timeless & true boarhound model: BMW Graffiti, bred by the true genius, Laura Kiaulenas
Here we examine the factors that are responsible for the Great Dane’s deviation from standard type & threatening the breed with disintegration or division, otherwise known as
“How to break a breed in 20 steps“:
- The phrase “neither a mastiff nor a greyhound but balanced between the two extremes” has been deleted from the Breed Standards. This essential breed type definition provided very clear co-ordinates for the space the Great Dane is supposed to occupy among breeds. The phrase was a necessary compass pointing to the precise direction Great Dane breeding ought to follow in order to achieve the true, desirable type in morphology and ability to function. The breed, being a composite that consists of contrasting components, relies on a critical balance, in the middle ground between two fundamentally opposing morphological forces which coexist in its genetic make-up – the compression (endomorphism / power) trend pulling it towards the mastiff/bulldog and the elongation (ectomorphism / speed) trend pulling it towards the sight hound. The Great Dane contains traces from several hunting, guarding and herding landraces that were added to the ‘melting pot’ when various populations of boarhounds and other big game hunting dogs were unified under the Deutsche Dogge identity. In other complex breeds, breeders & judges’ education specifically points out the various possible type deviations – towards the bulldog, or the terrier, or the Dalmatian, in the example of the Bull Terrier for instance, teaching the fanciers to recognize and steer clear from such elements, in order to remain within the mainstream of type and avoid the pull on either side, and thus towards exaggeration, as if navigating between Skylla and Charybdis.
In the Great Dane breed however these important landmarks & signposts are no more to be found. The brief historical summary refers to the midway between the Mastiff and the greyhound solely in the past tense, relevant to the formative era, as if this important distinction were no longer applicable today in outlining a clear and precise type range. Emphasis, since breeding resumed after the WWII, has been increasingly being put on size, substance, amount of bone, strength, stop, lips and other such parameters that are pushing the DNA towards the mastiffoid end of the spectrum, while “elegance of outline and grace of form”, as eloquently defined in the British standard, have been steadily going out of fashion in continental Europe, emphatically so during the past three or four decades. As human ‘beauty’ ideals are changing in our information age, under pressure from the beauty industry and the stereotypes the media are incessantly brainwashing people with, these changes are spilling into our subconscious and reforming how we see ‘beauty’ in dogs too. It is ludicrous yet utterly human. The only way to retain some sanity is to constantly be aware of and question this process. Dogs have their own biomechanical prototypes, forms shaped by function – so fitness for function should remain our ultimate guide in assessing and reproducing them.
2.The term “Dogge”. Dogge (from Old English dogca/dogga) translates as Dogue, as in Dogue de Bordeaux-a mastiff type breed. The English translation from “Deutsche Dogge” is “German mastiff”. No breed could hope to escape the predictable consequences of such a misnomer upon its physique. If a horse breed was suddenly to be renamed a draft type, even if it was originally and essentially a Thoroughbred, like our Dane, it would be destined to live up to that name, becoming increasingly heavier in build. This is precisely what happened to the Dane breed. Classification of the Dane within the mastiff subsection of the molosser group was therefore inescapable.
3.Classification in the mastiff type subsection of FCI Group II. After errors one and two were committed, it follows that the Dane would be erroneously classified in this section. When fanciers visit an FCI dog show, open a catalogue and find the Great Dane in the mastiff section, next to breeds as the English Mastiff, the Mastino, the Bullmastiff, the Dogue de Bordeaux etc, what are they supposed to think ? This classification informs perception and opinion. It’s worth remembering that this specific restructuring of the FCI groups is quite recent: it was 1987 and the General Assembly in Jerusalem which moved some breeds between groups and created this particular section and sub-section, as well as the new standards template. Not surprisingly, the surge in selection pressure towards a more mastiffoid Dane gets a decisive boost around that point in time.
