The Great Dane is at breaking point in Europe. Many people think that a split into two breeds is unavoidable; some would welcome it even, as the only possible option in order to resolve the current crisis. The breed is already practically divided between two distinctly different types, both exhibited at FCI shows, not always simultaneously, though the occasional mingling does happen in major events like World and European Winner shows. Usually the type of the entry reflects the judge. So, evidently, not all judges serve the standard. (This must surely be a goodly candidate for the ‘understatement of the year’ award).
German Champion 1928 Pankgraff – European Great Dane ideal in the 50s.
from ‘The Time Traveller – The Development Of The Great Dane’ by Jill Evans.
The classic or standard type still represents the majority in the Nordic countries, while a much heavier, coarser deviation, or Hyper-Type, dominates Club events and some all-breed shows on the continent, particularly in France and countries in the South and East of Europe. Germany itself, central Europe, Holland, Switzerland et al present a mixed lot, at times favoring the Standard or the Hyper, depending on the preference of the officiating judges. There is also a growing population demonstrating mixed tendencies, so-called ‘moderate‘ Hyper-type or borderline Danes, still presenting a drift towards the heavy mastiff morphology but not quite yet grossly extreme.
The Standard and the Hyper type dogs are rarely combined in breeding, so in reality there is already a partition in place, effected by breeding selection bias favoring two diametrically opposing phenotypes. There are some exceptions, attempts from the hyper side of the divide to moderate or even return to the classic type using standard dogs, or to achieve something in between, yet these are few and far between (and even then it’s unclear if the real motives are to restore the breed or to merely pander to judging favoritism; so, such trends may prove to be rather fickle and changeable over time, following the latest fashion). Conversely, there is a tendency from the standard side to use heavier or moderate Hyper type dogs, in order to produce a style that appeals to both judging preferences, or to add so called ‘substance’ (mass) to the classic type Dane. This taste for bulkiness & ‘cobby’ (draft horse type, as opposed to thoroughbred type, which is closer to the Dane’s ideal body type) individuals has been steadily gaining popularity even in the Standard Type strongholds. Overall breeding selection therefore is effectively shifting, pulling the Great Dane type towards the heavier end of the spectrum; and this has been going on for quite some time. Showing, or more precisely, conformation assessment, i.e. judging, has become the main and far too important driver of breeding choices; collectively and cumulatively, show results and judges are what’s steering the breed, way more than any other factor. If we take a good look at the Great Dane’s progress as a breed in Europe, in the last thirty or forty years, objectively, we can’t even remotely conclude that the course has been successful, sound or safe.
German Ch. Landra v.d. Eremitage (b.1969) – DDC Centenary Jubilee figurine 1989
Again there are some bright exceptions, breeders who consciously strive to restore physical fitness and avoid the health problems and shortened lifespan associated with exaggeration; no doubt experience gained from trial and error led to realism and moderation; tragically, and by no means exclusively in our breed, fatal inherited health defects are so widespread that breeding has become a minefield. Infertility in male dogs, small litters, puppy mortality and temperament issues are on the increase, indicating that, in some regions at least, Great Dane populations are already experiencing inbreeding depression. DCM exists in such a vast number of pedigrees that to find a ‘safe’ male to use is becoming extremely difficult. It’s even more difficult in a breed that is already ‘old’ at five or six years of age and so using older sires or waiting until a bitch is over five years of age to breed her presents other problems. And yet we are still to see a world-wide health survey in the 80+ countries of the FCI – or a European survey, at least. [Recommended reading: the health surveys published by The Kennel Club (UK) IN 2004 and 2014, as well as the surveys conducted by the Great Dane Club of America and the Australian Great Dane community, also the all-breed mortality study conducted in Sweden].
