Green’s Dictionary of Slang

bark up the wrong tree v.

also bark up the wrong creek, be up the wrong tree, jump the wrong stump
[the image of a dog chasing a raccoon into a tree]

(orig. US) to make a mistake, to misdirect one’s efforts.

[US]James Hall Legends of the West 46: You are barking up the wrong tree, Johnson.
[US]D. Crockett Col. Crockett’s Tour to North and Down East 205: Some people [...] are scouting all about to start other sport, and seem to be barking up the wrong sapling.
[US]J.P. Kennedy Quodlibet 148: We would whisper in our friend’s ear, that he has barked up the wrong tree.
[US]Courier (Natchez, MS) 27 Feb. col. 2 in A.P. Hudson Humor of the Old Deep South (1936) n.p.: Who sticks to the letter only, barks up the wrong tree.
[UK]J. Mair Hbk of Phrases 96: Bark up the wrong tree, to mistake one’s object, to pursue the wrong course.
[Aus]Bulletin (Sydney) 25 Apr. 18/4: Mr. ‘Philanthropist’ is barking up the wrong tree altogether. The Bible does sanction hanging.
[Aus]Bulletin (Sydney) 23 Aug. 17/1: It seems we, in Australia, have been ‘barking up the wrong tree.’ Jockey Boase says Kirkham’s miserable exhibition was caused through over training.
[US]W.M. Raine Bucky O’Connor (1910) 108: You’re barking up the wrong tree, Mr. Collins.
[Aus]L. Stone Jonah 177: Ye’re barkin’ up the wrong tree [...]. My old man’s as ’ard as nails, but ’e don’t run after women.
[US]‘Digit’ Confessions of a Twentieth Century Hobo 85: You are up the wrong tree, old-timer. I could see that five chambers were not loaded.
[UK]D.L. Sayers Busman’s Honeymoon (1974) 314: He says: ‘You’re barking up the wrong tree,’ and I says, ‘We’ll see about that’.
[US]Z.N. Hurston ‘Story in Harlem Sl.’ in Novels and Stories (1995) 1006: It’ll never happen, brother. You barking up the wrong tree.
[US]W.R. Burnett Little Men, Big World 120: Sure be a relief to me to get this over with, especially when I think you’re barking up the wrong tree.
[US]M. Braly Felony Tank (1962) 53: You know what, buddy? Maybe we’ve been jumping the wrong stump.
[UK]T. Stoppard Jumpers Act I: The analyst went barking up the wrong tree.
[UK]M. Amis London Fields 110: ‘Me? I’m in there. Boof.’ ‘You’re barking up the wrong tree, Keith.’.
[UK]Indep. Rev. 16 Sept. 8: If it isn’t working, she should stop it. It’s barking up the wrong tree.
[US]Hip-Hop Connection Jan./Feb. 55: We think it comes from the time you’re supposed to take to marinate food, but we’re probably barking up the wrong tree.
[UK]V. McDermid Out of Bounds (2017) 40: You’re barking up the wrong tree. My Stewart has nothing to do with any crime you’re trying to pin on him.