The greatest contemporary dog historian and connoisseur, Col. David Hancock, has very precisely and accurately analyzed the history, individual type, function and purpose of hunting breeds that were shaped to suit the pursue of large prey, and has been a very convincing advocate of the Dane’s irrefutable Hound identity. He has correctly arrived at this conclusion after careful study of the evidence, and there is a long line of prominent authorities who argued the same ever since the breed’s very beginnings. There is no credible rebuttal – and yet the Dane is firmly stuck in a place where it doesn’t belong. And the breed is suffering a tremendous amount of damage as a result.
4.“Bigger / more is better” mentality and machismo, typical plight of the mastiff – type breeds. When a breed is transformed into a “head breed”, it’s the beginning of the end for moderation and logic in dog breeding. An established trend, very obvious in the increasing transformation of many bull type and mastiff type breeds in recent history, from a moderate model to the extreme. These dogs seem to be a magnet for a people who are primarily attracted by size, height, bone, bulk, power and excessive, heavily built muscularity. If we cast a look at the more natural physique of the human bodybuilder, before steroids became the norm, we see a dramatic difference in comparison to today’s excesses that go well beyond the natural and attractive muscle tone, into the realm of outlandish, cartoonized, grossly and artificially bloated and pumped masses of knotted, gnarled, ‘cut’ and overly defined bulbous flesh. It’s absolutely useless and requires huge amounts of energy to maintain, making it inefficient and contrary to biomechanic economy. This kind of artificial mass belongs to beef cattle bred for consumption, not for survival. The typical flat, smooth, endurance-gallop type muscle of the Dane is quite different. Some of the dogs that win at even the most prestigious shows on continental Europe under the “Great Dane” label nowadays look as exaggerated and flabby as body builders in decline. Some dogs in many breeds including our own are undoubtedly artificially ‘enhanced’ by anabolic aids during their growth stages, something absolutely criminal. The use of these poisons in dogdom is rife among show dogs.
5.Misrepresentation/misinterpretation of the evolution, the original function and the type of breeds that contributed to the Gt. Dane. Some people, even experts, do honestly seem to believe (or perhaps just pretend) that the Gt. Dane is supposed to be a bull- or mastiff type breed, with the strength necessary to kill a boar by itself, which is ludicrous; a little research would reveal that was never required from the Great Dane. Certain muddy and cloudy theories do exist but they don’t hold up to serious scrutiny. The breed was developed to chase and wear down the quarry (boar, deer, elk, wild cattle, or even wolf and bear on occasion), working in a pack, until the hunters arrived (the noblemen on horseback, huntsmen on foot) to claim the prize and dispatch the creature with a lance / spear or special hunting sword knife. Fleeing boars have been clocked at speeds around forty kilometers per hour, so the hounds had to be fleet of foot, combining stamina and agility. Those who believe that the Dane is a heavy mastiff don’t seem to realize that the hunting mastiffs at the time were no heavier than the more workmanlike Dogo Argentinos or the Cane Corsos of today – nothing like the modern show Mastiff or Mastino pachyderms. No dog of that size and bulk would be able to perform the Dane’s original function. Since the “historical summary” (a required feature in all FCI Breed standards) has appeared in the Great Dane Standard, the way it is phrased could lead a reader to believe that the breed is but a modified bullenbeisser, which essentially is a bull- or bull & mastiff type breed. There is no mention of the Danish contribution whatsoever, yet we learn from the documented history of the breed in that country that the Dane (or Danische hund) was essentially a ‘blending’, a modified large hound with a dash of the old type, working, hunting English Mastiff blood (therefore nothing like its modern re-constructed and heavily exaggerated namesake). The Great Dane proper came into existence as the par force medieval hunt declined and big game hunting changed from a princely pastime with huge packs of various different landraces (some for finding, some for the chase and some for the gripping & holding) to a more practical affair for the ordinary man with a few good dogs; these boarhounds were required to perform a combination of the tasks previously allocated to a variety of breeds, therefore it was necessary to ‘fortify’ the pure sight hounds with some mastiff strength. The Great Dane is a beautiful anachronism – a return to the roots: it represents a very successful, tried and tested recipe that served humankind since long before the feudal era: the numerous different combinations of a fleet-footed sight hound with a sturdier breed to hunt big game are truly ancient, with many variations on the same theme appearing throughout Europe going back to antiquity. When such important historical elements and explanations are omitted, misunderstandings are more likely to occur.
