The history of the Great Dane is not a one version story. Some claim this race has been evolving in Great Britain for several thousand years, while others give complete credit to German breeders. Thus, there are two different histories, both with sound historically attested evidence, and it is up to you which one to embrace. What is unquestionable is that the Great Dane’s ancestors existed in Asia some thousand years ago, later to be carried into Europe, where they were finally shaped into what we today call the Great Dane. When, how and who exactly took part in creation of this breed are the questions remaining to be answered by historians and zoologists.
One of the earliest relief
Relief from a Babylonian temple
Drawings of dogs similar to the Great Dane had been found on the Egyptian temples’ walls, dating year 3000 BC; further on, there are similar evidences in a Babylonian temple circa 2000 years before Christ. In a Babylonian temple erected in the 12th century BC, restored by king Nabucodonosor in 380 BC, we see a strong dog shaped much like the Great Dane being lead on a knitted leash by an Assyrian. Some zoologists believe all Dane-like dogs originate from the Tibet plateaus and ancient historians constantly mention Indian dogs (probably Tibetan mastiffs which lived at the Himalayan foothills) bred by Assyrians and Persians. Zoologists believe in the reliability of the oldest written record of the dogs of high similarity to the Great Dane appearing in the Chinese literature in 1121 BC.
Pretpostavlja se da su kulturno veoma razvijeni Asirci prosledili ove pse
Grcima zajedno sa drugom robom
It is surmised that highly cultured Assyrians passed the dogs to the Greeks with other commodities coming from the East: there’s a drawing on the wall of the Greek temple from the 13th century BC depicting a wild boar hunt with three Mastiff type dogs. Other sources mention Alexander the Great bringing large dogs as a present from his Indian campaign resembling Mastiffs. Those dogs became a cornerstone of hound breeding on the Greek soil, more precisely in Epirus, which later gave a name to them after the people living there. From that period a coin survived, dating year 36 BC – on a reverse there’s a dog similar to the Great Dane.
Later on, these dogs crossed the Alps and came to the lands of Central and West Europe. Romans bred heavy fighting dogs, but also lighter hunting ones; to that, they also imported famous British dogs, which were used in Roman arenas to fight the Northern Greece Molossers. Selection of these British dogs was done by “procurator cynogiae” whom Romans delegated to Winchester. Romans crossed the Assyrian dogs with the British ones which made the Great Danes relatives to both Tibetan Mastiffs and English Mastiffs. In the 5th century AD Europe was invaded by an Asiatic race named the Alani, who brought with them huge Mastiffs.
Celts interbred these giants with great greyhounds or Irish wolfhounds (or perhaps both races). These inbreeds lead to the creation of “the English dog” which is, by some, an ancestor to the modern Great Dane.
From the scull findings of the large dogs it had been proved that in the same time there were dogs akin to the Great Danes in Central Russia, Poland and Central Germany. We know that the German tribes went into military campaigns with large Mastiff dogs which were mainly used for defence of car-made barricades. In the Aleman Code of the 7th century AD we find the whole range of dog races used for hunting. The killing of the dogs was punishable in this code, which states: If a person kills a good male dog which hunts boars or a catcher of bears which can a bear or an ox overcome, such a person shall be punished by three strokes of a whip”.
Scene of large game hunt in a 12-century
There were certain disputes whether Irish wolf-dogs or English greyhounds played a less important role in the creation of the Great Dane. A French naturalist Compte de Bufon who lived in an 18th century considered an Irish wolf-dogs to be the main ancestor because the Celts took from the Romans some huge dogs from what is now England and brought them to Ireland to be bred into Irish wolf dogs. But baron George Cuvier, an anatomist who lived in the second half of the 18th century thought this was an early result of the crossing of English Mastiff and Irish wolf dog. In the early 17th century he saw these dogs for the first time traveling through Denmark, so he dubbed them “le grand danois” or the Great Dane. Germans continued, unsurprisingly, to study this race as “a German Hound”. So, although Denmark played absolutely no role in creating this race, this dog is still bound to that state in name.
European wild boars were very dangerous animals and to hunt them a fast, strong and fierce dog was needed. And precisely that was being developed. At the same time, it was realized that a dog of this size would be an outstanding guardian, though something should be done to make them fonder of humans. To that end, during the 18th and 19th century German breeders focused on development of their hunter into a friendly race with good temperament. Parallel with that, during the 18th century a dog import form England ceased and advantage was given to domestic dogs. One of the main reasons for this was the use of firearms, so large packs were no longer needed.
At the beginning of the 19th century, these dogs did not belong to aristocracy only, but to commoners as well and a certain fashion of “a dog sport” was adopted from England. The first cynological exhibition was held in 1863 in Hamburg-Altona and the Great Danes appeared as well, precisely eight Danish ones (blue and fawn) and seven ulmer (harlequin) ones, as they were called then. At the exhibitions in Hamburg (1869 & 1876) and in Hanover (1879) there was also a division into Danish and ulmer dogs, though a group of judges, as early as 1876, objected to the unsustainability of such division, stating that it was one race in question. A definitive say on the problem was reached in Berlin in 1880, when the breeders and cynological judges met at a meeting presided by Dr Bodinus and reached an agreement that this race was visibly different to an English Mastiff and officially named it “The German Hound”. In 1891 a club of “German Hounds” was established and today’s standard was broadened. Eight years later a similar club was founded in Chicago and this race was officially recognized in the USA.
In the Middle Ages, large game hunt was very popular with European nobility: for this purpose dog packs were used, sometimes with entire villages for help as well. Motifs of such hunts were a favourite painters’ theme, to be most accurately transmitted onto the canvas by Van Dyck and Ridinger. First written traces of such dogs are found in the hunt descriptions of Count Philip the Magnanimous of Hessen. There were mentioned swift and strong English dogs received into the princely houses of the continent from England. Those dogs were created by crossing of the Mastiffs with the Irish greyhounds. Up to the 16th century these huge dogs were fairly common as hunters of the wild boars both in Germany and Britain. The Germans imported a large number of these “English dogs” to interbreed with their own version in an effort to make a perfect hunter of a big game.
The book of Johann Tencer “Diana’s secret of high and low hunt” of 1699, brings detailed descriptions of these huge dogs. To protect these valuable dogs from injury, they were fitted with special armour. From that period comes a saying: “Who wants to have wild boar’s heads, must donate dog’s heads” which only goes to say how such a hunt was dangerous for the dogs. The earliest Mastiff type dogs were called wild boar hunters after the prey they hunted, but from the 16th century they go by the name of English dogs. Around 1680, the time German nobility bred large number of these dogs, the largest and most beautiful specimens were kept in their homes, befittingly named “Kammerhunde” which in literal translation means “chamber dogs”. These spoilt pets had golden collars lined with velvet.
Bosko von der Saalburg Inter. CH 1925-27
The Germans had thus officialised the race to be known further on as a “German Hound” or “German Dog” which caught on in a larger part of Europe, as they put in a lot of effort to make it so. However, Italians call this breed Alano (meaning Mastiff) and Anglo-Saxons The Great Dane.