to the dogs.

He is not as unbearable as he sounds though. He is actually a really great guy once you get to know him. Sometimes people with the sourest exteriors turn out to be pretty sweet.

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