I’ve been working on answering some of the great dog questions you all have been sending via email, but recently, while sitting outside on the deck with my dogs on an unusually hot High Country day, I started thinking of the phrase the “dog days of summer.” When are the dog days? What do they signify, and what, exactly, do they have to do with dogs, if anything at all?
So I started doing a little research. Apparently, dog days means different things to different people, but in general, they are considered to be the days between early June and early September, when temperatures are at their highest. Some of the websites I researched noted specific dates, such as July 3 to Aug. 11 (Dictionary.com), and some suggested they are simply the hot, sultry days of summer between early July and early September (thefreedictionary.com). The phrase seems to have originated in the Mediterranean, but spread to other areas that also experience hot summer days.
OK, so that told me when, but not what. I was very curious to figure out what dog days have to do with dogs. For some reason, I have always associated the phrase dog days with negative images, like hot, panting dogs fainting from the heat or running through the streets, “To Kill A Mockingbird” style, in a kind of rabies-like, heat-induced frenzy. Definitely not anything I want to see my dogs doing, or anyone else’s dogs, for that matter.
Turns out that although the phrase has nothing to do with dogs, it does actually have to do with Sirius, which is also known as the Dog Star (ah-ha!), and it also did appear to have negative connotations for some past civilizations. No modern research quest is complete without browsing Wikipedia, and as usual, the site did not let me down. Here is a great explanation of why the dog days are referred to as such, compliments of Wikipedia:
The dog days, in the most technical sense, refer to the one- to two-month interval in which a particularly bright star rises and sets with the sun, shining during the daylight hours and staying hidden at night. This star is known by three names: Sirius, the Dog Star and Alpha Canis Majoris. Apart from being the most prominent star in the constellation Canis Major (Latin for “Greater Dog”), this heavenly body is responsible for the origin of the expression dog days, a phrase that has endured through millennia.
Now things are starting to fall into place, and the phrase is starting to make sense. Basically, a series of hot days, occuring at a time when the calendar was guided solely by the stars and seasons, happening at the same time the Dog Star decided to mimic the sun. Sounds to me like those specific days needed to be referred to as something, so why not dog days?
As for the negative connotation: Evidently the image of mad, panting dogs that the phrase has instilled in my mind ever since I was a little girl isn’t totally off the mark. Many of the websites I browsed made no mention of a negative connotation, but leave it to Wikipedia to indicate why I might have picked up that impression at a young age. I found the following under associations on their “Dog Days” site:
The dog days continued through the early 19th century to be perceived as foreboding a time of evil, wherein “the Sea boiled, the Wine turned sour, Dogs grew mad, and all other creatures became languid; causing to man, among other diseases, burning fevers, hysterics, and phrensies,” as described by Brady in his Clavis Calendaria (1813).
Reading that, I can understand how my bizarre images of the meaning behind dog days might have trickled down to me from my superstitious Scandinavian ancestors, including my Norwegian grandmother, who also passed this gem of advice on to me: “You’d better stick that bottom lip back in before a bird comes along and poops on it.” Ah, the wisdom of our elders. What would we do without it?
I hope you’ve enjoyed the results of my dog days research, but even more, I hope you will take some time to just sit back with your four-legged furry friends and enjoy this season as it was meant to be enjoyed. Slowly, with a little bit of introspect and some ice-cold lemonade.
BooneDogs is a weekly column by Melissa Bahleda, certified canine behavior counselor and founder of PARTNERS! Canines, a Boone-based nonprofit shelter dog rescue organization. For more information or to donate to PARTNERS! Canines’ rescue efforts, visit www.partnerscanines.org. Questions for BooneDogs can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.