Animals

In Game of Thrones fans’ pursuit of real-life dire wolves, huskies may pay the price

The popular television show is ending soon. What will happen to demand for dire wolf-like dogs?Tuesday, May 7, 2019

By Natasha Daly
A Siberian husky – the 'media effect' of Game of Thrones has resulted in a high turnover of unwanted dogs and unsuitable homes.

Animals don’t just appear on the massively popular fantasy show Game of Thrones—they announce themselves, hitting the screen as larger-than-life, CGI-generated (or CGI-enhanced) fantastical beasts like dragons and dire wolves.

Dragons are, of course, the stuff of lore. But dire wolves—oversized, extra-powerful wolves—are real. Or at least they were once. About 300,000 years ago, they roamed the Americas. Their fossils are scattered across North and South America, from the mountains of Virginia to the Las Vegas strip, through Mexico and as far south as Bolivia.

Known scientifically as Canis dirus, dire wolves were actually not that much larger than modern gray wolves, but they boasted a larger skull and jaws, and a stronger bite. They likely feasted on large mammals, like bison, and may have scavenged prey from contemporary predators like sabre-toothed cats.

On Game of Thrones, the extinct wolves are played by Northern Inuit dogs (a crossbreed related to huskies and German shepherds that was selectively bred to resemble wolves) and an arctic wolf. The animal actors are shot on green screens, doubled in size to replicate dire wolf stature, and composited into scenes from the show, where the dire wolf characters have served as fiercely loyal companions and protectors of the protagonist Stark family.

It’s not a surprise that people might want them—or something like them.

Enter Siberian huskies. Their shaggy, gray and white fur, pointy ears, and lupine facial features make them near-doppelgangers of the show’s dire wolves.

“People passing by our adoption fairs often call our dogs dire wolves,” says Angelique Miller, president of Northern California-based NorSled, a husky rescue organisation.

Huskies are a particularly high-maintenance breed. They have an innate need to run—a lot. They’re not particularly easy to train. And when they don’t get the at least two hours of daily exercise they need, they can be very destructive. But people are increasingly buying them without doing their research, which often results in a lifestyle clash: The husky is frustrated by a lack of proper exercise and stimulation, and the owner doesn’t understand why their dog is acting out. As a result, lots of huskies are ending up in shelters.

Dawn Eisele, public education chair of husky breeding association the Siberian Husky Club of America, says SHCA-sanctioned breeders must sign a code of ethics, which includes a commitment to educate prospective buyers on the special needs of huskies. Breeders are encouraged to ask people a great many questions, she says, to suss out whether that person’s lifestyle is conducive to owning a husky. The dogs are gregarious, loyal, inquisitive, and affectionate. They need to be crate-trained and can never be let off-leash and may fit right in with an attentive, highly active family that can give them the exercise and training they need to thrive.

“Nine times out of ten, we’re talking people out of the breed,” says Eisele.

Also in the SHCA’s code of ethics for its breeders: They will not sell dogs to pet stores. She says it’s pet stores and “backyard breeders”—people who breed solely for profit, often without ensuring proper health checks, welfare standards, and buyer education—that contribute to the glut of huskies that end up in shelters.

Indeed, a Facebook search for “husky puppies for sale” turns up dozens of local Facebook groups across the United States and abroad of people posting husky puppies for sale and looking to buy huskies. One Michigan-based group, for example, sees posts pop up every few days, just like this recent example: “Six pups ready to go, $500.”

“Folks who get one because of how pretty they are don’t realise what they’re getting into,” says Barbara Swanda, vice president of the Delaware Valley Siberian Husky Rescue, a nonprofit organisation that rescues huskies across several mid-Atlantic states. “It’s a recipe for disaster.”

“The consequence is that they are being given up and dumped in the rescues,” she says.

The husky glut

Siberian husky rescue groups across the U.S. and U.K. report observing a significant increase in the number of abandoned huskies in need of homes since 2011, when Game of Thrones debuted.

“If they have any kind of identification when they come in, they’re often coming in with the [Game of Thrones] names,” says Swanda, referring to the names of the dire wolf characters in the show: Ghost, Nymeria, Summer, Shaggydog, Grey Wind, and Lady.

Odin and Thor are Northern Inuit dogs, a crossbreed related to Siberian huskies and German shepherds. They played two Game of Thrones dire wolf characters as puppies. Meeting the dogs is a highlight for the thousands of tourists who visit the show’s filming locations in Ireland, including Castle Ward, pictured here, which portrays Winterfell in the show.

In 2009, when Angelique Miller joined NorSled, the Northern California-based rescue, she said the group was able to keep up with with the number of huskies in local shelters. But since Game of Thrones began airing in 2011, the number of huskies coming into NorSled’s care has doubled.

And that doesn’t include the numerous phone calls and emails she fields every day from people who want to re-home their huskies. “We can’t even begin to keep up with the demand,” she says. “The situation is way out of control.”

It’s a trend repeated at husky rescues across the country and abroad. The U.K.’s largest dog rescue group, Dogs Trust, says that between 2010 and 2018, the number of huskies coming into their care has increased by 420 percent. In a press release, the group attributes the dramatic rise to the popularity of Game of Thrones.

The media effect

Dan O’Neill is hooked on Game of Thrones. O’Neill, a veterinarian and senior lecturer in companion animal epidemiology at the Royal Veterinary College in London, has visited the show’s filming locations in Northern Ireland with his family.

As a superfan of the show, he gets the emotional appeal of the dire wolves. But he has seen the consequences of impulse, media-driven dog purchases play out before.

Over the last decade, it’s became trendy in U.K. advertising to feature flat-faced dogs like pugs and French bulldogs, O’Neill says. That appeared to drive a huge uptick in people buying those breeds, which are prone to a range of health issues, such as lifelong eye and skin problems and chronic respiratory diseases. Now, O’Neill says, U.K. rescue groups are full of them.

“It’s a perfect parallel to the dire wolves,” he says, noting that the Game of Thrones-linked demand for huskies often comes up at welfare conferences he attends.

Responsible buying and breeding is just “not likely to happen with a breed that enters a bubble,” he says of dog breeds that gain rapid popularity because of media exposure. “Because then the bubble will burst.”

He wonders what will happen to the husky demand when Game of Thrones ends later this month. “The novelty value will be gone,” he says. Those rapidly breeding for profit may see a reduction in demand. “And then you have the issue of what happens to all those dogs?”

When you get a dog on impulse because of what you see on television, he says, you’re treating the dog as an accessory. “You’re buying the image you carry around in your mind.”

In reality, he says, “they’re living, sentient beings that can be a wonderful member of the right family.”

If you think you’re able to give a husky a wonderful home, Dawn Eisele of the Siberian Husky Club of America encourages people to research responsible, ethical breeders. Barbara Swanda of the Delaware-based husky rescue group asks people to consider giving a rescued adult husky a home.

Most importantly: Do your research, all husky experts say.

“It’s not a game,” says Swanda. “No pun intended.”

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