Fact Check

Mistaken Dog

A hilarious tale about a badly behaved dog.

Published Dec 5, 2002


Claim:   A badly behaved dog wreaks havoc while two fellows stand by silently, each thinking it's the other guy's pooch.



[Brunvand, 1989]

A woman is invited to call at the home of a woman who is wealthier than she is. From the moment she is invited, the caller is unsure about how to behave — how to sit, how to take tea, etc. And matters are made worse when the time of the visit arrives. A large, lively, dirty, beast of a dog is sitting in the front yard, and when the hostess welcomes the caller into the house, the dog follows her inside. While the caller tries to respect the social amenities, that darn dog does not. It tracks mud about the room, sniffs the cookies, and paws the furniture. The caller makes small talk, but the conversation becomes strained. Still, both parties keep a stiff upper lip, observing proper etiquette.

Finally, the visit comes to an end. As the caller rises to leave, the hostess, with one eye on the wreckage, remarks icily, "And don't forget to take your dog!"

"My dog?" the caller says. "I thought it was yours!"

[Regis, 1987]

In January 1946 Bigelow came down to Princeton for an interview with Von Neumann. He was a couple of hours late . . . Julian Bigelow got out of the car and walked up to the house.

"Von Neumann lived in this elegant lodge house on Westcott Road in Princeton," Bigelow says. "As I parked my car and walked in, there was this very large Great Dane dog bouncing around on the front lawn. I knocked on the door and Von Neumann, who was a small, quiet, modest kind of a man came to the door and bowed to me and said, 'Bigelow, won't you come in,' and so forth, and this dog brushed between our legs and went into the living room. He proceeded to lie down on the rug in front of everybody, and we had the entire interview — whether I would come, what I knew, what the job was going to be like — and this lasted maybe forty minutes, with the dog wandering all around the house. Towards the end of it, von Neumann asked me if I always traveled with the dog. But of course it wasn't my dog, and it wasn't his either, but von Neumann — being a diplomatic, middle European type person — he kindly avoided mentioning it until the end."

[Mahoney, 1983]

In passing I must make mention of a funny situation in which I became involved while visiting Field Marshal Lord Alexander and his wife at their home near London. I motored there to have luncheon with them, and as I emerged from my car, a huge dog appeared in the driveway. Dogs always made a dead set for me, and I wasn't worried when it began jumping around and wagging its tail. But I did feel some concern when it followed me to the doorway and walked in as if it owned the house.

A family pet, I felt sure, as it settled down to a corner of the living room as Lord and Lady Alexander greeted me warmly. At luncheon the dog settled down at my feet and the begging for food began. Lady Alexander's attention became riveted upon me:

"Mr. Mahoney," she said charmingly, "I wish you would send your dog outside."

And not until then did it dawn upon me that they thought the stray dog was mine!


Origins:   Though this story has often been told as an actual event in an important person's life, its first appearance came in a 1924 Lucy Maud Montgomery book, Emily Climbs. In Chapter

Cartoon of the legend

12, Emily's call on socially-superior Miss Janet Royal is interrupted by the antics of a very large muddy dog that follows her into the elegant parlor, where it proceeds to act up. True to the legend, only after the beast has made a shambles of things and Emily is about to leave does the subject of the dog's ownership arise, each girl thinking up until that time the horrid thing belonged to the other.

From those early beginnings, the "Not my dog" anecdote has gone on to reach a succession of new audiences, as new storytellers emerge and claim it as their own. Burt Reynolds is rumored to have told this story (starring himself as the embarrassed visitor) to Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show in the 1980s.

A common element in this story is unequal status between visitor and visited. The one who comes calling feels inferior for reasons relating to social standing, comparative wealth, or the celebrated householder's achievements. Whatever the cause, he comes hat in hand, filled with a determination to make a good impression — a certain recipe for social disaster! The story is one of horrific embarrassment; the faux pas being perceived as being that much more flamboyant because it plays out before someone looked up to. That matters are straightened out before the visit ends by the caller blurting out, "My dog? I thought he was yours!" doesn't change the

momentary flash of mortification experienced or the knowledge that the sought-after host had sat there for quite a while thinking decidedly evil thoughts about his guest.

The story is also a poke at the strictures of etiquette. Neither host nor guest feels it would be proper to comment negatively on the dog's behavior, so both endure the worsening state of affairs in stoic silence. The legend underscores common misperceptions about etiquette, that the rules of polite behavior are often impractical and adherence to them results in ridiculous situations a more direct approach would head off at the pass. Those who resent the genteelly-voiced demands of Miss Manners and long for less structured, more direct forms of social interaction get to savor a moment of self-congratulation through this story because it proves right what they've been saying all along.

As old as this story is (1924, remember?) it continues to pop up, and even at times changes in dramatic ways. We picked up the following non-canine version of the tale during our Internet travels, again proving that no story can't stand a little improving:

[Collected on the Internet, 2002]

The story goes along the lines of a young Indo-asian couple who after a non-arranged marriage, decide to get a house together.

A few weeks after they move in, the husband returns from work to find an older woman in the living room of the house.

Knowing they have broken with tradition by having a non-arranged marriage, the husband greets his mother-in-law, only to receive a hard silent stare. She is evidently not happy at their recent union.

That evening the old woman joins the couple at the dinner table, and continues to join them for every meal for the next month, never uttering a word.

Eventually the once-close couple become hostile to one another, unhappy that 'Mother' has been allowed to move in with them. They stop talking and avoid one another.

A few days later the situation escalates into an argument about the old woman. The creepy truth is revealed as the wife exclaims "My mother? I thought she was yours!"

Barbara "vinegar mother" Mikkelson

Last updated:   2 August 2011


    Brunvand, Jan Harold.   Curses! Broiled Again!

    New York: W. W. Norton, 1989.   ISBN 0-393-30711-5   (pp. 146-148).

    Brunvand, Jan Harold.   Too Good To Be True.

    New York: W. W. Norton, 1999.   ISBN 0-393-04734-2   (pp. 55-57).

    Mahoney, Patrick.   Barbed Wit & Malicious Humor.

    New York: Citadel Press, 1956.   (p. 100).

    Regis, Edward.   Who Got Einstein's Office?

    Reading, Mass: Addison-Wesley, 1987   (p. 110).

Also told in:

    Braude, Jacob M.   Complete Speaker's and Toastmaster's Library: Human Interest Stories.

    Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1965   (p. 19).

    Healey, Phil and Rick Glanvill.   Now! That's What I Call Urban Myths.

    London: Virgin Books, 1996.   ISBN 0-86369-969-3   (pp. 105-106).

    The Big Book of Urban Legends.

    New York: Paradox Press, 1994.   ISBN 1-56389-165-4   (p. 39).

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