The exact age of the Great Dane breed is not known, but it is likely that close ancestors of the breed have existed for thousands of years. There are drawings of dogs resembling the Great Dane on Egyptian monuments dating to 3000 B.C. Early written descriptions of similar dogs were found in Chinese literature of 1121 B.C. These ancestral Danes were less refined than those seen today – heavier in build and bred for ferocity and fearlessness rather than appearance. The Great Dane as we know it has been selectively bred as a distinct type for at least 400 years, and perhaps longer. It is widely believed that Great Danes descend from crosses between the English Mastiff and the Irish Wolfhound.
The Great Dane originally was bred in Germany for the purpose of hunting the European wild boar, which at the time was the most savage of all game on the Continent. This took a powerful, intelligent, tenacious dog, and the Dane’s personality and breed characteristics suited him perfectly to the task. German nobility were so impressed with these dogs that they began to take the best specimens as guard dogs, and ultimately companions, for their large estates. It is reported that in 1592, the Duke of Braunschweig brought a pack of 600 Great Danes to a boar hunt – supposedly, all of them males. In the 1800s, the breed in Germany began approaching the dog we know today. The Great Dane was declared the National Dog of Germany in 1876. Shortly thereafter, German fanciers declared that the breed be called the Deutsche dogge, and that all other names be abolished. Italy still calls the breed Alano, which means “mastiff.” In 1891, the Deutsche Dogge Club of Germany was formed and adopted an official standard describing the breed.
Great Danes came to the United States starting in the mid-1800s. William “Buffalo Bill” Cody apparently was an early admirer of the breed. The American Kennel Club recognized the Great Dane in 1887. The German Mastiff Club of America was founded in 1889, and two years later the parent club was renamed the Great Dane Club of America.
Great Danes are rarely used as boarhounds today, but instead have been selectively bred for docility, conformation and temperament. They easily transitioned to affectionate companions. Balance in disposition and physical characteristics remains essential in correct representatives of the breed. According to the AKC official standard, a Great Dane “must be spirited, courageous, never timid; always friendly and dependable. This physical and mental combination is the characteristic which gives the Great Dane the majesty possessed by no other breed.”
The average life expectancy of the Great Dane is from 7 to 10 years. Breed health concerns may include bloat (gastric dilatation and volvulus), callus dermatitis/pyoderma (over the hock and elbow joints), demodicosis, hip dysplasia, cervical vertebral instability/malformation (“Wobbler’s syndrome”), entropion, ectropion, eversion of the cartilage of the nictitating membrane, congenital idiopathic megaoesophagus, congenital deafness, shoulder osteochondrosis, lymphoma, osteosarcoma and dilated cardiomyopathy.