Some breeders who have realized the dangers from a diminishing gene pool are taking desperate measures – mixing standard Danes and heavily overdone dogs, with variable results. This in itself is a problem, because it has the potential of ‘fixing’ undesirable traits even on generally standard-looking individuals. The drift towards the hyper-end of the spectrum is so well established in parts of Europe, that for some breeders it would be unthinkable to do such outcrosses using classic type dogs instead, from other regions and bloodlines: they are afraid they would lose ‘type’ and thus the progeny would be unsuccessful in European show rings. Additionally, the lack of a widespread practice of health testing in the UK prevents the potential benefits of using more British-bred Danes elsewhere. So in effect we are witnessing a multiple fragmentation of the breed in smaller sub-population islands, that practical difficulties, long-rooted perceptions & prejudice are making difficult to interconnect and exchange genetic benefits between.
photos R. Stolzewski
This situation is extremely critical for a breed already segregated by color varieties, of a giant size (a factor that poses its own complications) and popularity that is a double-edged sword, making it a status symbol and putting it in the hands of many who are not suitable or who blatantly exploit it. We need to realize that exhibiting and winning at shows is today what is shaping the breed as it guides selection bias to this or that direction and favors the popular sire syndrome. Breeding for performance, working ability, physical fitness and even temperament (i.e., steady nerves and a good mental equilibrium, instead of dogs that are too ‘soft’ to handle even mild pressures in normal day to day stimuli), has largely or even totally been replaced in our breed, as it happened with many others who are no longer working, by breeding primarily for dog show success. And that could have been well and good, if the breed standard was adhered to and if an effective framework, serving soundness of mind and body, genetic health and viability, had been implemented as an essential and fundamental basis of a holistic, instead of primarily morphological, assessment. The so-called ‘breeding confirmation’ or suitability for breeding evaluation system that applies in some European countries represents such an attempt; yet objectively, examining the results over decades, we can only say that the attempt has failed. There are many dogs that, despite of displaying untypical conformation (in the words of Prof. Denis, “lacking type”), disqualifying faults or unacceptable temperament, they have been approved – or even recommended – for breeding. Judges are clearly not doing their duty to the breed but making favors to their friends – or are simply inadequate – yet there is no control over such actions. (The show system operates on the premise that results will ‘even out’ over time and even if one judge makes a mistake the next few shows will correct it; this may be true but it doesn’t apply on single events such as approval for breeding; the judges who are employed for such crucial assessments are specialists in the breed usually, but even that is not a guarantee of erring on the side of caution). Health and longevity have not improved, they haven’t even been maintained at the same level – on the contrary, they have deteriorated – and conformation is at a crossroads.
In his foreword for the Illustrated standard publication of the Deutsche Doggen Club 1888 e.V. in 2011, the president of the DDC, Mr. Gügel (breeder of the famous Heiko von der Burg Thann, the dog selected as the model of excellence for the Club’s centenary figurine), had this to say:
“The (standard) of the Great Dane stayed the same in most of its parts, even if sometimes with different wording, especially the definition of the general appearance hasn’t changed. But if one compares the Champions of earlier times with the Champions of today one can see obvious differences. The bodies are bulkier today and the heads heavier. We haven’t paid enough attention to the angulations and the movement. So faults appeared which we don’t recognize anymore today. That’s something we have to change together: the officials of the clubs, the judges and the breeders. It is not our task to only manage the breed. We have to preserve and promote it and protect it from an over-interpretation of the standard. Expertise and sound judgment is therefore recommended. It was the goal of the founding of the EUDDC Club in 1981 to join all friends of the Great Dane for a uniform interpretation of the standard. (…) Judged objectively we haven’t managed to achieve this goal in the last 25 years. Some countries still prefer very different phenotypes.”
[translated into English by Ruth Stolzewski].
In order to tackle a problem we need to examine its causes.
The factors that are at work resulting in a fundamental change in Great Dane phenotype in Europe, show some similarities as well as differences with what causes the drift towards Hyper-Type in other breeds. Some of these factors are systematic manifestations in pedigree dog breeding since the practice began and others have made their first appearance in the sixties. We must have some much needed open discourse on the subject, if we (meaning, all the people who care about the breed) are indeed serious in our intent of restoring and preserving the Great Dane, as the DDC President urged and as is our duty – to the dogs themselves and to the public that is keen to adopt Great Danes and not ‘Daniff’ substitutes.
