'Let Sleeping Dogs Lie’: Definition, Meaning, Examples

By Carly Forsaith, updated on September 25, 2023

Have you ever wondered what it means when people say, 'Let sleeping dogs lie'? If you want to know how to use it yourself, you've come to the right place. This article will teach you what it means and how to use it.

To start us off, here's the short version:

  • To 'let sleeping dogs lie' is to avoid potentially aggravating a situation by leaving it as it is instead of meddling with it.

What Does 'Let Sleeping Dogs Lie' Mean?

The idiom "let sleeping dogs lie" is an expression that advises against disturbing a situation or issue that is currently calm or stable, even if it may have underlying problems or conflicts. In other words, it suggests leaving things as they are to avoid potential trouble or complications.

It is an idiom, which means we shouldn't interpret it literally, although, like many idioms, understanding the literal meaning can help you understand the intended symbolic meaning. In this case, we can picture two scenarios: one where a dog is sleeping—a very peaceful scenario—and one when a dog has been woken up—a much less peaceful one, especially if we imagine it's a guard dog.

Let's pretend, for instance, that you have a beef with your friend's ex because he broke up with her by text, and you want to confront him about it.

Your friend might say:

Don't worry about it, I'm over it. And you might stir up more trouble; it's best to let sleeping dogs lie.

The expression is usually preceded with phrases like 'you should,' it's best to,' or 'better to.'

Where Does 'Let Sleeping Dogs Lie' Come From?

This idiom can be traced back to the early 18th century in various forms of literature. The phrase "let sleeping dogs lie" is believed to have been used metaphorically as a cautionary statement during this time. The exact source or authorship of the saying is unclear, but it appeared in the English idiomatic language in the 18th century.

Sleeping Guard Dogs

It likely draws its inspiration from the idea that if you awaken a sleeping dog, it might become agitated, bark, or even bite, leading to unnecessary trouble or conflict. So, 'let sleeping dogs lie' is a metaphorical way of saying that it's often wiser to avoid stirring up old issues or controversies, especially when doing so may lead to more problems than solutions.

  • The theory that the idiom "let sleeping dogs lie" may have originated from the idea of not waking up a watchdog is an interesting interpretation.
  • Still, it's important to note that the exact origin of idioms can be challenging to pinpoint with absolute certainty.

This theory suggests a literal and practical basis for the idiom. While it makes sense in the context of the phrase's meaning, there isn't substantial historical evidence to support it.

Geoffrey Chaucer

It's been suggested that Geoffrey Chaucer coined the phrase in his poem Troilus and Criseyde, published in the mid-1380s, where he says:

It is nought good a slepyng hound to wake.
Ne is no folk devyn, by myn heed,

That lest awey-ward janglerie it make,
For he that so dooth, he shall be deed,
And namely in his necligence and reed.
It is ful greet wisdom, a man to kepe
Hys tonge til that he may his tyme see. 

But his casual use of the expression shows he expected his readers to understand what it meant, suggesting it was already a commonly used idiom.

Chaucer's usage in "Troilus and Criseyde" is a notable historical reference to a similar concept. Still, the idiom "let sleeping dogs lie" likely has a more complex and gradual origin that involves contributions from various sources and contexts over time.

Examples in Sentences

Now we've covered the meaning of this popular idiom and its possible origins, let's take a look at how it's used in real-life scenarios by way of a few examples.

I know you have some grievances with your colleague, but if you want to maintain a good rapport, it's best to let sleeping dogs lie and focus on your work.

After their argument, they decided to let sleeping dogs lie and not bring up the issue again.

She discovered some old family secrets but chose to let sleeping dogs lie and not dive further into the past.

Instead of bringing the issue up in front of the school board, he decided to let sleeping dogs lie and hope that it would resolve itself over time.

The political candidate chose not to bring up the scandal, deciding it was better to let sleeping dogs lie during the campaign.

They had a disagreement, but they both agreed to let sleeping dogs lie and maintain their friendship.

They found evidence of wrongdoing and decided not to let sleeping dogs lie and proceed with legal action.

It's tempting to reopen the investigation, but sometimes it's wiser to let sleeping dogs lie and move forward.

I know you think I should let sleeping dogs lie but I did not ask for your input.

She felt like bringing up an old argument in their relationship but decided to let sleeping dogs lie and not bring it up again to avoid unnecessary tension. 

Other Ways to Say 'Let Sleeping Dogs Lie'

With English being such a rich language, there's always more than one way to say something. 'Let sleeping dogs lie is no different.'

Here are just some of the other ways you can say it:

  • Let it go
  • Let it be
  • Let it fly
  • Let someone off the hook
  • Let nature take its course
  • Leave well alone
  • If it ain't broke, don't fix it
  • Bury the hatchet

Concluding Thoughts

So there you have it. If you ever want to advise someone not to interfere with a situation or bring up old matters so that they can avoid making things worse, you can tell them to 'let sleeping dogs lie.'

Are you ready to learn more English phrases and expand your vocabulary? Check out our idioms blog for idioms, expressions, sayings, and more!   

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Written By:
Carly Forsaith
Carly Forsaith is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Carly is a copywriter who has been writing about the English language for over 3 years. Before that, she was a teacher in Thailand, helping people learn English as a second language. She is a total grammar nerd and spends her time spotting language errors on signs and on the internet.

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