Wednesday, July 5, 2023

Episode 198: That Dog Won't Hunt


This week Shauna and Dan explore the southern standby, that dog won't hunt. Did you know there is an early version featuring roosters? Bonus: US Presidents, Outlaw Country Music, and Hot vs Cold Coffee.

 Click to read the show notes

Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast
Episode 198: That Dog Won’t Hunt
Record Date: June 25, 2023
Air Date: July 5, 2023


Welcome to Bunny Trails, a whimsical adventure of idioms and other turns of phrase.

I’m Shauna Harrison

And I’m Dan Pugh

Each week we take an idiom or other turn of phrase and try to tell the story from its entry into the English language, to how it’s used today.

Opening Hook
Close your eyes and picture this. Unless you are driving. Or doing some other task that requires you to have your eyes open. You know what, never mind. Imagine this, you are sitting at the community center in a small town. The dusty covered porch has several rocking chairs on it. The old folks are sitting around, an old blue tick hound dog is sleeping near the door. You propose an idea to change to do something in town just a little differently than it’s been done in the past. You aren’t sure how anyone will take the idea. It’s quiet for a few seconds too long before one of the old folks glances your way and says, “son, that dog won’t hunt”.


If you’re from a small town, or have spent time in one, you may have easily been able to picture that scene. And if not, you might be wondering, what the heck does that even mean?!

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, that dog won’t hunt is a North American colloquialism that is:

Used to express the opinion that a particular plan or approach will not succeed
End Quote

But there was a predecessor phrase that I want to mention first. It has the same meaning and uses an animal that won’t do something that might be expected of it, in this case a rooster. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, that cock won’t fight means the exact same thing as that dog won’t hunt. But it appears some 100 years earlier. Here is an early example from the OED out of The Loiterer, 5 September 1789.  

This eloquent harangue was not lost upon me, I immediately began to smoke the old Gentleman. ‘No, (thought I) that cock won't fight.’
End Quote

This version is now somewhat rare. And it’s not necessarily because the British name for a rooster is also a crude word for male genitalia, because that crass meaning has been used in that context since at least 1619 when it was used in the play, The Custom of the Country by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher. I’m not going to read the quote, but we’ll link to an eBook of it through the Project Gutenberg website.

One more popular usage of this phrase appeared in David Crockett’s 1836 posthumous autobiography, Col. Crockett's Exploits and Adventures in Texas … Written by himself. This is a narrative brought down from the death of Col. Crockett to the Battle of San Jacinto, by an eye-witness. The quote comes in a second-hand story by a guy traveling with Crockett. The man’s name is unknown, but because Crockett met him playing thimblerig, a shell game where you have three thimbles and hide a pea under one, that’s what he calls him.  

An odd affair occurred while I was last there”, continued Thimblerig.  “A steamboat stopped at the landing, and one of the hands went ashore under the hill to purchase provisions, and the adroit citizens of that delectable retreat contrived to rob him of all his money. The captain of the boat, a determined fellow, went ashore in the hope of persuading them to refund,—but that cock wouldn’t fight.
End Quote

In this case there was somewhat of a happy ending, as the captain connected several cables from the steamboat to the house where the theft happened and gave them 15 minutes to either give back the money or have the house drug into the river. The money was “instantly produced.”

So we see ‘that cock won’t fight’ in 1836. But when did ‘that dog won’t hunt’ start getting used?

I’ll turn to Dave Wilton, author of Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends. On his website, he writes about this phrase:

The hunting-dog metaphor is documented… on 9 August 1843, when it appears in a letter to a Washington, DC newspaper about the prospects for the upcoming presidential election:

Don’t let the friends of Mr. Calhoun and those of Mr. Van Buren get at loggerheads, or anything beyond amicable sparring. We are ready to go for either of them, or for any other sterling Democrat, provided always that he will fight rather than give up Oregon, or any other portion of our country. Cass is much a favorite in this State. I put in a word (formerly) once in a while for Captain Tyler. “But that dog won’t hunt.”

