I've used the phrase "runs like a dog" to mean that my car is on its last legs and can't, sometimes, run anywhere near as fast as a dog can.

Can anyone shed light on where this meaning of the phrase came from?

The Google NGram viewer says that "work like a dog" is much more common.


3 Answers 3


According to the Online Slang Dictionary, one slang definition of dog is "something of poor quality or a poor performer."

It's sometimes used to refer specifically to a car of poor quality, as in The Dog and Lemon Guide. So to say a car runs like a dog means it runs like a bad car, in the same vein as "My car runs like a lemon" or "My car runs like a clunker."

  • Adding to what @Nicole says, there seems to be an underlying meaning of 'useless' or 'of poor quality' (e.g. dog-rose - a pretty wild rose that has no scent). English used to call dogs 'hounds', but (I'm guessing here) 'hound' became specialized to mean 'hunting hound' (based in high-status houses) while any other hound was more-or-less useless. Commented Mar 26, 2015 at 14:31
  • 3
    @Nicole- (No "runs like".) "My car IS a lemon," - My car was badly manufactured; things are constantly breaking down, falling off, or being recalled. (This is usually said about a newer car that shouldn't be having problems yet.) "My car IS a clunker," - The manufacturing process is no longer called into question; the car is older than you are and its issues, while troublesome, are expected.
    – Oldbag
    Commented Mar 26, 2015 at 16:35
  • Apologies that it's taken so long to give the tick! :-)
    – Peter K.
    Commented Feb 4, 2016 at 15:42
  • No worries! I've actually been away from the site for several months, so I when I saw the notification, I didn't even know how long ago I'd posted it.
    – Nicole
    Commented Mar 23, 2016 at 15:52

I'm also familiar with the phrase, "She's a dog," to describe a car or truck that has lost it's 'get up and go'. I don't think it refers so much to running speed, (some dogs are known for speed) as the fact that it doesn't always respond when you expect it to, i.e., when you step on the gas. Like when you say, "Here, doggie," and the doggie glances over at you and then goes back to his sniffing, or napping, or whatever.


“Dog” is derived from “doggie” that is a 1880s Western cowboy parlance used to describe calves as they get herded down the trail.

Calves tend to be slower in the herd so these subpopulation of the herd runs slower much to the exasperation of the backline cowboys into saying “git along doggies”.

Hence, the morphology of “Runs like a dog” began around the beginning of automobile era which typically then had a maximum speed of 8mph.


  • Note that the spelling used in all of the references you cite is "dogie" (one g) not "doggie" (two).
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Jan 20, 2022 at 20:56

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