“Game of Thrones” viewers who were hoping to get another glimpse of direwolves were disappointed on Sunday night. The wolf Nymeria did not reconsider her rejection her former human companion, Arya Stark. Jon Snow’s journey to Dragonstone did not feature Ghost as a sidekick. Their absence will no doubt add to fan grumbling that the series has sidelined the computer-generated predators.
But take heart, viewers: Dire wolves are closer to a real-life resurrection.
Well, sort of. In southern Oregon, there is a breeder who has spent 30 years creating a new sort of dog she calls the American Alsatian. The puppies are astonishingly cute, and they grow up to be tall, broad, golden-eyed and quite wolfy-looking. And, Lois Schwarz hopes, they are on their way to looking just like the actual dire wolves that roamed the Americas during the last Ice Age, hunting bison and other megafauna, before going extinct.
Schwarz is the founder of the Dire Wolf Project, an endeavor that predated both the “Game of Thrones” books and series — a show she calls “very, very smart,” although she dislikes the sex and darkness. Inspiration struck her decades before, in the late 1980s — an era when wolf-dog hybrids were hot and Schwarz wanted large dog with the character of a lap dog. She had bred and trained dogs for some time, and she said she knew that even if people thought they wanted a wolf, they really didn’t. (Wolves and hybrids make infamously terrible pets.)
Schwarz figured: Hey, I can make that.
“So I thought, everybody wants the wolf look; I’m going to work on the wolf look, but I’m also going to work on the temperament and the character of the dog to fit a companion dog,” said Schwarz, who lives near the city of Medford. Her daughter, Jennifer, suggested that the look she was aiming for was a dire wolf’s. And so away Schwarz went.
And what was that look? The dire wolves of the late Pleistocene weren’t nearly as imposing as George R.R. Martin’s pony-sized predators, which the author spells as one word, direwolves. But fossils indicate they had some heft.
Canis dirus existed from about 125,000 to 10,000 years ago, and it lived from coast to coast, as far north as Canada and as far south as Bolivia. But the treasure trove of fossils comes from the La Brea Tar Pits in what is now downtown Los Angeles, where, scientists say, the ancient pack animals probably pursued prey that was stuck in the goopy asphalt and then got trapped themselves.
The result is hundreds of well-preserved skulls and bones that show dire wolves were a lot like the gray wolves of today, only a bit bigger — weighing about 130 pounds and measuring about six feet long from nose to tail. Dire wolves were also stockier and had bigger heads, jaws and teeth, said paleontologist Caitlin Brown. Those dimensions came in handy, because packs of dire wolves took down big prey, she said: horses, bison, and maybe even the occasional baby mammoth.
This sort of hunting was rough on dire wolves, said Brown, who examined La Brea fossils during her doctoral studies at the University of California at Los Angeles. She and colleagues found lots of neck injuries, which she said dire wolves probably incurred “from biting onto their prey and being dragged and thrashed around while they got it down to the ground.”
This point relates to one quibble — a small one, she emphasized — that Brown has with the series: The direwolves of HBO usually lunge at their enemies’ heads, whereas wolves typically drag down their prey from the haunches.
“I would think they would pull them down from the hip level instead of leaping dramatically — which would not look as amazing, so I understand completely why they’d go for that,” said Brown, who also noted that prehistoric dire wolves’ heads were larger compared to their bodies than those of the series. “I’m okay with it. In my mind, there can be a fantasy creature called a direwolf and a real life dire wolf.”
In Schwarz’s mind, there can also be a modern-day dire wolf. A kinder, gentler, cuddlier dire wolf.
She began her experiment in 1987, thousands of years after its inspiration went extinct under circumstances that are still unclear. Schwarz said she wanted to start with an intelligent dog, so she chose the German shepherd. But they tend to be “whiny,” in her estimation, so she selected the least whiny pooches and bred them with dogs whose conformation, or body structure, she deemed the best: Alaskan malamutes.
Over the generations, she has introduced English mastiffs, for their large bones and heads; great Pyrenees, for some additional bulk; Akitas, for their shorter ears; and Irish wolfhounds, for their height and length. But all along, Schwarz said, her focus was temperament — creating a decidedly nonpredatory companion dog that “doesn’t bark, whine, dig and wants to be with you and doesn’t mind leaving the property.”
(If this all sounds like messed-up canine eugenics, remember that all dog breeds began this way — by selecting for certain traits.)
The result is big, shaggy and dusky gray to brown, but never the white of Jon Snow’s Ghost, because Schwarz figures pale fur would have stood out too much in the prehistoric flora and impeded hunting. Brown, the paleontologist, isn’t so sure about that. She thinks white is “feasible,” gray is likely, and only black is impossible, because “we know for sure that black coats showed up in modern wolves from breeding with Native American dogs.”
Brown, who had not heard of Schwarz’s project, deemed it “cool,” when told about it. “They have that big, bulky body, which is what I would have imagined,” she said of the dogs in photos on Schwarz’s website.
Schwarz said the American Alsatian is not really complete, and she has no intention of making it an official, American Kennel Club-recognized breed anyway. That hasn’t stopped about 3,000 people across the country from buying one of her puppies and 90 or so others from putting their names on her waiting list. Her daughter, the only other breeder, has a waiting list of about 100, Schwarz said.
“Game of Thrones” has given demand a bump, but not in a way Schwarz likes. The fiction-motivated customers are looking for their Ghost or Nymeria, she said.
“It sends me people who only want dire wolves. They don’t care about the animal,” she said. “They’re very sensitive, loving, kind dogs. They don’t want to fight.”
Yes, they’re “intimidating-looking,” she said. But “they’re just so intuitive. You look into their eyes and see their soul.”
Kind of like Arya did to Nymeria, before the wolf turned her back and returned to the Riverlands.