When Jon said goodbye to Ghost after the Battle of Winterfell, the poor pup didn’t exactly get his due. Still covered with blood from two days earlier and missing an ear, Ghost looked like a poster boy for an ASPCA ad.
Did real armies ever use dogs in combat? You betcha… and this goes all the way back to antiquity.
~~Violence Warning: This article contains descriptions that some readers may find disturbing.~~
War dogs must have presented a truly terrifying experience for enemy soldiers. Frenzied teeth barreling down at you, ripping flesh, mauling: I suspect most men would have chosen to have a soldier kill them in almost any other way.
Dating back as early as 600 BC, armies fought against their enemies with dogs.
The Egyptians, Greeks, Persians, Sarmatians, Baganda, Alans, Slavs, Britons, and the Romans armies all employed dogs to help with tasks ranging from combat to guarding to scouting.
During invasions, Roman military dogs hunted out resisting guerrillas.
Some armies deployed giant dogs in combat. In the Ephesians war against the Magnesia on the Maeander, Magnesian cavalry fought side-by-side with a war dog and a spear-wielding foot soldier. The Magnesians released the dogs first and they broke the enemy’s ranks, which led the spearmen to attack and then the cavalry to charge.
One of the go-to dogs for many ancient armies was the Tibetan Mastiff, which is the oldest dog breed in the world at 58,000 years. Truly a massive breed, they can weigh as much as 160 lbs.
Attila the Hun deployed giant Tibetan Mastiffs in his raids. The breed migrated to Europe because Attila brought them with him as his warriors burned through the Roman Empire.
Tibetan Mastiff originally lived with nomads in the Himalayas and guarded people, livestock, and temples. Curiously, the Tibetan word for the breed is Drog-Khyi. Sound familiar? The word translates to “nomad dog.”
By the Middle Ages, Spanish armies frequently deployed giant dogs as weapons in war. In fact, the conquistadors’ ship manifests listed dogs as weapons.
Spanish soldiers dressed the dogs in armor and spike collars and trained their dogs to kill savagely and without reservation.
To conquer the Moors in Grenada in 1260, Spanish soldiers unleashed mastiffs that weighed up to 250 lbs. Their massive jaws could rip through leather and then flesh and bone.
During the conquest of Mexico in 1520, the Spanish conquistadors sicced mastiffs, wolfhounds, pit bulls, and other massive dog breeds on the Aztecs to break their courage.
The Aztecs vastly outnumbered the conquistadors; they did not fear blood or death. The Aztecs flayed their victims, dressed up in their skin, and ate their thigh meat with beans and chilies. When the Aztecs inaugurated the Great Temple at Tenochtitlan, they cut the hearts out of 80,000 men, women, and children; the streets ran knee-deep in blood. A fearless and worthy adversary to be sure.
When the Spaniards deployed their war dogs in battle, they had the desired effect. The Aztecs had only ever encountered the timid Chihuahua-like dogs raised they raised for food; they’d never seen war dogs.
Before battle, the Spaniards starved their mastiffs for days. These dogs were already trained to kill soldiers and had acquired a taste for human flesh from the Spanish atrocities in Cuba and Hispaniola. When the Aztec soldiers encountered met them on the battlefield, the ravenous beasts tore into their unprotected flesh – ripping out their throats, disemboweling them — with such ferocity that the Aztecs thought they were dragons.
Outside of the battlefield, the conquistadors deployed dogs to “dog” or hunt down tribal chieftains, whom they often ripped to shreds. Frequently, the tribes became so terrified they didn’t even resist and simply surrendered.
Maybe this explains where George RR Martin got part of the idea for Ramsay and his long-pig-loving hounds. (Years ago, I read about the French king Louis XI, who was Edward IV’s rival, hunting prisoners in the forest with his hounds, but I can’t relocate the reference again.)
Often armies have used dogs in recent years for less gruesome purposes. During World War I, dogs functioned as sentries, pack animals (to tow machine guns and stretchers), and to find wounded on hills among many other things. Dogs were also trained to silently warn soldiers scouting terrain of enemy soldiers in the area by raising their hackles or stiffening and pointing.
There are even photos of Beagles and Airedales and Dobermans wearing gas masks during both world wars. Today the military uses dogs as messengers, to find mines and bombs, clear buildings, find enemy soldiers and to find survivors, and more.
Some of today’s war dogs return from combat zones with PTSD from the horrors they have witnessed and the losses they have experienced. In some cases, tragically, it is impossible to rehabilitate these dogs and they must be euthanized.
To return to our beloved war hero Ghost, he fought valiantly on the front lines of the Battle of Winterfell. Only to receive a kick in the teeth when his master abandoned him to go south – and possibly never see him again.
I would love it if HBO used Ghost and the other direwolves in more scenes.
Ghost is portrayed by a Canadian Arctic wolf named Quigley, who is about 10-11 years old.
In this interview about Quigley, Andrew Simpson — the wolf’s trainer — states that wolves are the hardest animal to work with. They are harder than house cats. You can’t make wolves do anything they don’t want to do. And they are nothing like dogs.
Simpson, who apparently owns 30 wolves, also discusses the ethics of using animals in films. He doesn’t make the wolves do anything they don’t want to do. Some wolves enjoy working as puppies but tire of it in adulthood. He still keeps the wolves even if they don’t want to act anymore.
The reason the wolf scenes are filmed in Canada is because Canada has some of the largest wolves in the world. Originally, HBO wanted to fly Quigley in to Northern Ireland to film his scenes. However, they eventually decided it would be easier to fly out to Calgary to film the wolf.
I don’t know whether this had anything to do with the UK’s notoriously strict — albeit somewhat looser — rabies restrictions and vaccine requirements. (I wouldn’t be surprised if Simpson wasn’t down with giving a vaccine engineered for dogs to one of his wolves.)
Arya’s wolf Nymeria still hasn’t reappeared yet. Now that Arya has fulfilled her destiny of becoming a warrior (instead of an assassin), I was hoping we would see her again. Is Arya still lost do you think? If she isn’t lost in the “darkness” of revenge anymore, maybe Nymeria will appear.
The Spanish treatment of the Aztecs during the conquest of Mexico is extremely disturbing. I did find it mildly gratifying to read that some of native peoples gave as good as they got.
Archaeologists now believe that the Acolhuas tribe, an ally of the Aztecs, captured a Spanish caravan. Unfortunately, the caravan didn’t just include soldiers; it also included innocent women, children, and indigenous people.
The Acolhuas tribe took the convoy to Zultepec, a town east of what is today Mexico city. There the Acolhuas kept their prisoners in ad-hoc cells; sacrificed them to their fertility, jaguar, and warrior dogs; and ate them over the next six months.
The Acolhuas eventually renamed the town from Zultepec to Tecoaque, which in their native Nahuatl language means: “The place where they ate them.”