6.Lack of clarity of the breed standard(s) in key areas results in lack of clarity in goals and results in breed type being ‘optional’ instead of upheld by consensus. For example, the standard warns against ‘refined elegance’; that can be easily misconstrued as if implying that ‘elegance’ was somehow undesirable, or that it had a negative connotation; “over-refinement” would have been a more accurate and correct term; the description of the lips allows for personal interpretation as to how much lip is correct; the use of the word “flews” in the English translation (it doesn’t exist in the German original nor in any other standard) is rather misleading, as “flews” is a term borrowed from the bloodhound and refers to a rather pendulous lip corner with open ‘pockets’, something dysfunctional, unseemly and breed-inappropriate for the Great Dane; the use of that term is in direct contradiction with the next phrase which calls for lips that are not too pendulous: this is bound to create confusion as to what exact degree of pendulous (verging on the ridiculous) is desired or allowed; how long is a piece of string? It’s purely a personal preference – and that leaves the door open for excess. Those who favor the mastiff interpretation will argue for more lips. So far I have not heard one serious argument in the lips debate though (and I will make the usefulness of flews the subject of a future post). Hancock makes a very succinct point about verbose standards that create more confusion than not, using the Greyhound standard example which is the ‘very soul of brevity’ as he puts it – yet that laconic standard has not served that breed too badly.
7.Abandonment of the classic ideals of moderation, adoption of a more compromised model of excellence, misinterpretations of the standard by some national breed Clubs. The current illustration of the FCI standard that replaced the previous, more elegant ones, the illustrated standard interpretations that allow for the muzzle to be 1.2 times deeper than long, and the eyes to be ‘diamond’ in shape, published and circulated by some European clubs, are steps towards the mastiff direction. To use a very succinct quote “De novo opinion that has no origin in the History, Normal Anatomy, or Origin and Purpose of the breed is not a valid standard interpretation”; these inconsistencies, however small, some caused because of a certain “loss in translation” have been increasingly appearing in the various standard revisions, while other important phrases have been inexplicably removed (the warning against the dog being too coarse, with excessive lips, for example) and the fact increases the risks of confusion and critical errors of judgment or selection, intentional or not. All standards should include severe warnings against exaggeration.
8.Lack of sufficient judges’ education. Newcomers are often not well informed about the history, function and correct conformation. Important educational Club documents should be circulated to all FCI judges that are approved for the breed, in every FCI country. How else are they supposed to be informed, educated & kept up to date about what is expected of them? I have been dismayed on occasion when talking with colleagues who dismiss the breed’s original function with a flick of the wrist as “ancient history”; yet the FCI directive calls for Dogs Fit For Their Original Function. What gives?
9.Breeding to win rather than breeding to the standard. An advancing trend in dog breeding is to breed in order to have ‘something to show’ rather than breeding only when it is advisable and wise to do so. We have been taught that breeding should be undertaken only when and if it is justifiable within the purpose of breed improvement; yet many are breeding solely, purely (and badly) in order to satisfy their dog show addiction, or worse, to sell puppies (and they don’t even make sure they have enough homes secured before breeding, so some of these puppies end up in pet shop windows – or worse). In combination with the pox of the popular sires, it’s a rather ominous trend. When people are breeding to win it follows that they will breed not to the standard but to the predominant fashion and to the dogs that they see winning in their region. Substandard judging makes things worse.
