Steven Bach’s book Final Cut: Dreams and Disaster in the Making of Heaven’s Gate, is a fascinating behind-the-scenes account of a notorious film that effectively brought down the United Artists (UA) studio.
Recalling an argument he had with fellow producer David Field about work politics, Bach uses the term bird-dog in a way that appears to be slang and primarily American.
I’d come across bird-dog before, probably in a novel, in the sense steal (or try to steal) another person’s date, but here I learned of its analogous use in business – steal (or try to steal) another person’s project:
“How about the time I called Freddy Raphael—“
“In France,” he interrupted quietly.
“He lives in France. Where else was I supposed to call him?”
“You called him about my project.”
“I called him about UA’s project, to say I was glad we had made the deal, welcome aboard, be brilliant. I’ve known Freddy for years, and I was glad he was working for us, and I wanted to say so.”
“You were bird-dogging my project,” he said quietly. “I brought that project into the company, and I didn’t think you should have called him without my permission. The minute you got off the phone with Freddy, he called me in California because he thought you were bird-dogging, too.”
“And Alan Pakula is sitting upstairs with a pack of lousy preview cards thinking that we’re bird-dogging Mike Medavoy’s project. Is everybody nuts around here or what?” I downed the rest of my brandy and signalled for a refill. David bit his tongue and glared behind me at the wall.
Dictionaries that include bird-dog, such as the OED, Merriam-Webster, and American Heritage, indicate other senses dating from the 1930s or 40s that come from the actions of the eponymous hunting animal: the verb has both transitive and intransitive senses having to do with following or closely watching a subject of interest, or scouting (e.g., for talent).
Another sense is that of dogged pursuit, as in bird-dogging someone for information or answers. There’s also the aforementioned sense: of stealing (or trying to steal) someone else’s date. This, I would guess, led to the business-related meaning we see in Bach’s book. Despite my unfamiliarity with the usage, I was able to infer its meaning from the context.
Just as well: aside from its standard meanings, bird dog has an array of (contradictory) slang ones. Jonathon Green includes seven noun and eight verb senses in Chambers Slang Dictionary, including (n.) receiver of stolen goods; one who lures victims into positions of vulnerability; an assistant, esp. in police or journalism; and (v.) to eavesdrop; to pimp for, to solicit for another person; to watch over, to protect.