It’s a rare day when Lexi and I don’t spend an hour or so on one of the local recreation paths. Usually it’s a morning run along the shores of nearby San Pablo Bay. If I’m too lazy to run then we take a long afternoon walk. I used to take her to the dog park to frolic with her doggy friends, Bear, Jessi and Max. That’s until she adopted the misconception that rolling in poop is a good idea. A few baths later and she’s been banned for life from the dog park; or at least until she learns that poop rolling is socially unacceptable (currently a work in progress).
It’s been during our outings that I noticed a spike in the number of Siberian Huskies, many of them doing what they were bred for, pulling things, usually a struggling owner at the other end of a groaning leash. For over a year I wondered, what it is with Huskies that all of a sudden they’re as popular as baby sharks, which are apparently all the rage these days.
One day I mentioned to my son that you can’t turn a corner without seeing a person being hauled down the street by a Siberian. He responded that Huskies have become canine celebrities because they’ve become TV celebrities on the series Game of Thrones. I’m one of those oddities who hasn’t watched a single second of Game of Thrones but I’ve since come to learn that one of the most lovable and popular of the show’s characters is the direwolf (Canis dirus) portrayed as a loyal and protective companion to the protagonists.
The direwolf once a real creature has been extinct for 10,000 years posing something of a dilemma for the show’s producers in need of some direwolves. Given the severe dearth of an extinct animal the producers needed a dog to play the part. Enter the Northern Inuit dog, a breed that bears an uncanny resemblance to a wolf.
According to the Northern Inuit Society (the governing body of the Northern Inuit Dog), the breed was “Inspired by the Inuit people of North America, Canada and Greenland who, legend has it, mated dogs and wolves to try and obtain a dog that could work long hours but would live as a family pet.” The wolf crossbreeding is subject to some debate but, wolf mix or not, some of these dogs made their way into Great Britain in the 1980’s and were bred with Siberian Huskies, Alaskan Malamutes and German Shepherds to create the Northern Inuit. Viola, the producers had their direwolf, a successful show and a worldwide fanbase.
Eight seasons of Game of Thrones produced a legion of viewers who fell in love with Ghost, Nymeria and the rest of the direwolf pack; a fan base that cried, “Gotta have it, gotta have it, gotta have it.” Like the latest athletic shoe everyone needed, NEEDED, a direwolf, or at least a reasonable looking knock off. The Northern Inuit dog being something of a rare breed (not even recognized by the American Kennel Club) is not easy to come by unless you have the influence and financial horsepower of HBO. Enter the Siberian Husky. There’s a popular saying that “shit rolls downhill” and it wasn’t long before the Husky found itself at the bottom of the slope.
You know those racks at the grocery store checkout that offer a variety of goodies that you really shouldn’t buy; candy, chips, sodapop and tabloid magazines? Those are known in the industry as impulse items. The customer, waiting in a checkout line, sees it, wants it and then buys it, usually without reading the label and with little or no consideration to the facts that additives in soda pop are just this side of toxic, too much candy can rot your teeth and tabloids rot your brain. See, crave, buy. Nothing wrong with that. If that’s what you want to consume then have at it. I can be a sucker for beef jerky, salt and vinegar chips and an occasional Snickers bar washed down with a diet Pepsi. I do draw the line at tabloids though. I have to preserve some measure of self respect.
With the popularity of Game of Thrones, the Siberian Husky became an impulse item. See, crave, buy. It’s one thing to be blissfully ignorant about the 240 calories in a candybar that takes a 30 minute run to burn off. It’s quite another to get a dog without having consulted a book, a website, a breeder or a shelter. Being captivated by an extinct animal featured on a medieval fantasy shouldn’t be the motivation for getting a dog. Sadly that’s how things too often work. See, crave, buy.
The result, according to Randee McQueen who’s worked extensively with Siberian Husky rescue is that “shelters in the United States and around the world are seeing massive increases in abandoned Siberians.” McQueen points to the example of one shelter that “has seen about a 20 percent increase in abandoned Siberians, which they believe is related to the show.” It’s also believed that many purchases are made online with little or no research into the dog or the seller. See, crave, buy.
The problem of abandoned Siberians got so bad that Game of Thrones actor Peter Dinklage issued a statement asking fans not to buy dogs on impulse.
“We understand that due to the direwolves’ huge popularity, many folks are going out and buying huskies,” he said. “Not only does this hurt all the deserving homeless dogs waiting for a chance at a good home in shelters, but shelters are also reporting that many of these huskies are being abandoned – as often happens when dogs are bought on impulse, without understanding their needs.”
I’ve owned four purebred dogs, three of them Gordon Setters, in my lifetime and each purchase has been similar to applying for a job, complete with an interview. I’ve had to describe the dog’s new “forever home.” Are there kids? Is there a yard? Will the dog be alone for long periods of time? What kind of exercise will the dog be provided? What dogs have I owned in the past? Why do I want a Gordon Setter and do I know that they’re large active dogs that require grooming and a lot of exercise.
For my part I’ve researched the breeder and asked the breeder specific questions about the dog I’m interested in and the health histories of the dog’s lineage. At the end of the process, once everyone seems satisfied a contract is drawn up. Every contract that I’ve signed has stipulated that if the dog doesn’t work out for me I MUST contact the breeder first to arrange a return or placement in a proper home. That’s how a reputable breeder works.
