All you want to know about Sun Dogs

More than likely, the first thing you’ll want to know is, “What is a sun dog?” Regardless of what you may think, a sun dog is not a confused dog who howls at the sun all day long instead of at the moon by night. In fact, a sun dog is not a dog at all, but then again, like man’s best friend, it sits by the Sun’s side.

When I think of what a sun dog is, it’s easier to explain it that way, than with the complicated scientific descriptions which define the literal phenomenon of what is otherwise scientifically named as, ” parhelion,” which translated from scientific mind means, “beside the sun.” Scientists say in their scientific way that a sun dog is a bright, circular spot on a solar halo. It’s a common phenomenon that’s associated with the reflection of sunlight by small ice crystals that make up cirrus or cirrostratus clouds. Sometimes one can even see two sun dogs on either side of the sun at the same time.

Although no one ever asked me to explain this scientific phenomenon, I was curious on my own, so I did some research to prove that someone like me can more simply provide a few facts and history myths when it comes to the otherwise mysteriously seen sun dog phenomena.


1. More often than not, a sun dog appears at sunrise or sunset.

This is true because the sun is low at those times and the atmosphere is filled with ice crystals forming cirrus clouds, but sun dogs can also be formed from diamond dust and ice fog.

2. Sun dogs are often bright white patches of light.

When they arrive, they appear bright like the sun or a comet. Sometimes a sun dog is confused with other phenomena and exhibit a spectrum of colors, like a red section close to the sun and pale blue as the sun dog’s tail stretches away from sunlight.

3. The cause of all sun dogs involves light.

White sun dogs are caused by light reflected off atmospheric ice, but colored sun dogs are caused by light reflecting through them. White sun dogs might also be caused by the light from the sun reflecting off water on the ground and focusing that reflected light onto the clouds in the sky.

4. The shape of atmospheric ice crystals determine the shape of the sun dog.

The ice crystals which cause this atmospheric phenomena are shaped as hexagonal prisms, with a hexagonal top and bottom. Otherwise, the sides of these ice crystals are made up of six triangular sides, but some of them are elongated and some are flat. The flat ice crystals will tend to create crisp and bright sun dogs, if they are evenly positioned with their hexagon ends.

On the other hand, an elongated sun dog is created by another atmospheric phenomena, where a mixture of various crystals with different alignments cause several of these at the same time. As sunlight passes through the sides of a flat ice crystal, the angle of the sun rays and the position of the crystals affects the shape and color of sun dogs. That’s why misaligned ice crystals will create the colorful and elongated type of sun dog, but when light passes through the crystal in angles, this effect produces the tail part of the sun dog which stretches away from the sun.

5. A sun dogs position and its distance from the sun determines its color.

Sun dogs tend to have red inner edges, but the color changes to a bluish white as the distance between the sun dog and the sun lengthens and as the colors overlap. As the sun sets, one can sometimes see two sun dogs on the circle of the halo and as the sun comes up, sun dogs slowly move along the parhelic circle, where they move away from the sun and eventually vanish into the air.

6. Planets affect the sun dogs position.

Since earth is the first planet from the sun where the atmosphere has significant amounts of ice crystal carrying clouds, a pair of sun dogs in the sun are more aligned with the horizon, but on other planets where there is less water and ice, the crystal structures produce different halos. On giant gas planets, like Jupiter, Saturn and Neptune, other crystals form clouds of ammonia, methane and other gases that produce halos with four or more sun dogs. It’s also interesting to note that in parts of West Texas, sun dog refers to a segment of a common rainbow.


As far back as within ancient Egyptian history, it was documented that there appeared to be two suns in the sky and one that claims that the sun was setting in the east or was moving backward. Then again, in Greek history Aristotle noted that, “two mock suns rose with the sun and followed it all through the day until sunset.” He concluded that mock suns were always to the side, but never above or below. These mock suns were rarely seen in the middle of the day, Aristotle claimed.

Another piece of history when it comes to sun dogs was written in a passage in Cicero’s On the Republic. He was one of the many Greek and Roman authors who discuss sun dogs and other similar phenomena. In fact, sun dogs became an aspect of Wars of the Roses. Apparently, the battle of Mortimer’s Cross was supposed to have been instigated by a sun dog. The issue involved the appearance of a sun dog, which the Yorkists believed represented their impending victory.

Still, the earliest clear description of a sun dog was most likely by Jakob Hutten when he wrote Epistles from a Time of Persecution, “My beloved children, I want to tell you that on the day after the departure of our brothers Kuntz and Michel, on a Friday, we saw three suns in the sky for a good long time.” He went on to claim that for about an hour he also saw two rainbows that had their backs turned toward each other, almost touching in the middle. Their ends, he wrote, were pointed away from each other and this he saw with his own eyes, he exclaimed. After a while, Hutten wrote that the two suns and rainbows disappeared and only the one sun remained. He felt as if he’d seen a miracle, and even today, we can’t disagree. Sun dogs are a mysterious thing.

Another quote known for being one of the oldest descriptions of a sun dog came from Stockholm in the Swedish painting called, “The Weather Sun Painting.” As the story goes, for two hours in the morning of April 20, 1535, the skies over the city were filled with white circles and were shown crossing the sky. Then, additional suns appeared around the main sun. The mystery quickly became a rumor of an omen that God’s forthcoming revenge on King Gustav Vasa was drawing near due to having introduced Protestantism during the 1520’s.

In an effort to end the rumors, the Chancellor and Lutheran scholar Olaus Petri ordered a painting to be produced documenting the event, but when confronted with the painting, the King interpreted it as a conspiracy. You see, the King believed that since he would be the real sun, he felt threatened by competing false suns, as Olaus Petri appeared to be. So, the King accused him of treachery. The original painting was lost in the strife, but a copy was done in the 1630’s which has survived the times and can still be seen today in the church of Storkyrkan of central Stockholm.

Then again, in Germany around 1561, the skies were filled with a multitude of celestial objects, observed by the human eye, and five years later the mysterious objects were described in the 1566 by Hans Glaser. He described it as the 1561 Nuremberg event.

Another description of a sun dog was written by Jennifer Armstrong in 1912 in her book, “Shipwreck at the Bottom of the Word: The Extraordinary True Story of Shackleton and the Endurance,” which tells the story of the ship’s fate on a polar expedition.

She writes, “All around them too were signs that the Antarctic winter was fast approaching: there were now twelve hours of darkness and during the daylight hours, petrels and terns fled to the north. Skuas kept up a screeching clamor and penguins on the move honked and brayed from the ice for miles around. Killer whales cruised the open leads, blowing spouts of icy spray. The tricks of the Antarctic atmosphere brought mock suns and green sunsets, and showers of jewel-colored ice crystals.”

References to sun dogs are also found in fiction novels, such as Vladimir Nabokov’s “Pale Fire,” and sun dogs even appeared in some films like, “The Deer Hunter.” Still, what seemed to be a mystery is just a scientific fact and a phenomenon within astronomy.


Although you probably now know more than you ever thought you’d know about sun dogs, at least the mystery is resolved once and for all. Still, if you want to know even more facts about sun dogs, see the source of this article and more at this site: