The Entertaining History of Dog and Pony Shows

The phrase doesn't usually refer to dogs and ponies anymore.

Dog and pony shows were once all the rage.
Dog and pony shows were once all the rage. / CSA Images/Getty Images (dog and pony); Big_Ryan/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images (background)

You’ve likely heard a disappointed person describe an underwhelming event as “a dog and pony show.” When people talk about a dog and pony show today, they usually mean a flashy presentation or gathering that’s all about appearances, with little real substance. But where does this phrase come from, and what’s its history?

What Does Dog and Pony Show Mean?

In everyday language, a dog and pony show refers to a performance or presentation meant to impress, but is lacking depth or real content. Think: a really elaborate—and really bad—sales pitch or political rally. It typically has a negative connotation, suggesting that style was used over substance. 

Nowadays, people toss around the phrase to mock or criticize political and corporate shenanigans. But if hearing it brings to mind the image of trained dogs and ponies doing tricks to entertain an audience, you’re not far off from where the term originated. 

The True Origins of Dog and Pony Shows

To find the roots of the phrase, we need to go back to the 19th century, a time when traveling entertainment was all the rage. Dog and pony shows were a popular form of recreation that toured towns and cities. As the name suggests, they showcased trained dogs and ponies, but could also include other animals like monkeys and goats.

These shows featured a variety of acts, from impressive displays of animal agility to funny routines that delighted audiences of all ages. They were a big hit in rural areas where access to other forms of entertainment was limited. 

Several of these traveling extravaganzas popped up across the United States. One of the earliest known examples of a dog and pony show is “Morris’ Equine and Canine Paradoxes,” which toured in 1883. Another similar attraction, “Hurlburt’s Dog and Pony Show,” gained popularity in the late 1880s. 

One key figure in the development of the dog and pony show was Henry B. Gentry. He left school in 1885 at age 17 to start his own show, which grew rapidly. Gentry’s “Equine and Canine Paradox” featured various acts, including military ponies, trained dogs, monkeys, and even elephants as it expanded into a full circus. 

Circus poster showing Louise Hilton perched on a white horse, about to leap over a scarf held by a clown and a ringmaster.
Gentry's dog and pony show eventually morphed into a proper circus show. / Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Other showmen, such as Andrew Downie and Leon Washburn, also made names for themselves in the dog and pony show business before moving on to circuses. By the turn of the century, dog and pony shows were everywhere, with new ones popping up regularly. However, they became less common by the 1920s; as the country entered the Great Depression in 1929, it was rare to see one anywhere. 

As the 20th century progressed, the meaning of dog and pony show expanded beyond its literal origins. It started being used metaphorically to describe any presentation or event that relied heavily on flashy theatrics to grab attention. The term found a new home in business, politics, and finance, describing marketing campaigns, product launches, or political rallies that didn’t quite live up to the hype and has become a shorthand for performances that prioritize showmanship over real content. 

While the actual dog and pony shows of the past may have faded into history, the metaphor lives on, reminding us of the appeal of a great performance while serving as a caution for talk without action. 

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