Getting a popular dog from a responsible breeder often requires getting put on a waiting list and being patient, a quantity not found in the see, crave, buy formula. And so the impulse buyers go anywhere that will satisfy the craving. They go to the bad actors who over breed and inbreed; who don’t care what kind of home the dog is going to; who will not explain the breed characteristics to a potential buyer and won’t consider taking a dog back.
It must be disappointing to find out that the Husky you got isn’t a plug and play companion that acts just like the the trained and professionally handled dogs on the show. What a shock to get a puppy that poops on the white shag carpet, sometimes cries through the first nights and wants to chew everything in sight, including the fingers of Aunt Mabel who just happens to be afraid of dogs anyway. Uninformed Husky owners find that their dogs shed; lots of white hair on everything. Huskies like to dig and they won’t discern between an unused plot of dirt and the prize tomatoes.
And then there’s the never considered problem of what to do with the dog when it comes time for the family to go to Hawaii. Sometimes people don’t realize that a dog can put a serious dent in the bank account; food, vet bills, training, supplies and even more vet bills when the dog gets older. When our Rainey was on her last few months Cora and I had to cancel a planned vacation to care for our aging and suffering friend. In the end we spent 10,000 dollars in vet bills.
According to the Siberian Husky Club of America, Huskies love to run free as I saw one afternoon when I took Lexi to the dog park. A woman was unloading her three Huskies from the family van when they all three bolted. They ran straight to the park entrance and I figured they would stop and try to get into the paddock when they saw Lexi. They stopped for a brief moment, took an uninterested glance at Lexi and then opted for the freedom of the nearby hills which they quickly lit out for. The woman running as fast as she could and losing ground to the dogs stopped and asked, “Did you see three dogs?”
“Yep. They went thataway.”
I never did see her come back. For all I know she followed those dogs all the way to Siberia. I later heard that she and her three dogs had since been seen at the park. The story ended well. but it could easily have ended badly. Those dogs could’ve been hit by a car, lost forever, run into one of the many packs of coyotes in the area or ended up at the animal shelter. The latter is the growing plight of many unwanted and abandoned Siberian Huskies.
It’s pretty easy to spot dog owners who got a dog without doing a minute of research. They’re the ones who bring a 3 week old puppy to a public park oblivious to the danger of parvo virus. They’re often the frustrated ones who I see in dog training classes with an aggressive, unsocialized dog that’s imposed it’s will on the entire household. They’re like our neighbor who used to leave their dog out to bark all night long. When I complained they explained that the dog had to stay out because it peed in the house. They didn’t know how to house train their own dog.
The sudden popularity of a dog breed and the resultant damage didn’t start with Game of Thrones and sadly won’t end with Game of Thrones. Stardom begets an impetuous and uninformed market which begets puppy mills and unscrupulous breeders which begets unwanted and abandoned dogs and down the road begets decades of congenital problems.
Beginning in 1922 a German Shepherd dog named Rin Tin Tin starred in a series of movies and later a television show. For years, German Shepherd Dogs were trendy and in high demand with the result that irresponsible breeding turned a hardy breed into one that continues to be plagued with congenital problems. According to veterinarian Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, “we still can’t rid the breed of crippling hip dysplasia.”
The rough collie became a craze with the movie Lassie Come Home and the subsequent TV series. Every week a kid named Timmy would get lost in the woods, or fall in a well or get trapped in a cave or kidnapped by villains and Lassie would either rescue the boy or run for help. It might’ve been better for the breed if just once Lassie let the brat perish in a quicksand bog thus cancelling the run. Instead the Rough Collie fell victim to irresponsible breeding and all the ensuing health and temperament problems.
In the early 1960’s the Disney movie Big Red damaged the Irish Setter breed. According to Dr. Lichtenberg; 101 Dalmatians resulted in “aggressive, unruly, inappropriate dogs for a family.” Lady and the Tramp popularized the Cocker Spaniel and the resultant bad breeding produced “congenital disorders such as glaucoma, cataracts, AIHA (autoimmune hemolytic anemia), luxating patellas, hypothyroidism, epilepsy” and other afflictions that still plague the breed.
All of this isn’t to come down on everyone who saw Game of Thrones and wanted a Husky. I’d like to think that most people who fell in love with Siberians or any other dog by way of a television show did all the right things. That’s still no consolation for dogs who end up unloved and unwanted.
Neither is this meant as a criticism of filmmakers who use dogs as major characters. It does beg the question of whether the producers should issue a statement at the end of each episode or movie urging people not to impulse buy dogs. That begs the next question; would such a statement really have an impact on people who thoughtlessly buy first and ask questions later?
What’s the point of all this? I don’t know. Maybe I’m just ranting. One would think that I’m accentuating the obvious by pointing out that getting a dog on a whim is far different than getting an Iphone for the sole reason that it’s the latest novelty that you’ve gotta have. That I’m not accentuating the obvious is borne out by the fact that in 1998, two years after the release of the movie 101 Dalmatians an estimated 7500 Dalmatians entered Southern California animal shelters and for most of those dogs it was probably their last stop in life. Maybe this is all pointless because in the end people gotta be people and sometimes that’s just not a good thing. One thing is clear; dogs deserve better.