Q From Christopher Greaves: I’m doing a series of dog-and-pony shows (come and check out our new training courses in a FREE 3-hour demo ...) and was wondering about the origins of this expression. I’ve heard it only in the context of software demos, but there again, that’s the world in which I am immersed.
A These days, your meaning of the phrase is the usual one: an elaborate briefing or visual presentation, usually for promotional purposes. Writers in recent decades have applied dog and pony show pejoratively to military briefings, political speeches and photo opportunities as well as to sales pitches.
To find the origin, we have to go back to the small towns of the middle west of the USA at the end of the nineteenth century. From the 1880s, reports start to appear in local newspapers of the arrival by rail of small travelling troupes of performers billed without any hint of sarcasm as “dog and pony shows”. The earliest example I know of:
The dog and pony show of Prof. Morris drew big houses at the matinee and at the evening performance yesterday. All who went, old and young, seemed delighted.
Omaha Daily Bee (Nebraska), 23 Sep. 1885.
The most famous was that run by “Professor” Gentry (actually four brothers), but many others existed, including those of Sipe & Dolman, the Harper Brothers, Stull & Miller, and the Norris Brothers. They were in truth small circuses, many of them running on a shoestring, with no more than a band and a ringmaster in addition to the animal acts, which did consist only of dogs and ponies. The Gentry operation was bigger than its rivals and around 1894 it had some 40 ponies and 80 dogs in each of two troupes (later it would grow into a full-scale circus).
This later description gives something of the atmosphere:
Arrived upon the populous and festive scene of the Dog and Pony Show, he first turned his attention to the brightly decorated booths which surrounded the tent. The cries of the peanut vendors, of the popcorn men, of the toy-balloon sellers, the stirring music of the band, playing before the performance to attract a crowd, the shouting of excited children and the barking of the dogs within the tent, all sounded exhilaratingly in Penrod’s ears and set his blood a-tingle.
Penrod, by Booth Tarkington, 1914.
The term dog-and-pony show later came to be used dismissively of any small-scale or mom-and-pop operation, in the same way that dog and pony shows were thought to be cut-down versions of “proper” circuses, with their limited repertoire (the idiom one-trick pony comes from them, too):
The published record presents a picture of the latest performance in one ring of the American broadcasting circus. The institute is not a Ringling Brothers production in its own chosen subject field, but it is not an itinerant dog and pony show either.
The Survey, published by Survey Associates, the Charity Organization Society of the City of New York, 1940.
However, the literal term continued in use in parallel with it right through into the 1950s; it was sometimes the name for one part of a larger circus, perhaps designed as a sideshow for the children, who were allowed to ride the ponies and pet the dogs.
It was in the 1960s that the term began to appear in print as a metaphor for some event that was more pizzazz than substance, like the tinsel and glitter of a circus ring. An early example of this figurative sense:
Mr. Ally said his agency does not do speculative presentations either. They will sit down with a prospective client, however, and talk about the agency and the client’s problems. “But the dog and pony show we will not do.”
New York Times, 4 Oct. 1967.
The pejorative sense was almost certainly helped along by the implication that participants were like the performing animals at a circus; it’s likely that the idiom putting on dog also had some influence on its popularity.