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Great Dane in the woods

The essentials

  • The Dane isn’t Danish — French naturalist Georges -Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, first cited the giant breed while traveling in Denmark and called it a “Grand Danois,” or Big Danish, but the breed originated in Germany.
  • They were originally boar hounds — Bred for speed, agility, and durability, the original Great Dane was created to take down the most savage nuisance in Europe, the wild boar.
  • Later breeding produced nobles — German nobles began using the Great Dane as guard dogs for their vast estates,  ultimately producing the elegant gentle giant we recognize today.

History of the Great Dane

Great Dane dog history is not what you’d expect. For starters, this Dane is very German. The Danish had nothing to do with the creation of this breed, and the Germans actually banned the name “Great Dane” in the 1800s, adopting the name “Deutsche Dogge,” or German Mastiff. Present day Europe still uses the name, but English-speaking countries didn’t follow suit. In most parts of the world, the breed is widely known as the Great Dane.

Origin of the breed

There’s speculation regarding the precise lineage of the Great Dane. Most agree that the gentle giant is descended from a Mastiff, or a Mastiff-like dog from Germany. A smaller segment of canine historians suggest all Mastiff-type dogs are originally from Asia, pointing to ancient Chinese literature describing a Dane-like dog.

The more widely-held belief is that the breed was created by crossing a Mastiff and an Irish wolfhound, though some believe Greyhounds were involved. Either way, their physical traits definitely came from large-breed dogs. Here’s a look at each breed that may have played a role in the creation of the Great Dane.

Mastiff. These heavily-built British dogs were bred to hunt large game, go into ancient battle, and often used in dog fighting. Their strength, bravery, and size made them an ideal candidate for cross-breeding to produce powerful dogs capable of boar hunting.

Irish Wolfhound. Today we know this breed as docile, but they’re called wolfhounds for a reason! Tall, strong, and courageous, Irish Wolfhounds were once used to chase down and kill wolves and pull armored riders off their horses. The wolfhound’s large size and tenacity were desired qualities for the Great Dane.

Greyhound. Irish Greyhounds were bred for hunting and racing and are the fastest dogs in the world. The speed and agility that a Greyhound offers would have been ideal qualities for a boar hound meant to pursue their prey.

Rise in popularity of the Great Dane

Wild boar hunting waned in popularity, but the Great Dane didn’t. German breeders determined to alter the development of the breed and in 1876, the Great Dane was named the national breed of Germany. The perfect boar hunter transitioned into a house companion, or “chamber dog.”

The American Kennel Club recognized the breed in 1889, quickly followed by the formation of the Great Dane Club of America. American breeders continued to refine the breed into the gentleman (or lady) we know and love today.

The laid-back demeanor of today’s Great Dane makes them a popular choice for homes with children and other pets. Well-mannered Danes are not aggressive, but their size makes them an intimidating guard dog. In 2022, Great Danes ranked as the 19th most popular breed in the United States, and West Virginia remains the state with the largest amount of Great Dane parents.

Great Danes today

The life of a Great Dane has evolved dramatically since their days as a boar hunter. The modern Great Dane makes for a mannerly, affectionate pet. The breed is so beloved that they’ve been the subject of literature and film, and make a regular appearance in the Working Group at dog shows.

Great Danes in pop culture

More than a few Great Danes have had their fifteen minutes of fame. Something about the sweet personality on such a giant build has captivated many creatives. You might recall Great Danes making a cameo in The Patriot or Disney’s Oliver and Company. Even Batman himself keeps a Great Dane (Ace) as his companion. As for literature, well-known children’s book author, Walter Farley, wrote a story called The Great Dane Thor about a boy and his dog.

Here are a few of the most famous Great Danes in pop culture.

Scooby-Doo. One of the most well-known cartoon characters of all time, Scooby-Doo might take the cake as the most famous fawn Great Dane. Great Danes were once believed to ward off ghosts and evil spirits, and it’s believed that’s why the creators of Scooby-Doo chose the breed.

Marmaduke. The long-running newspaper comic strip featuring Great Dane “Marmaduke” was later made into a movie (2010). The film prompted the American Kennel Club to issue a reminder that while Great Danes may pull your heart strings, they’re a huge responsibility (literally). Prospective owners must remember Great Dane’s weight, spatial, and food needs before rushing to google “Great Dane puppies for sale.”

Astro. If you were a kid in the 1960s, you’ll remember the hit show The Jetsons on repeat every Saturday morning. Astro the Great Dane was part of the iconic series as George’s best friend. A very affectionate pup (as are most Great Danes), Astro was an indispensable character on the show.

Show dogs

The sight of a Great Dane will stop most people in their tracks, making them spectacular show dogs of the working breeds. The rare harlequin Great Dane is popular for shows, since the genetic coloring is highly sought after and difficult to produce.

Their regal appearance, great size, and graceful movements command attention and respect. Great Danes are highly trainable and eager to please their owners, making them a joy to work with in the show world.

While their size makes them elegant, it can also be a downfall. Some Great Danes may appear clumsy or awkward in tight spaces or making sharp turns. Their calm demeanor can also be mistaken as laziness or lack of energy, which won’t impress a judge looking for a more dynamic performance.

Great Danes make regular appearances in The AKC National Championship, Westminster, The National Dog Show, as well as many other shows across the world.

👉See these spectacular show dogs in action at the 2022 National Dog Show. 

Advocacy groups for Great Danes

Advocacy groups have formed over the years to offer education about the breed, and work to improve the health and life span of these giant dogs. The best resource is the Great Dane Club of America, the official AKC Parent Club for Great Danes. The group includes enthusiasts, breeders, veterinarians and researchers. This group and others conduct extensive health tests to try and give Great Danes the best and longest life possible, as well as work to prevent major health issues that contribute to their short life span.

At the top of the list for health issues is gastric dilation volvulus, more commonly known as bloat, the #1 killer of Great Danes. Advocacy groups teach owners and prospective owners about preventative surgery as well as food management to help lessen the risk of bloat. Scientific research on genetics and DNA is collecting evidence to show how selective, highly informed breeding might help improve the overall health for Great Danes.

Most groups agree that you can keep your Great Dane in good shape by making sure it gets enough exercise, taking regular trips to the veterinarian, and educating yourself on the needs of a dog of this size.

Frequently asked questions

Why don’t Great Danes live very long?

The short life span of a Great Dane likely comes down to genetics and a history of breeding for a certain look, combined with a variety of health problems like bloat and heart disease.

What breeds make up a Great Dane?

Their specific lineage of the Great Dane is a little uncertain, though the dog definitely comes fromMastiff-type dogs and German dog breeders. The breed is thought to be a combination of the English Mastiff, the Irish Wolfhound, and Irish Grey hounds.

What are Great Danes called in Germany?

Germans have a different name for the breed, Deutsche Dogge. People living in Denmark, which aren’t actually tied to Great Danes at all, call the dogs Grand Danois.

Were Great Danes bred for war?

Great Danes were originally bred to be boar hounds, but were also used in the military. “Nuisance”, a Great Dane, was enlisted as the only canine member of the Royal Navy in 1939.

Are Great Danes good with young kids?

Yes. Generally speaking Great Danes are very affectionate and tolerant of children, although proper obedience training and socialization for safety is required for a dog of any breed.