The Dog in the Manger

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Dog in the Manger is a fable attributed to Aesop, concerning a dog who one afternoon lay down to sleep in the manger. On being awoken, he ferociously kept the cattle in the farm from eating the hay on which he chose to sleep, even though he was unable to eat it himself, leading an ox to mutter the moral of the fable:

People often begrudge others what they cannot enjoy themselves.

The phrase is proverbial, referring to people who spitefully prevent others from having something that they themselves have no use for. A typical example is the child who discards a toy — until a sibling tries to play with it. Then the first child becomes possessive about something he no longer wanted.

The Dog in the Manger, illustrated by Milo Winter in a 1919 Aesop anthology


The metaphor is attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas where he compares Pharisees to a sleeping dog. In logion 102 Jesus says:

Woe to them, the Pharisees! For they are like a dog sleeping in the manger of the cattle; for he neither eats, nor does he let the cattle eat.

There is a similarity here with Jesus’ criticisms of the Pharisees in the canonical Gospel of Matthew (Mat. 23:13):

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.”


Lucian (c. A.D. 125 – after A.D. 180) refers to the fable twice, apparently as familiar to his readers. In his Remarks addressed to an illiterate book-fancier he writes:

“Not that you ever have lent any one a single volume; true to your dog-in-the-manger principles, you neither eat the corn yourself, nor give the horse a chance.”[1]

In his play Timon Lucian has Zeus speak to Plutus (god of wealth) about the way misers hoard him (wealth) without benefiting from him:

“They were perfectly ridiculous, you know, loving you to distraction, but not daring to enjoy you when they might; you were in their power, yet they could not give the reins to their passion; they kept awake watching you with their eyes glued to bolt and seal; the enjoyment that satisfied them was not to enjoy you themselves, but to prevent others’ enjoying you–true dogs in the manger.”[2]

Literary references

In Spanish, the story is called El Perro del Hortelano, or ‘The Vegetable Gardener’s Dog’. A play by Spaniard Lope de Vega with this title deals with the emotional complications of class conflict. The haughty countess Diana rejects her many aristocratic suitors and falls in love instead with her handsome young secretary, Teodoro, the lover of her maid. Unwilling to let the couple marry, she is also unwilling to marry him herself. There is also a Spanish film based on the play released in 1996; an earlier TV adaptation made in Russia in 1977 (Sobaka na sene) carried the same title in the USA.[3]

Emily Bronte‘s Wuthering Heights alludes to this fable during an argument between Catherine Linton and Isabella Linton over Isabella’s love for Heathcliff.

In Villette, by Charlotte Bronte, Madame Beck tells the heroine Lucy Snowe that M. Emmanuel must not marry her. Lucy retorts, “Dog in a Manger!” She believes Madame Beck herself wanted to marry M. Emmanuel but could not as he had no interest in her.


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