10.Rewarding the most mature-looking young exhibits. Potentially catastrophic for a giant breed that is supposed to be slow maturing, breeding selection for faster and faster maturing youngsters that pile on ‘substance’, look like adults and earn their championships quickly, with the added body mass to keep them in “show condition”, loading them with weight and fat onto their immature growth plates, joints and ligaments, has been an increasingly common occurrence – so much so that it represents a real selection pressure; Danes are maturing faster nowadays. In contrast to some countries where we regularly see Danes in veteran classes, in other regions the breed looks almost terminally geriatric at six and seven years of age as a result; this was not the case twenty or thirty years ago; it is facilitated or caused by judging that does not take age under consideration as much as it should but instead consistently lavishes with the highest placings and grades the biggest and heaviest in the class. That again harks back to inadequate judges’ education and also to the sort of ‘generic’ judging (which also greatly affects movement) that shows little knowledge or respect of individual breed needs & peculiarities.
11.The Harlequin factor: it’s possible that at some point in the breed’s history, some strains had more than their fair share of influence from the (harlequin or piebald coloured) landrace/type depicted by Buffon as “Dogue de forte race” which was a heavy mastiff / dogue breed. Interesting that Dr. Bodinus (the man in charge of the unification of German breeds and the Danish dog as “Deutsche Dogge”) proposed only a couple of years later to separate the Great Dane (Danische) from the other, heaver type mastiff & bullenbeisser dogs; sadly it was too late and his proposal failed. Today, the harlequin family by far outnumbers all other colours on the continent: compared with some of these heavyweights, different in type, with thicker skin, bigger heads, bigger bone, mass and different expression, it was perhaps inevitable that breeders of other colours would feel under pressure to compete by going up a notch in the ‘mastiffometer‘ themselves. As inbreeding brings increasingly to the surface the various genetic legacies inherited by the Dane, selecting primarily for body mass, bone, deeper & sharper stop etc, is bound to compound and ‘fix’ these traits, which in turn are favored in the show ring. Together with type, health & longevity also suffer as a consequence, and if not anything else, such overly heavy dogs are more prone to debilitating arthritis in old age, an ailment that unnecessarily shortens their lifespan. And all that for a few more ribbons in the show ring, when we know that every extra kilogram shortens their lives?
12.Possible recent cross-breeding to a mastiff? This has been suggested, as some extremely overdone individuals, of the blue / black variety in particular, look suspiciously similar to Neapolitan mastiffs, especially in the characteristic formation of skin folds on the side of the head. DNA testing could have prevented this happening, and it’s not too late to implement it as a necessary precaution, at this day and age. Parental testing is not that costly. It’s already a requirement for German Shepherd Dogs and a recommendation by several other breed clubs.
13.Isolation of breeding populations: minimal exchange of stock. Inbreeding. Long distance is not the only factor that discourages importation or use of dogs of standard type. Suspicion, prejudice and even open hostility, over-zealous provisions and regulations & attempts to discredit and ridicule Great Dane breeding in other parts of the world have been at work, sometimes even fanned by isolationist attitudes and nationalistic bigotry that have no place in breeding or dog competition. Typically, breeders / judges who are, for example, calling the style of Danes in North America “greyhounds” or used to deride the British-bred dogs as “that Great Dane type”, are self-serving & self-promoting facilitators and agents of Hyper-Type. The breed as a whole suffers as a result from these antiquated “cold war” attitudes and short-sightedness. We should be breaking down walls, not fortifying them. My mentors instilled in me the belief that even if the dog best suited to my bitch was bred or owned by my own worst enemy, I should not let that cloud my judgment. The Great Dane is one breed. Dogs from FCI countries are registered as Great Danes in the US, Britain and other non-FCI territories and dogs from there are registered as Great Danes in the FCI. So either they are indeed Danes and the worthy ones can be used to mutual benefit, or they are not and shouldn’t be registered as such, logic dictates.
Additionally, with the advancement of popular sires and winning dogs promoted in some regions, other, ‘aboriginal’ bloodlines have been allowed to die out, become decimated or ‘contaminated’ by the prevalent diseases that plague the Great Dane (DCM, bloat, cancers, wobblers et al). Some of these strains were very old and extremely precious, like the Great Dane population in the former Soviet Union countries, Russia and others, which were of a classic, original, moderate type, healthy and long-lived, as they had been far less inbred than some western ‘show lines’.
