You will have seen them around. Huskies, the wolfishly rangy but pleasingly fluffy breed of dog better known for sled-pulling and originating from East Siberia, are seemingly everywhere this summer. In parks, sitting on buses and trains or, most often, spotted in city centres attached to owners whose facial expressions suggest they might have bitten off more than the can chew.
This week, the reason for Britain’s surge in husky ownership was attributed to fantasy TV series Game of Thrones. It features near-mythical beasts called ‘direwolves’, which bear a striking resemblance to - you guessed it - huskies.
The trend has reached such dizzy heights that actor Peter Dinklage has spoken out, via animal rights organisation Peta, urging the show’s millions of fans not to purchase one. Shelters are “reporting that many of these huskies are being abandoned, as often happens when dogs are bought on impulse, without understanding their needs,” he implored. A fact less surprising given they can weigh up to 27kg and enjoy hunting small animals, including cats.
Animal welfare charity Blue Cross, meanwhile, has seen a 700 per cent growth in abandoned huskies since the series began in 2011. Before then, they saw 10 abandoned huskies a year; last year the figure was 81. They expect more over the coming months. “Huskies can pull sleds across hundreds of miles of icy terrain. They are not happy with simply slobbing in front of the telly after a 10 minute plod round the block,” said a spokesperson.
Yet ill-advisedly choosing a pet based on your favourite TV show or film is hardly a new phenomena.
With everything so immediate in our society, we expect to get a puppy over the weekend
The Men in Black franchise first sparked our obsession with pugs after Frank, a talking dog in a suit, appeared alongside Will Smith in 1997 and sales skyrocketed.
We blindly bought St Bernard’s after the 1992 family film Beethoven, Chihuahuas after Reese Witherspoon was seen carrying one under her arm in Legally Blonde in 2001, and dalmations following the 1961 release of Disney classic 101 Dalmations. In 1959, the popularity of old English sheepdogs grew 100-fold after Disney’s The Shaggy Dog, while Lassie Come Home in 1943 saw sales of collies rise by 40 per cent.
It’s always a similar story. As the once-cute puppy grows and the true responsibility of owning a dog dawns, many are handed back or, worse, turfed out.
What’s more, according to research, films can have a lasting effect on the popularity of breeds for 10 years.
A joint study by Bristol, New York and Western Carolina Universities, published in 2014, used data from the American Kennel Club and analysed it against 89 films featuring dogs. They found that we buy pets based on “ephemeral changes in fashion” driven by popular culture, rather than “functional traits”. In other words, no matter how large it grows, how much it slobbers or how much of your furniture it eats, if it looks cool in a film we want it regardless of the consequences.
And it’s not just dogs. Freda, the Blue Peter tortoise - who first appeared in 1963 and featured on the BBC show for 16 years - sparked reptile fever in Britain throughout the Sixties and Seventies. Every family wanted their own version and, as a result, large numbers were snatched from the wild, populations dwindled and tortoises were placed on the endangered list.
Decades later, in the Noughties, when the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles films were released and turtles found their way into the limelight again, charities begged parents to stop buying them as so many were being dumped or flushed down toilets.
Clown fish met a similar fate when, after Pixar’s Finding Nemo, demand for them pushed an already threatened species to the brink, as 90 per cent of clown fish sold were taken from the wild. Many were collected using cyanide and the species seemed to be on the edge of disaster, until the Saving Nemo Foundation prioritised clown fish bred in captivity to take pressure off wild stocks.
Kennel Club Secretary Caroline Kisko noticed a similar pattern with old English sheepdogs, following those now-classic Dulux adverts, first aired in 1961. “People thought they’d be good to breed and didn’t worry about temperament. Bad breeders, only interested in low costs, didn’t care with what [dog] was bred with what. Many ended up with ill temperaments and the breed’s reputation has suffered as a result.”
Our knee-jerk desire to own the latest pop culture animal is something Kisko thinks has grown more pronounced with the years.
“With everything so immediate in our society, we expect to get a puppy over the weekend. On the radio, when you hear a track you really like, you order it on Amazon and it arrives the next day. It’s the same with dogs on screen. People aren’t willing to wait and think. They make snap decisions.”
Buyers should consider the ramifications of owning a new breed or species before taking it on to ensure - like all good films - they have a happy ending.