Why the “Dog Days”?

Bud Boccone

Every year, the AKC fields thousands of dog-related questions. During the summer months, among our most popular FAQs is, Why do they call this time of year the “dog days” of summer?

Hoping to save you an e-mail or phone call, we’ll provide the answer here.

 

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The Latin term caniculares dies (literally translated as dog days) was coined by the ancient Romans to describe the hottest weeks of summer. It alludes to the period when Sirius, the Dog Star, rises and sets with the sun. The brightest star in the sky, Sirius resides at the head of the constellation Canis Major, meaning “big dog.”

The Romans theorized that the dog days bore the combined heat of the Dog Star and the sun, and thus were the warmest days of the year. The exact span of the dog days varies from source to source and era to era, but in modern usage we generally think of them as early July through mid-August.

For centuries it was thought that the dog days brought on not only intense heat but also madness in dogs and humans. This notion hung on well into the 20th century. It inspired the title of the classic Al Pacino movie Dog Day Afternoon, about a completely insane bank robbery gone wrong. And it furnished Noel Coward with the idea for his famous song “Mad Dogs and Englishmen,” which goes, in part:

In the mangrove swamps where the python romps
there is peace from twelve till two.
Even caribous lie around and snooze, for there's nothing else to do.

In Bengal to move at all is seldom ever done,
But mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.

As Natalie Babbitt put it in her popular children's book Tuck Everlasting: “These are strange and breathless days, the dog days, when people are led to do things they are sure to be sorry for after.”

 

The expression has the additional meaning of any period of sluggishness or doldrums. For those who work in a retail business, for instance, the dog days aren’t July and August but that inevitable sales slump that occurs right after Christmas.

 

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