Why we're in the dog box

Exploring the Shand Park dog exercise area at Green Island yesterday are golden retriever Mila (20 months) and her labrador friend Chloe (3 months). Labradors and retrievers are two of the most popular dog breeds registered in Dunedin. Photo: Gregor Richa
What does going to the dogs really mean? Photo: ODT files
The proposed first sentence of this column got banged into my keyboard two months ago. But I'd been diverted and hadn't taken it further.

"The country is going to the dogs," I pronounced.

Fair enough, I thought, when I reopened the laptop, and found the thought awaiting me. You can't go far wrong starting a column with something as baldly negative as "we're going to the dogs." But what or who was I planning to blame, and then bury in righteous wrath?

I saw I'd also written a note to remind myself that when our PM made her maiden speech to Parliament she stated: "Some people ask me whether I'm a radical. My answer to that is very simple - I am from Morrinsville."

This revelation may puzzle and bemuse, or make us want to visit the Morrinsville Museum. Ms Ardern has since become the Mistress of Evasion - she offers few straight answers - but nonetheless, if I apply the principles of rational reasoning to her Morrinsville Declaration, I can find no sound basis for stating that the country is going to the dogs. And it's well known that the cows of Morrinsville are beyond reproach.

A lot of water had passed under the bridge in two months, and frankly, much as I tried, I couldn't remember why we were going to the dogs. Maybe I'd simply planned to write in praise of spaniels and golden retrievers?

It is at this stage Wit's End should note he was under the influence of opiates when he typed what actually read: "Hhe cointrya s goong to the dogs." I'd been pumped full of the stuff when enduring some spotty days while undergoing recent treatment, and at first the drug played interesting mind games.

I wrote a column that solved the entire Brexit crisis with an elegance that was breathtaking. The next morning I was taken to the Queen and knighted. (I'm serious). Then I woke up.

Next, I was up before the full bench of the High Court on charges that seemed ludicrous.

"How plead you?" asked a bloke in a wig. I gave the judges the ticking off they deserved. "And if you chaps don't get a hurry on, I'm going to be sick over your carpet," I warned them.

("You've just rung your alarm buzzer. What's wrong?" asked the nurse who'd scurried in while I dealt with the judges. Oops.)

Well that's in the past, and I'm back at my computer screen today staring at: "The country is going to the dogs." When I scratched my head, it suggested an obvious question: "Why not start by asking yourself how the phrase `going to the dogs' originated?"

The answer seems clear. There are many who are not in favour of dog racing for reasons of snobbery, intellect, or belief in the rights of rabbits. If racing horses is the sport of kings, then greyhound racing is the sport of nightclub bouncers. Could sane people enjoy a night out watching the world's ugliest dogs chase a mechanical rabbit? If so, why not have cats galloping after a clockwork mouse? Or mice rolling cheeses?

I went to the wise men of the internet to check that I was correct in thinking the metaphor suggested the country was off to the greyhounds. And found I was wrong.

A website called The Phrase Finder said "gone to the dogs" was in use long before any form of dog racing that required a mechanical hare. The phrase had been used in the 18th century as a metaphor linked to rotting meat. When meat was too far gone for sausages, vindaloos, or the poorhouse, it went to the dogs.

An expert called Bowen disagreed. He looked to the Orient and observed that because dogs weren't kept as pets in ancient China, they were banned from towns, and hung about outside the city walls. They were a mangy, vicious lot, so when outcasts or criminals were ejected from town they were "sent to the dogs".

But enough of my etymological dithering. What could I have meant? As I write, it is a perfect autumn afternoon. Looking out my front window, I see The Remarkables in the distance, and in the foreground, they're playing the 100th NZ Open. At the picturesque Millbrook Oval, cricketers bat in traditional whites.

Amid all this calm perfection, could the country possibly be going to the dogs?

Forced to respond to the question I've spent an entire column trying to avoid, the answer is actually "yes". And "yes" is dictated by the response to just one humdrum but pertinent question: "Are we leaving a better country for our children?"

I think you know the truth.

 - John Lapsley is an Arrowtown writer.


'Going dog' is when people lose all civility and descend to abuse. In extremis, things 'got dog' if they hit each other.

The outcome of going dog is shock and estrangement.

'Get 'em, Rover!' is simply a farmer's call when dealing with trespassers.