Barking Up The Wrong Tree


If someone is “barking up the wrong tree,” it means they are making a wrong assumption about someone or something.

Example: I was itching for a snack and the soft chocolate chip cookies in the cupboard were just what the doctor ordered. I poured a glass of milk in preparation, but then I found out the cookies were gone! I thought my son was responsible, but I soon learned that I was barking up the wrong tree; it was actually my wife.

In other words, I jumped to conclusions and wrongly accused my son of something he didn’t do.

Synonyms / Related Phrases:
off base, jumping to conclusions
A dog barking up the wrong tree.
Silly dog, it’s the other tree!

The Origin of ‘Barking Up The Wrong Tree’

The origin of this phrase is believed to be rooted in dogs and hunting. Let’s see why that is:

Dogs are sometimes used in hunting because of their strong sense of smell, their ability to chase and track other animals, and they add a bit of extra security for the hunter.

If a dog spots another animal while out hunting in the wild, a chase could ensue. During the chase, the fleeing animal might decide to climb a tree (assuming its capable) in order to escape it’s barking pursuer.

Dogs cannot climb trees, so instead of going up after it, they will remain at the bottom and bark, which indicates to the hunter where the fleeing animal is hiding. Of course, it’s possible for the dog to make a mistake and choose the wrong tree. Thus, he would literally be “barking up the wrong tree,” like in the picture above.

But how does an error like that happen? I’m no hunter, but it could be that during the chase, the dog loses sight of the animal its after for a moment. He might hear it climbing a tree nearby, but because the dog lacks vision, he makes an inaccurate call and picks the wrong tree. Whoops!

Anyways, this idiom goes back to at least the early to mid-19th century. Its earliest appearance in print that I could find is from the Knickerbocker Magazine, 1836:

‚Äč”You’ve been barking up the wrong tree, cried the Ohioan.”

Examples Sentences for ‘Barking Up The Wrong Tree’

  1. Jason was barking up the wrong tree when he accused me of eating the last cookie in the jar.
  2. After investigating the crime rates in my neighborhood, I barked up the wrong tree when I claimed they had gotten better.

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