Alabama Folkways Articles

July, 1992

DOG DAYS AND DOG TROTS

by Henry Willett

The hottest time of the year, July 3 to August 15, is traditionally referred to as "dog days," in the belief that the sun's heat is intensified by the rising of the dog star, Sirius. Folk knowledge argues that dogs are more prone to madness during this time of year. In fact, in the nineteenth century, some Alabama town officials ordered all dogs muzzled during this time of year to protect the citizenry from rabies.

Hippocrates, the founder of medicine, considered dog days to be the unhealthiest days of the year, and there was a time when many Alabama cities would see their populations decrease significantly during dog days as people sought cooler surroundings and an escape from the dreaded yellow fever epidemics and other illnesses associated with dog days.

To farmers, dog days are a time when crops risk being ruined by drought. A traditional Alabama belief holds that if it doesn't rain on the first dog day it will be dry for the next 40 days, or, alternatively, if it rains on July 15, it will rain a bit every day thereafter for the next month.

In Alabama and other parts of the South, people refer to "dog ducks" --ducks hatched during dog days and doomed to die young. Similarly, it is believed that plants cultivated during this period will die, and beans that are not picked will drop off or be ruined by bugs.

Alabamians once sought relief from the heat of dog days on the open breezeway of a dogtrot house. That romanticized dwelling place of Southern fiction, distinctive in both its design and in its colorful name, the dogtrot is the most characteristic folk house type of the Lowland South.

It is generally believed that the dogtrot house had its origins in the lower Tennessee Valley of north Alabama and east Tennessee in the early nineteenth century.

The dogtrot combined folk architectural traditions from Scandinavia, Germany, and England; but, it was an environmental adaptation to the Southern dog days of summer that gave the dogtrot its characteristic open breezeway.

The functional nature of that breezeway remains evident today. Several years ago some fieldworkers from the American Folklife Center, working in south Georgia, noticed an abandoned dogtrot. Curious about the structure and wanting to ask more about the dogtrot's history, they proceeded to the property owner's new brick house, where the air conditioner was running at full tilt, barely keeping up with the August heat. A quick temperature check showed the abandoned dogtrot to be several degrees cooler than the modern air-conditioned house.