If you are “barking up the wrong tree,” you’re wasting your time and energy by making the wrong assumption, making the wrong choice, or asking the wrong person.
The allusion is to hunting dogs barking at the bottom of trees where they mistakenly think their quarry is hiding.
The earliest known printed citation is in James Kirke Paulding’s Westward Ho!, 1832:
“Here he made a note in his book, and I begun to smoke him for one of those fellows that drive a sort of a trade of making books about old Kentuck and the western country: so I thought I’d set him barking up the wrong tree a little, and I told him some stories that were enough to set the Mississippi a-fire; but he put them all down in his book.”
The phrase appeared in several American newspapers throughout the 1830s.
Settlers of the American wilderness depended on the raccoon as a steady source of meat, fur, and fat. Frontiersmen bred uniquely American hounds that specialized in tracking and treeing the nocturnal carnivore. Coonhounds pursue their quarry through woods and swamps until the raccoon scoots up a tree. They then bay loudly to indicate their location. Sometimes, though, the wily raccoon fools its pursuers and the hounds literally bark up the wrong tree. Today, the sport of coon-hunting—with a protected pet raccoon playing the role of the quarry—tests the working ability of the AKC coonhound breeds.
The expression itself is still going strong and is a special favorite of journalists. A recent article about the origins of dogs begins, “Scientists may have been barking up the wrong tree by first suggesting that dogs originated in Asia or the Middle East…”
Like so many common phrases, this one is based on practical, everyday, down-to-earth matters. Coon-hunting is not a popular activity in British Columbia, but the principle still applies.