Hyper-type trait fixing requires heavy inbreeding and often pedigrees cannot be trusted. As inbreeding makes health problems more common, it also doubles – up on phenotype features that depend on a lot of recessives to be expressed. These two issues are related. By selecting for these traits, one is simultaneously selecting for the health defects associated with them. It’s a truly vicious circle.
14.The color code: Related to the ‘harlequin factor’, popular sire effect and isolation parameters mentioned above, and further compacting the effects of very high coefficients of inbreeding and ancestral loss within separate Great Dane families, which result in the desirable extremes of phenotype that are favored by some breeders becoming easily achieved, fixed and maintained; but such traits come at a high cost in soundness, breed type, health, as well as temperament. It’s very pertinent here to tave a look at the real reasons the Color Code was adopted in the US.
15. Transformation from an athlete to a couch potato. As is common with breeds that are no longer working, the total lack of some requirements for a breed-appropriate function, in the form of aptitude tests, has taken a heavy toll on the propensity for fitness, muscle development, joint & ligament elasticity and strength as well as health and longevity of the Great Dane overall. The most efficient gait for the breed is the sustained endurance gallop that is impossible to judge in the confines of the show ring; as is the courage, the mental equilibrium of a type of dog that combined the ability to be a pack member, a house companion and a watch dog, the game sense, the chasing instinct and the self control that ensured the breed’s perfect behavior around livestock, farm stock and other house pets. In North America and the Nordic countries the breed is far more active in various sports, as it is of a more athletic phenotype. Although hypertypism is a recognized trend also in breeds where working tests apply, and I am not forgetting that, those breeds however are inherently either more ‘mastiff’ in type to start with or, as is the case of the Dobermann, their type of work has been radically altered from practical uses that required balance, moderation, endurance and speed, to mere snapshots of attacking a sleeve.
The Great Dane has never been such a breed and is primarily and essentially a big game hunter, so in the absence of field trials that for practical reasons are impossible to be held for this kind of work without being banned as blood sports, we have to substitute and simulate: a lure coursing test, in combination with the superior Nordic style “mental aptitude assessment” (MH) or / and a Canine Good Citizen/BH type evaluation, perhaps even a breed-appropriate Endurance Test (subject to successful results in relevant health tests for joints and heart conditions) would go a long way in the goal of restoring some moderation and functional soundness in the breed. The dog is an apex predator. A failed predator is a failed species, destined for extinction. The Great Dane should be bred with that always in the back of our minds, aiming for a canine athlete. Truly muscular, sound, fit and dry, not a fat caricature of a has-been.
16.Winning by differentiation. The desire to win for the sake of winning and of course for the sake of becoming successful, rising high in positions of power and influence in the sport, gaining recognition and respect – and in case of some, selling loads of puppies and making loads of money from stud fees, especially in regions where breeding loads of litters annually and keeping a large facility housing dozens or even hundreds of kenneled dogs is not frowned upon (common in the southern and Eastern European regions), are factors sadly all too present in our sport; for some –many- people dog breeding is sadly not a hobby but their main source of income and a shopping window of their produce. For this mentality and business angle, being different is essential, as it helps to attract attention and grasp that all important first glance of the judges and the attention of misinformed puppy buyers. And being different simply means that the exhibit must ‘stand out’ – i.e. be unlike most others in the ring – something that cannot be achieved if the puppy producer adheres too closely to the same standard that everyone else strives to achieve. And what attracts attention better than a dog that is bigger, heavier, exaggerated and visibly different in proportions (i.e., with a far bigger head for its body) and more “expressive” in wrinkles and folds of skin than everybody else’s? the first to achieve this will always be a winner – at least for some time – and as the trend catches on the pioneers would just have to up the ante a bit to stay ahead, and export puppies under the ‘original’, ‘authentic’ ‘Euro’-label.