Authentic vs pseudo-authentic
or Standard vs ‘Improved’
About the common cliché of ‘improving the breed’ or ‘betterment of the breed’:
In my opinion that is a much repeated lie and misunderstanding. You can’t ‘improve’ breed type. That is, and this point must be pondered, understood and digested, a fallacy. It has no meaning. Once type is established in a breed of dogs, there is no improvement. Breed type by definition is the breed. Saying that you improve something means that you are not satisfied with it so you are changing it. How could you, for example, ‘improve’ Greyhound type? By making the Greyhound look like a Saluki or a Borzoi? Well that’s valid and in fact many breeds began this way, by people adapting types to their own practical requirements, climates and working needs – but when they do, these new breeds are not the originals any longer and they are given a new distinctive name. This new breed, the Spanish or the Polish or the whatever ‘greyhound’ type is no longer THE Greyhound BREED. So no, you can’t ‘improve’ Breed Type. Breed Type is everything a Breed IS, is the breed’s defining identity, regardless of the wording of standards. Even if there weren’t written standards at all, we would (or should) still be able to recognize a Dane as a Dane (or a large, smooth-coated boarhound), a Greyhound as a Greyhound, a Mastiff as a mastiff and so on. And you would be able to recognize varieties or derivatives, but you would not, if you knew the first thing about dogs’morphology, mistake a greyhound for a mastiff or a wolf dog for a bulldog, a spitz for a spaniel or vice versa. So you either breed to the type as established by the breed founders in the standard, or you essentially change it to something else, something that was never intended in the first place and is alien to the breed’s essence.
What you can improve is individual dogs’ shortcomings – in their progeny; you can improve on their performance, their structure, some regions where they are not well-made; so you can improve type within a breed, by raising the quality level of the individual dogs and the population gradually towards the desirable breed type. What you can’t ‘improve’ is a breed TYPE without fundamentally altering it – unless there was something wrong with it in the first place; if that was the case, there has to be consensus and an acceptance by all those involved that the breed TYPE needs to change for x, y, z valid reasons; if and when such a consensus is reached, then the standard is altered and again everyone is supposed to start following the new standard. Have we ever reached such consensus in our breed? Has our opinion ever been asked? Was there a consultation, a discussion, a vote? Had there been any public submissions to be examined and argued openly among the breed’s keepers, about a need to change the Great Dane breed type drastically and fundamentally, to shift it towards this or that direction so that it no longer represents a golden medium between a mastiff and a greyhound and neither of the two extremes? (see). I don’t remember and I can’t find any evidence of such an event.
The President of the DDC confirms that the breed type / the breed standard, “has not changed, has not been altered in its fundamental parameters”. So what happened? Why and how and on whose authority did a group of people decide that they can take off in a different direction, dragging the breed to their heels? When and why standard type and soundness went out of fashion and at whose orders? And why should we, the majority of the breed’s custodians and keepers, who haven’t strayed, respect the wishes of this ‘junta’, of this hyper-type promoting & self-serving cabal, to keep calling their breed Great Dane, when it obviously is not? Why do we have to entertain an arbitrarily and inappropriately enforced take over, effectively a veritable coup to establish a status quo, without due process and democratic consensus? They can take off in any direction they wish – they are free agents – but they can’t carry the breed off with them; it’s not their property. The breed is nobody’s property. They can call their dogs anything they wish – but there is already a Great Dane and it’s not for the taking, not for usurping and not for distorting to suit some people’s bizarre tastes and ridiculous interpretation of what the Apollo of dogs is. The Apollo reference is important because it refers to a specific body type – neither weedy nor heavy or coarse, neither a windhound’s nor a mastiff’s – and that is exactly why this definition was retained in the standard. It’s the breed’s last line of defense against total mastiffication.
German Ch. Dolf v.d. Saalburg, born 1924
The breed standard gives a general appearance description that clearly excludes unsound, unbalanced, untypical, coarse, dysfunctional, overdone and disfigured dogs from being acceptable within the Great Dane breed. The Great Dane is supposed to be a dog of perfect equilibrium between strength and elegance, possessing both in the ideal degree. Breed standards were put in place precisely to safeguard the breed(s) from deviations and misconstructions. I personally have absolutely nothing against changing standards or standard areas that are erroneous, harmful, hyperbolic, inaccurate or inappropriate. But there are due procedures to be followed, democratic debates and scientific consultations to be had, in order to check the validity of any such proposed changes and to achieve agreements, to avoid dichotomy and to protect the breed’s integrity in the process, from the effects of yet another major loss of genetic wealth. Unfortunately that is precisely what has been allowed to happen under unwise and ineffective monitoring of trends in the last thirty or forty years and with inexplicable kowtowing to irregular and divisive fractions and fashions. The breed has been de facto altered and is at the pointing of breaking in two while we’ve been asleep at the wheel.
