Why We Say “Sic ’em” to Get Dogs to Attack

Kiaan D. asks: Why do you say “sic him” to dogs when you want them to attack someone?

attacking-dogPeople have been telling dogs to “sic ’em,” with the intent to have the dog attack individual(s), since at least the nineteenth century. While this may seem odd given common modern definitions for “sick” or the variant “sic,” at the time this command popped up, it made perfect sense.

“Sick,” in this context, had nothing to do with the word meaning “ill,” but rather was simply a dialectal variant of “seek,” which used to sometimes carry the connotation of seeking with the intent to attack. (This sense of the word “seek” was used as far back as around AD 1000 in the work, Beowulf.)

The first known instance of someone instructing a dog to attack someone using this “sick” command occurred in Johnson J. Hooper’s 1845 Adventures of Capt. Simon Suggs:

You may well say that: what I tells them to do they do—and if I was to sick them on your old hoss yonder, they’d eat him up afore you could say Jack Roberson. And it’s jist what I shall do, if you try to pry into my consarns…

And later in that same work,

“Here, Bull!” shouted the widow, “sick him, Pomp!” but we cantered off, unwounded, fortunately, by the fangs of Bull and Pomp, who kept up the chase as long as they could hear the cheering voice of their mistress—“Si-c-k, Pomp—sick, sick, si-c-k him, Bull—suboy! suboy! suboy!”

As to how that became such a popular way to tell a dog to attack, rather than to simply say “attack,” or something similar, this isn’t known but makes sense given the types of sounds dogs are able to pick out most easily from normal human speech. (Think when you hear someone speaking a foreign language, it can at times just sound like a jumble of random sounds.)

Thus, when training a new dog (and a young child), most experts recommend “short, sharp commands.”  “Sic” certainly fulfills these requirements, being only one syllable and bookended by distinct sounds.  And while the “s” part of the word may seem to be a soft sound to human hearing, perhaps easily drowned out in some circumstances, dogs hear not only much better in range of frequencies than humans, but thanks to quite a bit of their brains being devoted to sounds, they are also better at discriminating between noises. So something like a “ssssss” sound ends up being relatively easy to pick out from other human language to start a command, at least more so than something like an “ah,” and the hard “k” sound at the end is easily distinguishable to finish it.

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Bonus Facts:

  • Sic is also used to denote when someone has made a mistake. This is often seen in print where a person being quoted has made a grammatical or typographical error, and the quote-r puts the quote in as written (but includes {sic} so that it is clear that the quote-e made the mistake). This use of sic has Latin origins, where it literally meant, “so, thus, in this way;” it traces its regular use in English to the late 19th century.
  • Sick with the modern meaning of “excellent,” “awesome,” or “very impressive,” according to the OED, dates surprisingly far back, to 1983 in boarding (skate and snow) culture.
  • While dogs have excellent hearing and relatively good night vision (compared to humans), their vision for stationary objects isn’t actually that great at somewhere in the vicinity of 20/75. (See: How the 20/20 Vision Scale Works) They see much better when something is moving, being able to distinguish objects as much as twice as far away if it is in motion, rather than holding still.  Dogs can also visually detect movement, even if they can’t tell what the object moving is, approximately  10 to 20 times better than humans.
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  • This has got it wrong. “Sic” is Latn for “follow”. That’s when you see it indicating that a mistake was made in the original, [sic] is used to show that we are “following” the original usage. When we “sic” a dog we are telling it to follow a person, or go after it. Spelling it sick goes back to a time when spellings were non-standardized but sic goes much further back than the sources mentioned here to a time when Latin was used with dogs and the terminology sticks to this day. “Caveat canem” was also used until fairly recently meaning “beware of dog” and our great grandparents would have understood what it meant. The word “seek” may come from the word “sic” but sic is not a recent corruption of the English word, it is a much more ancient Latin word and you will see it’s spelling much more frequently.

    • Thank you Mr. Dyer for the clarification. In Latin America, a “sicario” is a hitman. We see here the same Latin origin and meaning as in the “sic” ’em command one would give a dog.

  • Sorry David, but I’m afraid it’s the original article that’s right.

    Seek (from secan in old english) is not derived from sic in Latin, and it did indeed have the connotation of seek to attack as was mentioned in the article. Perhaps you are thinking of the Latin verb “sequor” (from where we get sequence, consequence, and so on) or the very similar “secor” which both mean follow, accompany, strive for?

    Sic is Latin for “thus” as in “sic transit gloria mundi” (thus pass worldly glories) and “sic semper tyrannis” (thus always to tyrants) and as mentionned in the bonus facts, commonly indicates that that spelling or grammatical errors in a quoted text are in the original. In full it would have been “sic erat scriptum” (it was written thus).

    Also it should be “cave canem” not “caveat canem” (as can be seen in the mosaic at the House of the Tragic Poet in Pompeii). Cave is the singular imperative (giving a command or instruction- be wary of the dog) whereas caveat would be the subjunctive (indicating a state is possible or hypothetical- one could or ought to be wary of the dog). I think you may be confusing it with “caveat emptor” (let the buyer beware or the buyer should beware).

    And to Lauren: Sicario does not actually come from the sic ’em command. It comes from the name of a group of Jewish Zealots in the first century BCE, the Sicarii, who opposed Roman occupation of Jedea and carried out attacks with curved daggers they concealed under their cloaks (yes, literally a cloak and dagger organisation). That type of dagger was called a sica and the Sicarii (singular: sicarius- dagger weilder) are considered to be one of the earliest organised assassination groups, much older than the hashishin and the ninjas.