17.Breeding for bits & bobs: in other words, breeding for parts and breeding for money. Many breed standards include a safety warning against exaggeration and breeding for individual features, stressing the importance of breeding for the total dog and for balance and soundness. But Breed Standards are there to be changed, by exploiting every vagueness in the definitions and everything that may have been left out, as we’ve seen. It’s impossible to include absolutely everything without writing a volume to put ‘Gone With The Wind’ to shame; and it’s impossible to include absolute measurements for everything. So people think that gives them a license to breed for bits: lips, heads etc – usually those bits that exaggerate type and can be used to impress, and the main culprits are those who breed for glory or for money – or both. That is one of the best recipes for disaster. People reading the original breed standards from the late 19th century are shocked to realize that the breed founders had quite a different idea for the perfect Great Dane. We must presume that type is not supposed to change from the original. So how could we accept the changes and why should we? In every breed of dog the authentic type is the original type, the one closer to the ‘wild’ type. Different types are different breeds. People who ‘adopt’ a breed with an intention to change it away from what it was intended, are never doing dogs a good service. They should find a breed that suits them and stick to it instead of changing breeds to suit their taste.
18.Mismanagement of the breed by deficits in communication, democracy and participation. Breeds are managed by the groups and authorities that share the duty of safeguarding the breed and maintaining its standard of excellence. There is always a degree of complacency from the ground up because a large percentage of people active in the breed can’t be bothered to volunteer – and in some cases this is not entirely their fault, because they are discouraged from doing so. Mismanagement in centrally controlled breeds is actually very easy to happen and I would go as far as to say is bound to happen because to err is human; the smaller the group of movers, shakers and decision makers, acting without the safety valve of a large democratic vote required for decision making that shapes a breed’s present and future, the higher the risk of innocent mistakes but also corruption.
The FCI system, as some of the blog readers who live in other jurisdictions may not know, puts each breed in the discretion of, practically, a handful of people – the committee of each parent Club, the national breed club in the country of origin. The country of origin has absolute power over a breed – its breed club, that is. Some of these clubs, depending on their statutes, do not even require a public vote by their membership to approve any decisions the committee may take regarding changes in the Standard –it’s the experts (or perceived as such) sitting on the committee who decide alone or can easily sway the vote. That is a potentially disastrous situation as committees are as infallible, wise and incorruptible as the persons that happen to be sitting on them at any given time; the system has backfired in several cases (one has to simply look at the direction of the Dobermann breed, for example, to be shocked by the fact it’s always the same people and a small cabal of carefully controlled disciples that are virtually doing all the judging at the most critical shows and all the decision-making, for what seems like forever and a day, and likely to continue indefinitely for the rest of their natural lives. They are shaping the breed to their exclusive vision – and they may be exceptionally gifted people, with incomparable abilities – but look, for example, what happened to the GSD when brothers Martin were at the helm…genuine change of government is always necessary from time to time – both in human and in doggy politics – and for the same reasons). It’s simply not a healthy situation for an international breed to be governed in such an absolute manner.
The FCI does have has a safety valve in place – the Standards and the Scientific committees, responsible for the approval of any standard changes to make sure that they don’t contain ridiculous, outlandish or potentially harmful descriptions which could negatively impact on the health and soundness of pedigree dogs. On the other hand we have the heavy influence of traditionally entrenched attitudes, long-standing friendships and shared interests or de facto misrepresentations (such as the ones I mentioned above, the breed being classed as a Mastiff, etc). Additionally, FCI committees are the last resort: their over-seeing it’s not a breed-appropriate fine comb; neither are they present at the breed’s day to day management & education dispersal nor at the show-rings where the breeding selections are being assessed. Seldom will the FCI committees refuse point blank something that has the stamp of approval of what is deemed to be the supremely expert body – the breed club of the country of origin. And it would not be unfair to say, either, that the FCI has been under considerable Germanic influence, if not leadership, for much of its recent history. The DDC could have used this leverage to keep other National Great Dane Clubs on the straight and narrow.
