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To mean working hard?

Dogs just lie around and nap. That's not working hard...

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It's been a hard day's night. I've been working like a dog. I should be eating like a hog. I should be sleeping like a log. –  Blessed Geek Mar 28 '12 at 2:41
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As far as I know, dogs just lie around and nap because they work like dogs all day –  Jim Mar 28 '12 at 3:27
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When it comes to just lying around and napping, dogs aren't even in the running. Bad idiom there - actually dogs are the ones energetically running around, while cats stick to the important things, such as lying around and napping. –  FumbleFingers Mar 28 '12 at 3:42
    
In addition to the herding dogs explanation, could it also come from Turnspit dogs, which were bred to spend their day running on a wheel? (sorry, I don't have enough reputation to create an answer) –  Gromix Apr 29 '13 at 0:31
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2 Answers

up vote 10 down vote accepted

"Sheepdogs" are definitely a reason. This link here, also offers another explanation:

In olden days, the two sawyers who worked on a tree sawing planks were the top-dog and the under-dog. A dog in those days was a manual worker. (Emphasis mine)

Perhaps the expression could also have come from a comparison with a "manual worker".

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Those two links are actually the same link. :) –  Bidella Mar 28 '12 at 3:18
    
The "top-dog / underdog" sense sounds pretty convincing to me. Notice that we never say "it's a hound's life" or "work like a hound", even though hound is the "original" word for dog, but we do say "work like a slave". –  Pitarou Jun 6 '12 at 0:44
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I believe the term comes from herding dogs. I'm not a farmer, but from what I hear they work their little canine tails off to help with the herding.

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protected by RegDwigнt Jun 6 '12 at 14:42

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