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What does "Let Sleeping Dogs Lie" Mean?

Michael Pollick
Updated May 23, 2024
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The idiom let sleeping dogs lie means not to stir up old conflicts or provoke an argument over unresolved issues. It is often better to agree to disagree and move forward rather than trigger hostilities over an ongoing difference of opinion. Let sleeping dogs lie refers to the instinctive behavior of a dog whenever it is awakened suddenly from a nap. Many dogs instinctively lash out at those who try to awaken them without reason, and these natural responses are often quite painful.

One example of the idiom in action would be a heated discussion between a man and wife over an unpaid bill. While the issue itself may be relatively minor, it could bring up painful memories of a previous fight over household finances. Instead of provoking or escalating the argument, both might agree to let sleeping dogs lie and not remind each other of the previous fight unnecessarily. Dredging up a provocative or painful issue from the past would not help to resolve the current situation, so both sides agree not to discuss it.

Unresolved grudges or long-standing feuds in the business world can also benefit from this proverb. A project manager may have had an unpleasant working relationship with a subordinate in the past, but a new project requires complete team cooperation. Rather than sabotage group unity, the project manager and his co-worker may agree to let sleeping dogs lie where their personal disagreements are concerned. If the past issues are largely resolved and have little bearing on the present situation, then it is better for everyone that they remain dormant.

Although the Old Testament book of Proverbs makes references to the foolish mishandling of dogs, many sources point to the English author Chaucer as the originator of the idiom in print. Other authors have since used variations on Chaucer's theme to imply the inherent dangers of awakening sleeping dogs. The modern form of the idiom is more passive in nature, suggesting that sleeping dogs, especially large and volatile breeds, should remain undisturbed. In Chaucer's time, the proverb warned against deliberately approaching a sleeping dog and waking it up forcefully. Anyone who chooses to wake up a sleeping guard dog generally gets the punishment he or she deserves.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to Language & Humanities, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.
Discussion Comments
By mitchell14 — On Jan 20, 2011

The problem with letting sleeping dogs lie is sometimes it can get out of hand; I try to avoid following this idiom in most cases, because grudges always get brought up again eventually, whether you try to forget about them or not. I do, though, use it to avoid arguments about things like politics and religion, because those are never really about convincing others so much as blowing off steam.

By DentalFloss — On Jan 18, 2011

This is one of the idiomatic phrases that is at least somewhat easier for a non-English speaking audience to understand. Even in other cultures, people know how dogs naturally act, and so the idiom still makes sense. While non-native English speakers might not have read Chaucer, they also do not need to know that origin information to understand it, the way you might for some idiomatic expressions.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to Language & Humanities, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a...
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