The Australian-English phrase to kill a (big) brown dog (on a chain) is primarily used of any substance capable of causing death or illness if taken into the body.
In extended use, this phrase is used of something regarded as powerful or disastrous.
The earliest use of the phrase that I have found is from Mind Over Murder, a short story by Les Hicks, published in The Weekly Times (Melbourne, Victoria) of Wednesday 8th February 1950:
Jason unwound his lean six feet and paced around the sixteen stone detective. He stopped by Patricia and patted her titian tresses to emphahise [sic] his points.
“Baroness de Fawcetti was tall and reasonably beautiful . . . with longish red hair . . . somewhat after Pat’s style here”—he stroked his secretary’s hair as if it helped him to think—“and she was found slumped over a table in her Toorak flat with enough hydrocyanic acid in her to kill a brown dog. She wore a white satin, off-the-shoulder dinner gown . . . there were two empty glasses and half a bottle of Napoleon brandy on the table, plus an empty poison phial, smelling of bitter almonds . . .”
Garry Shelley quoted the extended form of the phrase in the preview of the 1979 television film Gail, which was to be broadcast on ABN, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s television station in Sydney—preview published in The Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney, New South Wales) of Monday 22nd October 1979:
Keith Thompson’s humorous but realistic look at adolescence is thoroughly deserving of its Awgie award*. It is a faultless production in every way.
Set in middle-class suburban Melbourne, it follows the emotional struggle of Gail Edwards, the 13½ year-old “baby” of the family, who is beginning to feel the approach of womanhood.
Her schoolmates are boy-mad gigglers, squeezed into blue jeans, whose topics of conversation are boys, sex, the pill and menstrual cycles. Like most children her age, she wags school with two know-alls and sits on the beach swilling marsala. “This is enough to kill a brown dog on a chain,” observes one youngster, half tiddly.
(* AWGIE Awards: an annual awards ceremony conducted by the Australian Writers’ Guild, for excellence in screen, television, stage and radio writing)
The phrase gained currency when it was used in 1982 as an adverse judgement on the food at Parliament House—as The Canberra Times (Australian Capital Territory) reported on Friday 30th April of that year:
Parliament chef serves notice
The Parliament House chef has resigned after a Senator’s remark that his meals would “kill a brown dog”.
Mr James Nicol, who has held the job for two years, announced his resignation on Tuesday, and will leave on June 30 to take up a new post in Melbourne.
Parliament House food was criticised in a debate on Senate sitting hours last month. Senator Missen (Lib, Vic) said he had had the food analysed, and it was “absolutely outrageous”. Senator Elstob (Lab, SA) said, “I agree with you. Meals would kill a brown dog.”
Mr Nicole [sic], who was having his 34th birthday yesterday, said, “It was a bloody unfair and a rotten thing to say.”
The President of the Senate, Senator Young, defended Mr Nicole’s cooking before the House yesterday, and said he regarded the circumstances as most unfortunate.
“I have felt he has done an extremely good job as chef, and there was a remarkable and dramatic change for the better when he took over,” he said. “I regret very much he has been forced into this position.”
In protest over the remarks made by Senator Missen and Senator Elstob, the catering staff at Parliament House staged a 24-hour strike; both parliamentarians apologised, and James Nicol withdrew his resignation.
However, when he agreed not to resign, James Nicol sculpted—and presented Senators Missen and Elstob with—a brown dog in butter and margarine; this 33-kilogramme dog, about a metre tall, was known as ‘Bobby’ in the Parliament House kitchen—this photograph of James Nicol and ‘Bobby’ was published in The Canberra Times (Australian Capital Territory) of Thursday 20th May 1982:
In The Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney, New South Wales) of Wednesday 19th May 1982, Geraldine Brooks alluded to the “brown dog affair”, and used the extended form of the phrase:
Some food may kill brown dogs on chains, but . .
Thanks to Canberra’s recent culinary crisis, Australia now has its very own food-rating system. We can dispense with the traditional three stars and rate restaurants according to whether or not they would kill a brown dog on a chain.
The worst establishments could be designated by a graphic depiction of three expiring kelpies, the best by smiling afghans.
On Wednesday 5th May 1982, The Age (Melbourne, Victoria), reported that Senator Elstob
explained the origin of his now famous remark about the brown dog. The saying began in the outback, he said, and referred to red kelpie sheep dogs, known as “brown dogs,” which were tough enough to eat and drink anything without affecting their performance at work the next day.
The English-Australian actor and writer Michael Boddy (1934-2014) used the phrase with reference to pungency in his food column Boddy at Large, published in The Canberra Times (Australian Capital Territory) of Sunday 21st September 1986:
Freshways, a Sydney importer whose products can be found in most Asian stores and many supermarkets, distributes a really primitive and punchy anchovy essence from the Philippines under the label “Bagoon Balayan”. They import a shrimp essence as well, and both these are worth trying. Each one is capable on a good day of killing a brown dog at 10 paces.
Paul Byrnes used the phrase with reference to songs in the review of Ishtar, a 1987 U.S. film directed by Elaine May (born 1932), starring Dustin Hoffman (born 1937) and Warren Beatty (Henry Warren Beaty – born 1937)—review published in The Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney, New South Wales) of Thursday 19th November 1987:
Ishtar is the story of two likable jerks – Chuck Clarke (Hoffman) and Lyle Rogers (Beatty), two of the worst songwriters who ever lived […].
The fact that they refuse to accept the evidence of their own ears – that their songs would kill a brown dog – is what makes them seem likable and potentially funny.
In the 1990s, Peter Fitzsimons used the phrase on several occasions in The Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney, New South Wales)—for example:
– On Tuesday 21st June 1994, he used to kill a brown dog to denote a disaster in a portrait of the Australian athlete John Landy (born 1930)—Fitzsimons recounts how, at the 1954 British Empire and Commonwealth Games held at Vancouver, British Columbia, Landy lead for most of the mile race, with the British athlete Roger Bannister (1929-2018) close behind; but, at the final turn, as Landy looked over his left shoulder to check where Bannister was, the British runner overtook the Australian on the right and went on to win:
In a twist of fate that would kill a brown dog, not only had Bannister been in fact just marginally behind him on the right, but he had chosen that exact moment to make his charge.
– On Friday 23rd February 1996, Peter Fitzsimons wrote of a person who
had a headache that would kill a brown dog.
– On Monday 26th August 1996, he mentioned
enough celebratory hoopla to kill a brown dog.
– On Monday 3rd March 1997, he described
a black American with an accent that would kill a brown dog, replete with that particular brand of American enthusiasm as unrelenting as it is overwhelming.
– On Saturday 9th August 1997, he wrote that the Australian tennis player Rodney Laver (born 1938) had
a will to win that would kill a big brown dog.