What Does Tail Wagging The Dog Mean?

Tail Wagging the Dog Meaning

Definition: Something small or not powerful controlling something big or powerful.

Origin of Tail Wagging the Dog

This expression first appeared in the 1800s. Obviously, it comes from the idea that a dog wags its tail when it’s happy. Sometimes, a dog will be wagging its tail so much that it makes the dog’s entire body move, as if the tail is actually wagging the dog.

It is unclear exactly where this phrase originated, but all of the earliest uses of it appear in U.S. writing, indicating an American origin. There doesn’t appear to be any one instance or event that led to this phrase being coined.

People use this expression to show a reversal of the normal role: a case when a component controls the whole.

Examples of Tail Wagging the Dog

tail wags the dog Here is an example that involves two college students discussing the first day of their new classes.

Robin: How was your class today?

Harry: Not great. I think I’m going to drop this class and take a different one.

Robin: Why? What happened?

Harry: The class was all about Chinese history and modern culture. I wanted to take it for easy credit, since I grew up in China.

Robin: So? What was wrong about it?

Harry: The teacher kept making mistakes about China! I had to correct him several times. I felt like it was a case of the tail wagging the dog. I didn’t come to college as a student in order to teach the professors!

Robin: Yeah, that’s pretty bad.

the tail that wags the dog In this dialogue, two coworkers are discussing a new policy at their workplace.

Mal: Did you hear the new rule about lunch?

Xiomara: I heard that we aren’t allowed to bring peanut butter, peanuts, or anything with peanut as an ingredient. Is it true?

Mal: Unfortunately, yes.

Xiomara: That’s ridiculous! Just because one employee has a peanut allergy, none of us can enjoy peanuts in the office anymore. This tail-wagging-the-dog nonsense has to stop.

Mal: Normally, I’d agree with you. It doesn’t make sense for the whole company to change for just one person, usually. However, I’m pretty sure Janet could die if she breathes in peanut particles.

Xiomara: I guess in this case it’s necessary.

More Examples

This excerpt is from an article about the behavior of student athletes.

  • We believe, looking at all of the factors including the students’ interest, the universities’ interest and not necessarily the coaches’ interest — this is not the tail wagging the dog — this is about getting it right, getting it right in a number of sets of circumstances. –USA Today

This excerpt is about directors making 3-D movies at the expense of the overall quality of the movie.

  • “For a while, 3-D was the tail wagging the dog. Studios thought that if you slapped 3-D on it, you’d have a hit,” Bock says. “Studios were chasing dollars that really weren’t there. Now they’re looking for the right 3-D framework.” –USA Today


The idiom tail wagging the dog is a way to describe a small component of a whole dominating the whole.