“Captain Tyler” is then-President John Tyler, who had been a captain in the War of 1812. Tyler had been a Democrat before switching to the Whigs in 1834. He was elected to the vice-presidency in 1840 and acceded to the presidency in 1841 upon the death of William Henry Harrison. But he soon broke with the Whigs over the question of a national bank. He attempted to return to the Democrats, but was distrusted, hence the letter writer’s comment. The editor responded to the letter by expanding the metaphor:

 We think our correspondent errs when he says, “But that dog won’t hunt.” It is our opinion that he hunts too much; runs after small game; “don’t stand at the tree;” “barks up the wrong tree;” is fit for nothing but a coon dog, and hardly that; and that, in the big hunt of ’44, he will be killed so dead, he will not be able to give one dying yelp.

Tyler would go on to lose to Democrat James K. Polk in 1844, so that dog indeed didn’t hunt.
End Quote

Here’s another source from the OED, this from the Times out of Tuttle, Oklahoma. 20 Sept 1912.   

No, no, Maxwell, you can't be for Roosevelt and carry Mr. Taft at the head of your paper and make the people believe it. The dog won't hunt. The people are not fools.
End Quote

In 1919, I found a usage that isn’t really our meaning, but I include it because it is a contemporary phrase with different meaning that is almost exactly the same words. This is out of The Daily Gate City, Keokuk, Iowa, 6 February 1919.

In referring to the prosperity of Iowa he said: “The English have a saying that a fat dog won’t hunt, and I’ve wondered sometimes if Iowa didn’t need some first aid to the prosperous.”
End Quote

I saw a couple of uses of ‘a fat dog won’t hunt’ in the early 1900s.

We see ‘that dog won’t hunt’ in the 1933 novel by Thames Williamson, The Woods Colt: A Novel of the Ozarks Hills. The Woods Colt is a regional term in the Arkansas Ozarks that means a child born out of wedlock.

That feller is jest naturally a fool for the lack of sense, a-tryin’ to mix whiskey an’ lyin’. He ort t’ of knowed that dog won’t hunt!
End Quote

One more, this one from 1968, but relayed to the press 2 years later, from then United States President Lyndon Baines Johnson, often known by his initials LBJ using the phrase as retold through the

In 1970, for example, Johnson used the expression when describing a conversation he’d had with the American ambassador to Saigon. LBJ asked the ambassador for his views on a new plan to stop the bombing in the region. In LBJ’s telling, the ambassador “came back strong and said, ‘I just can’t. That dog won’t hunt. We just cannot get that over, it would just blow everything.”
End Quote

It seems LBJ was a bit fond of this phrase and many writers of the time associated it with the former President.

Let’s move onto some more modern takes on this phrase, but first a quick word of thanks to our sponsors.

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Modern Uses

Let’s kick off with some Outlaw Country from Waylon Jennings. 1986’s album Will the Wolf Survive was his first album since moving to MCA records. Jennings had previously been with RCA since 1966. The 5th song on the album is That Dog Won’t Hunt about a woman who was being untrue. Here is the opening verse:

Well you think that you can lie and tell me alibis
And it's alright
Keep the grapevine line working overtime
On your late nights
You think you can say some words, take away the hurt
And I'll still be your number one
But when it ain't working out we got a saying down South
Baby that dog won't hunt
End Quote

Here’s a 2013 book by Brandilyn Collins, “That Dog Won’t Hunt”. It is the first of the Dearing Family series of books. Here’s the synopsis from Amazon:

Meet the Dearings, a crazy, loving, boisterous family in small-town Mississippi. There’s mom and dad, three daughters and their families, and the youngest—twenty-five-year-old Ben. Oh, and the family dog, a Yorkie who thinks she’s royalty.“This one’s perfect,” Ben says about his new fiancĂ©e, Christina, when he brings her home for a family reunion. Ben is just sure everyone will love Christina, and she’ll fit right in.He always did tend to wear rose-colored glasses.Christina loves Ben but secretly fears their relationship will never work. They’ve only known each other ten weeks. She hasn’t told him about her horrific past as an only child—the beatings, the neglect, and verbal abuse. Christina doesn’t know how to trust or be honest about her feelings. Being thrust into the middle of a tight-knit family like the Dearings is sure to send her over the edge.With poignancy and humor, That Dog Won’t Hunt explores the complexities of relationships and the inner strength needed to overcome a difficult childhood. The Dearings are no perfect family, but they know how to love—if only Christina will accept it.
End Quote

