The Tragic Plight of the Siberian Husky 'Dire Wolf'

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

abandoned siberian huskies

Story at-a-glance -

  • Northern breed dogs, especially Siberian huskies, are being abandoned at record rates
  • The fantasy series Game of Thrones, which features now-extinct dire wolves, seems to have been the trigger for both the exploding demand and supply of huskies, many of which end up in animal shelters and rescues
  • Huskies can be very challenging pets for owners who don’t fully understand what they’re getting into
  • This breed does best with an experienced, knowledgeable pet parent who can provide an hour or more of vigorous daily exercise, and ongoing opportunities for social experiences and training throughout their dogs’ lives

For some time now, animal shelters and rescue organizations have seen a significant increase in abandoned and relinquished northern breed dogs.

This trend is the unfortunate result of the tremendous popularity of the fantasy drama television series Game of Thrones, which featured dire wolves — prehistoric canines that were portrayed in the series as imposing, intelligent and fiercely loyal to their human family. As contributing editor Susan Tasaki writes in a recent article in Bark magazine:

"Northern-breed rescue groups in both the U.S. and abroad began seeing an uptick in the numbers of dogs in need starting in 2011, the year Game of Thrones debuted. As the U.K.'s largest dog welfare charity, Dogs Trust, reported in 2019, 'In 2010, a year before the first series aired, just 79 Alaskan malamutes, Siberian huskies and Akitas were cared for by Dogs Trust, compared to 411 last year — a 420 percent increase'."1

Siberian Huskies: The New 'Dire Wolf'

The dire wolf has been extinct for hundreds of thousands of years, which of course presented a casting challenge for the Game of Thrones series creators, so the canine stars of the show were actually an Arctic wolf and a variety of crossbreeds of Siberian huskies, Samoyeds, malamutes and other northern breeds.

Unfortunately, as dog movie star trends tend to go (remember Bruiser, Reese Witherspoon's little dog in the movie Legally Blonde, and the explosion of homeless Chihuahuas that continues to this day?), fans of Game of Thrones went in search of their own "dire wolves," and settled for the next best thing, northern breed dogs, and Siberian huskies in particular.2

Sadly, many huskies end up at shelters because people choose them for their looks without regard for their challenging Arctic dog temperament (northern breeds are tough, determined and self-sufficient, for starters).

To make matters worse, puppy mills and backyard breeders have created generations of huskies with exaggerated negative traits, as well as traits that aren't normal for the breed. As long-time Siberian Husky rescuer Randee McQueen, treasurer of the Bay Area Siberian Husky Club, tells the American Kennel Club (AKC):

"… many people are buying these dogs online, without doing the necessary research on the needs of Siberian huskies. McQueen stresses the importance of doing plenty of research, and of buying from a responsible and ethical breeder, even though that will probably mean putting your name on a list and waiting for a dog to become available."3

Tasaki agrees:

"People buy one of these fluffy puppies on impulse (often online) and find themselves in way over their heads."

Beautiful to Look At, Challenging to Own

Dire wolf fans undoubtedly gravitated to Siberian huskies due to their wild, wolf-like appearance. "Sibes" as they are often called, are medium-sized dogs with a light, compact frame that is well-proportioned and muscular. Male huskies average 21 to 23.5 inches in height and 45 to 60 pounds. Females are a bit smaller at 20 to 22 inches and 35 to 50 pounds.

dire wolf
siberian husky

Dire Wolf

Siberian Husky

While any dog breed can require more time, energy and attention than a novice pet owner bargained for, northern breeds present a special challenge for pet parents unable or unwilling to meet their dog's significant need for exercise and other forms of stimulation.

"Over the years, as the entertainment industry has fueled demand for particular types of dogs, puppy mills and backyard breeders have ramped up their efforts to meet it," writes Tasaki. "(Reputable breeders spend a lot of time quizzing prospective buyers about their lifestyle and housing situation—doing their best to talk them out of getting a Husky unless they have a real commitment to the dog's well-being.)

Here's the bottom line: Unless you truly understand what huskies need and are willing and able to provide it, don't give in to the image, or the impulse. Without the exercise and stimulation they require, huskies become frustrated and act out. If the owner doesn't understand why that's happening, the acting-out can lead to a one-way trip to the shelter, to being abandoned far from home, or worse."

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Siberian Huskies 101

As a general rule (and there are always exceptions, of course), huskies who don't receive the amount of physical activity and mental stimulation they require will "figure it out themselves," according to Dawn Eisele, Public Education Chair of the Siberian Husky Club of America (SHCA),4 often with disastrous consequences. Some of the potential challenges of Husky ownership:

They can be difficult to train — These dogs are extremely intelligent; however, they aren't as eager to please their humans as some other breeds (e.g., the Golden Retriever) which makes them more challenging to train.

Huskies do best with experienced, knowledgeable owners who insure they are continually socialized and trained throughout their lives. Some Husky owners have discovered their dogs to be "street angels and house devils," meaning they do well in formal obedience classes, but tend to ignore their training at home.

They are notorious escape artists — Sibes have a well-earned reputation for wandering away from home given the chance, and many of these beautiful dogs have been injured or lost forever as a result.

Huskies can jump fences, crawl under them, defeat tie-out chains, slip collars, and perform other Houdini-like behaviors to free themselves from "captivity." Having a Husky in the family means installing a high fence that is buried several inches below the ground, and constantly checking your yard for ways your dog might escape.

They're high energy and easily bored — If you're a dedicated runner or biker, a Husky can make a great exercise companion as long as the weather isn't too warm. Again (and this can't be said enough), these dogs require plenty of physical and mental stimulation, and when they don't get it, they are known to be destructive. This is also the case if they're left alone for long periods.

They aren't guard dogs — Despite their imposing presence, Sibes are generally friendly and curious dogs, and not prone to barking at strangers (though some tend to really enjoy howling).

They have strong predatory instincts — It's important to keep your Husky leashed on walks so he can't wander off or chase after small animals.

They're super-shedders — And also, thanks to their double coats, huskies don't tolerate the heat very well.

With that said, huskies are intelligent and affectionate dogs without being "needy." They aren't typically aggressive, though they can be territorial. A well-trained, well-socialized Husky does well with both children and other dogs. Experienced Husky owners provide the following for their dogs:

  • Training — As independent-minded dogs, they need obedience training early in their lives, and their owners must be rigorous in adhering to it.
  • Plenty of exercise for body and mind — This means several miles of walking or running per day, plus mental stimulation.
  • An enclosed space they can't escape from should a small critter wander by, or when boredom strikes.
  • Daily brushing and a high tolerance for dog hair.

With all this information in mind, if you're convinced a Husky is the dog for you, I hope you'll adopt from a shelter or breed rescue group.


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