What Does Let Sleeping Dogs Lie Mean?

Has someone ever told you to “let sleeping dogs lie”? Did you look around and think, Hmmm, there aren’t any sleeping dogs here! What on earth do they mean?! If so, that’s completely understandable. This expression is a typical idiom: It has a figurative meaning that can be difficult to, well, figure out just by looking at the words that comprise it. You simply must know its intended meaning to make sense of the phrase. So, let’s get to it and discover the definition of let sleeping dogs lie.

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What Does Let Sleeping Dogs Lie Mean?

Although the expression originally did have to do with furry canines (more below), that’s no longer the case. When you hear or see it used today, it means “to ignore a situation or problem, because interfering could make the situation or problem worse.” In other words, it’s used when a situation or problem is relatively stable or peaceful, and when that peace or stability could be easily disturbed and disrupted. In particular, it is often used to indicate that someone shouldn’t bring up a bad situation or difficult issue from the past that has already been forgotten about or moved on from. Another way to think of this phrase is as a warning not to stir up or instigate trouble; it’s a suggestion to leave things alone. 

Here are some example sentences using the phrase let sleeping dogs lie:

  • Sometimes I really wish my husband would just let sleeping dogs lie! Every time I think we’ve resolved a fight, he can’t let it go and we end up fighting about it all over again a few days later. 
  • My boss and I usually don’t get along, but this week, things have been calm in the office. I wanted to bring up some concerns I have about the job while things were going well, but then I thought it better to let sleeping dogs lie and keep the peace. 
  • I hadn’t seen my mom in many years after a big disagreement. We recently spent some time together, and it was nice to let sleeping dogs lie and not talk about the past. I feel like we have a fresh start now, and that makes me happy. 
  • Everyone loved my potluck contribution. The dishes were all supposed to be homemade, but I was running late and picked mine up at the store. My mom always told me, “Let sleeping dogs lie,” so I just thanked people when they complimented my cooking and tried not to cause any drama. 
  • The pandemic has my boyfriend and I arguing a lot about safety precautions. Next time he brings up COVID-19, I’m going to keep quiet and let sleeping dogs lie.

The Etymology of the Expression

As mentioned above, the phrase did originate from the idea of not bothering a dog when they are sleeping—most likely a watchdog, in particular. Think about it: What would happen if you roused a dangerous watchdog, trained to attack a stranger or intruder, from their slumber? You’d probably get bitten! Even if the dog knew you, if they were asleep and had to get up quickly, they’d act fast without thinking. The same could be said for any dog in general: That they may startle easily if disturbed while asleep and react in a way that could be harmful to you.

It’s thought the expression has been in use since the 1300s. Though, some point to a verse in the Old Testament, in the book of Proverbs, as the phrase’s ancient origin. It says: “He that passeth by, and meddleth with strife belonging not to him, is like one that taketh a dog by the ears.” Although the line doesn’t mention a sleeping dog, the sentiment is much the same: Stirring up trouble when you shouldn’t will likely get you bitten—literally and metaphorically. 

Geoffrey Chaucer used a similar expression in his epic poem Troilus and Criseyde, likely completed around 1380, writing: “It is nought good a sleeping hound to wake.” The poem was written in Middle English, the form of British English spoken and written in England from about 1100 to 1500; it featured many French words. Speaking of French, the phrase is reportedly recorded in this language earlier in the 14th century, in Proverbia Vulgalia et Latina as “ne reveillez pas le chien qui dort,” which translates to “do not wake the dog that sleeps” or “do not wake the sleeping dog.” Because of this reference, language experts believe the expression could have derived from the Latin phrase “quieta non movere,” which means something to the effect of “don’t move things that are settled.”

The phrase was popular enough in the 1500s that a version of it made its way into a 16th century collection of proverbs, A Dialogue Prouerbes English Tongue, by John Heywood. Supposedly, the saying was a favorite of the politician regarded as the first prime minister of Great Britain, Sir Robert Walpole. While it doesn’t seem to exist in any of his published writings, he’s reported to have said and loved it so much that legend even credits him with the proverb’s creation, although that certainly doesn’t appear true.

It’s possible the current form of the proverb used in the English language first appeared in Sir Walter Scott’s 1824 novel Redgauntlet:

“Take my advice, and spear as little about him as he does about you. Best to let sleeping dogs lie.”

What Are Idioms and Proverbs?

Let sleeping dogs lie is considered both an idiom and a proverb. An idiom is an expression with an intended meaning that typically can’t fully be understood just by looking at the individual words that comprise it. Even if you’ve never heard the term idiom, you have most likely heard many idiomatic expressions. Here are just a few of the most common idioms used today:

You’re in hot water.
His boss gave him the ax.
It’s time to face the music.
You’ve hit the nail on the head.

If you took the first example literally, you’d think it was describing a person standing in a bathtub full of hot water, perhaps. But the expression is actually used to describe a person who’s in trouble. Likewise, rather than literally being handed a tool for chopping wood, if you get the ax from your boss, it means you’re getting fired. It’s time to face the music means that it’s time to come to terms with the consequences of your actions. And when someone has hit the nail on the head, they’ve gotten an answer exactly right or done something exactly as it should have been done.

As mentioned at the start of this article, if you were to try and understand let sleeping dogs lie literally, you might think it meant to actually let a sleeping dog lie down and start or continue a snooze fest. Or, you might be really confused and wonder why and how a sleeping dog could and would tell a lie in the first place—much less why you should keep letting it participate in the act of deception! As you now know, the expression is used metaphorically, to mean one should let a situation be and not stir up or cause trouble in any way.

A proverb is a short, common phrase or saying that imparts advice or shares a universal truth. In this case, the saying shares the wisdom to let things go and leave them be in order to keep the peace. Synonyms of the term proverb include adage, aphorism, and maxim. Here are some additional examples of well-known proverbs:

Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
Blood is thicker than water.
A picture is worth a thousand words.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Discover many more idioms and proverbs here.

Similar Sayings

There’s a popular similar, albeit more contemporary and colloquial, proverbial saying that basically expresses the same thing as let sleeping dogs lie, and that’s the expression if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. This phrase is used to say there’s no sense in trying to change (i.e., fix) something that’s already working or going well. Why? Doing so could bring about trouble that didn’t exist before!

There are also two other very similar expressions that involve animals: Don’t poke the bear and don’t poke the dragon. What would happen if you poked a bear or dragon, especially if they were asleep? Just as if you disturbed a sleeping dog, you’d probably get hurt. In other words, you’d cause trouble when you didn’t need to and where there wasn’t any to begin with. Still yet other similar sayings include leave well enough alone; don’t trouble trouble till trouble troubles you; and don’t rock the boat. An idioms dictionary can share more about these and other idiom synonyms. A traditional thesaurus can offer additional synonym suggestions.

Summary

The meaning of the phrase let sleeping dogs lie is “to leave a situation as it is and not to interfere, when doing so could make a problem or cause trouble.” It’s used when things are stable and peaceful but could potentially be made unstable or chaotic if they aren’t left alone as they are. Similar expressions include if it ain’t broke don’t fix it and don’t rock the boat.