In a teaser trailer for 2017’s Kingsman: The Golden Circle, we see Channing Tatum’s Agent Tequila, in full cowboy regalia, meeting Eggsy and Merlin for the first time.

Let me see if I’ve got it right here. You want me to believe it’s normal for a tailor to hack through an advanced biometric security system with nothing but a little bitty ole watch on. I can promise you, that dog don’t hunt.
End Quote

‘That Dog’ll Hunt’ is a song by Walker Hayes. It was released in 2022 after he performed it during his concerts. He posted a clip online and fans were demanding the full song on social media.

Here’s the chorus:

Local radio got somethin' country on it
An oldie but a goodie, y'all, still slaps, don't it?
Skeeter ridin' shotgun, lickin' the wind with his tongue (ooh, son)
Ayy, baby, careful now, kissin' on your chauffeur
Daisy Duke legs make me wanna pull it over
Take a little walk in the clover where the wild things run (ooh)
That dog'll hunt (ooh)
End Quote

In 2022 Jim Newman released That Dog Don’t Hunt: Tales from the Hunt Camp Porch. Here’s the synopsis from the author’s website:

Jim Newman, a natural born story-teller, takes the reader through joyful and humorous stories about life at the hunt camp, hunting culture, and the joys of nature and wildlife. The stories are a mix of childhood memories, folklore, facts, fiction, and laughter, with the odd political rant thrown in.

This book presents hunting in the light of the harvest of food, and the emphasis is on enjoying the beauty of nature in the company of family and good friends. The stories are very human, with lots of self-deprecating (sometimes laugh-out-loud) humour throughout.
End Quote

Wrap Up
Growing up in Texas, the saying ‘that dog won’t hunt’ was just a normal thing to hear on a regular basis. But after moving to Kansas I haven’t heard it nearly as often. I’m not really a hunter myself, though I don’t have any qualms with the practice for taking food or supplies. Though I do find hunting for sport to be morally problematic. Still the phrase never really conjured thoughts of hunting for me. I just see an old bloodhound sleeping on the porch. You’ve said something to him and he just raises an eye, gives you a look that says, “you gotta be out of your mind” and then goes right back to sleep. And that’s about as much thought as I’ll really put into this phrase.

That’s about all we have for today. If you have any thoughts on the show, or pop culture references we should have included, reach out to us at, or comment on our website

It’s poll time!

Recently we asked our Patrons about coffee, “Hot or Cold?”.

The overwhelming response was hot, but most of our Patrons were good with cold, and some even prefer it in certain situations.

Hot only for me. Usually black, but if it's government coffee I'll add a non-sugar sweet something like splenda. If I’m going to drink something cold, I’ll go with tea.

JGP likes them both,

I voted for hot coffee, but it's weather dependent - in the winter hot coffee is great, but in the summer, iced coffee can be better.
End Quote

Jan was pretty good either way as well,

I like them both equally, but either way I like a little coffee with my cream (and stevia).
End Quote

I agree, the correct answer here is simple:

Yes. Yes, I would like the coffee.

I voted for hot coffee because I drink it the most, almost everyday. Cold brew can be delicious but I'm pickier about it so don't do it as often. I enjoy pretty much all things coffee. Well, not super weak coffee...
Fave/go-to: quad latte made with coconut milk + 1 tsp brown sugar.

As a reminder, our silly polls mean absolutely nothing and are not scientifically valid. But Patrons of all levels get to take part. Head over to to take this week’s poll!


Thanks for joining us. We’ll talk to you again next week. Until then remember,

Words belong to their users.

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