Apollo, the Greek god of sunlight, music, and poetry, was credited with a bright, shining countenance of great beauty. At the reins of his fiery chariot, Apollo drove across the sky, bringing the life-giving warmth of the sun. Fittingly, the tall and handsome Great Dane is called “the Apollo of dogs,” with a gentle temperament housed in a majestic body worthy of the sun-god himself.
Mastiff-type dogs have existed for thousands of years, taking different forms in different places, depending on their purpose. In the Germanic principalities of the 16th century and perhaps even earlier, the Mastiff took the form of a giant boarhound: savage, swift, and powerful. Among the names it wets known by were German mastiff and, in French, Grand Danois, although it’s unknown why the French chose to call the dogs Great Danes.
With the forces of change that swept through Europe in the 19th century, however, the lifestyle to which the dogs had been bred began to vanish. Nonetheless, there was little chance that the immense boarhounds would vanish along with it. In 1876, they were declared the national breed of Germany — the Deutsche Dogge, as they are still known there — and were prized by the states man Otto von Bismarck, who kept them as bodyguards. The German breed club developed a standard in 1881; a scant eight years later, a breed club formed in the United States, making the Great Dane Club of America (GDCA) one of the oldest parent clubs on this side of the Atlantic.
During these early years, English breeders crossed the somewhat coarse Great Danes with Greyhounds, leading to a more refined Dane, says judge Carolyn Thomas of Marlboro, Massachusetts, a Great Dane fancier for more than 40 years. “The American breeders continued to define the Dane by removing ‘hound’ characteristics by developing level toplines, proper broad, and very slightly sloping croups, and well-placed tail-sets. Heads were improved to meet the standard.” Along the way, the breed’s savage nature was tamed, as its original function no longer existed, making it the gentle giant that it is today.
“We have very deliberately bred away from dogs with unreliable temperaments, which are totally unacceptable in today’s society,” says Thomas, who describes the Great Dane as a thinking guard dog and family companion. “We ask judges to help the breed by never rewarding unstable temperament.” Indeed, a judge who approaches the Great Dane should encounter a dog that stands impassively with out trembling. “A Dane should welcome being approached, being touched but there is a reservedness,” says Fran Schwartz of Lake Forest, Illinois who has judged the breed since 1980.
Breed Type Basic
What a judge should see is an elegant dog substance. The Great Dane has a unique look that stands out. The three characteristics that contribute the overall impression type are good length of the leg under the body, balanced by a long, elegant, correctly set, and notched neck, and topped off with a long, well-chiseled, rectangular head.
“Never should you see his ancestors such as the Mastiff or Greyhound,” says Thomas. “If you do, breed type has been lost. The Great Dane is a giant dog with strength yet elegance, and is always well balanced. We mean balanced throughout: head to body, length of neck and depth of body to length of leg, amount of bone to amount of body, and substance, as well as angulation front and rear.”
Another characteristic of Great Dane breed type is a strong impression of either masculinity or femininity. “When I’m evaluating, I want to see the difference between a dog and a bitch without having to look at their plumbing,” Schwartz says. “I want a very masculine dog. I can take a bitch that’s a little bit doggy, but never a dog that’s a little bitchy. It should be clear as to their gender.”
The head, of course, is important in setting any breed type. Of the working breeds, the Great Dane is the only one whose standard calls for a long, rectangular head. “The wedge heads and narrow forefaces are two of the most commonly overlooked serious faults, yet they negate our rectangular head,” Thomas says. “We want a head that is totally clean, both in profile with its flat, parallel planes, and head on, with clean, flat sides. The head must be in balance with the rest of the dog.”
Finally, a sound gait is essential. The Dane is not a dog that should race around the ring like a sighthound. Despite its large size, the breed should have a smooth, majestic gait. Thomas likes to see Great Danes moved on a loose lead going, coming, and in profile, with speed adjusted to suit the individual dog. Former GDCA president Linda Tonnancour of Yorba Linda, California, agrees. “With a dog as large as a Great Dane, if he’s not moved on a loose lead, it definitely can distort the movement,” says Tonnancour. “Occasionally, some handlers seem to know only one speed, and it doesn’t work for all animals.”
Long Live the Dane
A giant breed, the Great Dane is prone to certain health problems and is subject to a shorter life span than smaller dogs. While some Great Dane owners have had dogs live to be 13 or 14, a more common life span is nine or 10 years and sometimes even younger. “What troubles me most is the lack of longevity,” Thomas says. “Health factors must be bred for just as carefully as breed characteristics. We have to remember that a large majority of the Danes we breed become family pets and companions. It is a tragedy that these, as well as our show and breeding stock, are being lost so young.”
The club is making a concerted effort to find answers to the breed’s health problems, which include gastric torsion, or bloat, cardiomyopathy, cancer, and autoimmune disease. These conditions likely play a role in the breed’s lack of longevity.
Great Danes are also subject to some orthopedic problems, probably related to rapid growth during the dog’s first year. Fortunately, hip dysplasia and osteochondritis dissecans, although they do exist, are not as serious today as they might have become without the effort to address health problems by conscientious breeders.
The Great Dane fancy, according to Hardiman and other custodians of the breed, is fortunate to have among its members people who are extraordinarily gifted in terms of their commitment, dedication, and understanding of the breed.