What was wrong with the original, classic Great Dane type? Let the accusers speak up, present their case and see if they can convince us with rational arguments and documented facts. Let them prove their views are correct, if they can. What is their evidence? What have they to propose that could be valid, that could be better? In what way are their cumbersome, mastinoid pachyderms ‘improved’ in comparison to our Great Danes? They are unfortunate disabled dogs, painful even to look at. What was so wrong with the breed, to cause some to betray it, and change it beyond recognition? Absolutely nothing was wrong. They were moderate, workmanlike, functional and beautiful dogs. They had the beauty of fitness for purpose. The breed was established by putting into the melting pot a variety of landraces and phenotypes, with the crystal clear intention and expressed written instruction within a perfectly reasonable breed description to standardize a population within these essential, fundamental and specific parameters: “The Great Dane combines in its overall appearance size, power and elegance […]. It does not have the heaviness and clumsiness of the Mastiff, nor the lankiness and light weight reminiscent of the Greyhound’s shape, but holds the middle ground between either extreme”.
By the “golden years” of the 1920s & 1930s (and that’s why people need to study the breed’s history) breed type had already been beautifully achieved, fixed and universal. The German Siegerin was Westminster champion and the Westminster champion was German Siegerin. Something must have gone wrong along the way since, because such a thing is not likely to happen today – 90 years later. Is the breed richer or poorer because of such a divisive state of affairs? who has strayed from the original and why? I leave the reader to decide. It wasn’t even that long ago when American-bred dogs could win in Scandinavia and Britain and British-bred or Scandinavian-bred dogs could win in America; last year an Australian-bred bitch was a top winner in the UK and Danes of Nordic breeding and style were winning in Holland. Can an American-bred or Australian-bred or a Danish-bred dog win in France today though? Or in some other EuDDC & European shows? And why not? Can a French-bred ‘Daniff’ win in Finland or in Canada? Or should it even?
All we had to do almost a century ago already was maintain the type and safeguard it like the apple of our eye, breeding sound dogs conforming to the standard, proceeding with caution and moderation. But people strayed instead – for their own selfish and self-serving reasons, in pursue of glory and influence and profiteering. So now they can advertise their studs and puppies as ‘authentic’ and ‘original’ Euro- Danes, claiming they are an ‘evolution’ of ‘true’ type and exporting them to unsuspecting fools around the world. Ka-chink, goes their cash register…
Original vs pseudo-Original
It has happened in many breeds – one look at the modern GSD for example makes you wonder if that was really the vision of von Stephanitz. Or if the modern continental Boxer was what Frau Stockman would approve of. I think they would be scathing in their criticism of the evident deterioration. Why is it, that every time a breed reaches global status, and good quality dogs are produced in various regions around the world, some small group of people somewhere in a little office high up on an ivory tower are mumbling, “this is not good – we have to make some changes again, our products aren’t selling, we’re losing our monopoly“? The answer is pretty obvious – and it has some shocking results…
Breed type, as a matter of fact, is established very quickly – in a few generations – and after that every attempt to ‘improve it’ by dragging the breed away from the original, moderate, natural and efficient model is no more than distortion and deviation, committed by people who are too arrogant and too ambitious to follow the standard. The further away a breed is driven from what is efficient, ergonomic and biomechanically sound, the worse the effects on soundness, health and longevity will be. But to be able to see and make valid observations and objectively evaluate the breed over time, we need to be both studious and sincere. We need to know the original standards and what was laid out in them and why. To know where we are, we need to know where we came from. Unfortunately, a large percentage of people in the breed today, younger people, have not had this opportunity – either because they neglected it themselves, or because it was not offered. Old books are out of print. Club websites are geared mainly towards depictions of the current winners. One is trying to find the original standards and they are nowhere to be seen and studied. Those omissions are fundamental errors creating crucial gaps in education. They are probably not intentional, but they are detrimental nevertheless. That was part of the motivation behind this blog and that’s why all the original versions & current standards are included here for the benefit of the readers.
So we can cast our eyes back and wonder – why? Why would anyone in their right mind want to do this to the Great Dane – or to any dog?
- also read: What does a boarhound look like? here , Breeding Dogs better here & No good dog goes unpunished here