To its credit though the DDC, rather than enter into a direct confrontation with other misbehaving national clubs, breeders and judges, took a wholly positive, sharing, progressive, apparently democratic, pro-active, pluralistic and highly commendable initiative instead: the formation of the European union of Deutsche Doggen Clubs (EuDDC) aiming to promote an evenly Pan-European standard of quality monitoring throughout the continent, under the DDC’s own leadership, of course. A similar, yet broader, organization is the SV-initiated WUSV (the world federation of German Shepherd Dog Clubs that follow the Germanic model). It’s quite obvious from the results so far though, that a) such efforts, at least in the case of the GSD, have not been crowned with success in the goal to preserve sound structure, therefore they are not guaranteed to work, when established trends are deeply rooted and b) in the case of the EuDDC, it leaves out all the other country-members of the FCI that are not located in Europe. And it’s a big group of countries, with a massive Dane population. Not to mention some European countries that elected not to join. Again, knowledge and education sharing seems to fall a tad short. And the DDC President’s message admits defeat.
- A lack of effective monitoring of the assessment process. Who is judging the judges?
- Failure to implement a rational evaluation & selection process. As I have shown above, breeding selection has been allowed to focus disproportionately on morphology (and not even faithfully to the breed’s essence and standard, at that) rather than serve the dog in a holistic manner, catering equally to temperament, genetic health, function and longevity. This is partly a direct result of deficient knowledge in genetics for the best part of the Great Dane’s history as a pure breed and partly to other human errors. Today we’ve run out of such excuses. A lot more can be done to improve but needs to be done urgently. Individual countries are far ahead in this regard and what needs to be done is for others to follow and synchronize. However, if the situation in the UK is an indicator (effective population of merely 166,8 dogs), genetic diversity seems precariously low: I’m not sure, since we don’t have a complete population study, if we can say with a degree of certainty, that the breed is heavily inbred as a whole or not, a factor that would play a major part in reaching an accurate conclusion as to the most appropriate cause of action; on one hand we do see some symptoms associated with inbreeding depression; on the other hand, as recently as the 50’s, after the war, dogs of unknown parentage were admitted to the stud books. They have probably played a part in the type differentiation phenomenon, but if they carried enough diversity it may have been a blessing in disguise (unlike the rumored crossings to the Mastino, for obvious reasons). But things are not looking rosy. Cynologically ‘new’ (or newly admitted to the FCI) countries may show reluctance to ‘toe the line’ and that has certainly been the case in some regions of Eastern Europe where practices differ to varying degrees from what has come to be expected in the West (which, admittedly, isn’t that great either, in many cases). With the prospect of China that has relatively recently joined the bourgeoisie in pedigree dog ownership, with gay abandon and definite beginner’s propensity for excess, I don’t want to even imagine what could potentially happen if we don’t manage to resolve the problems the breed is already facing. Thankfully nothing is truly insurmountable because crossbreeding, even as a last resort, has been proven able to revive and restore even the most terminal of patients.
“We are where we are now”
on the left, Dolf v.d. Saalburg – on the right, pseudo-dane exhibited in France
It’s a lazy cope-out cliché to always blame ‘human nature’ for such shortcomings and failures. The human animal is evolving albeit slowly and societies have improved a lot – at least in some respects. Horses and to a much larger extent, farm animals, are bred scientifically for decades and we could learn a lot from those fields. The amount of damage being inflicted on the breed with every day that passes is staggering. Inaction and silence from the top are astounding and deafening. How much longer will the Great Dane be able to withstand these catastrophic events? There is no recovery process in place – no contingency plan – we are refusing to even contemplate that we might need one soon.
There is an official dispute into the country of origin in process (lodged by the Danish Kennel Club to the FCI in 2012), but whatever the outcome of that, whoever is going to be the ‘manager’ of the breed tomorrow or the day after, whether there is change or sharing or not, one thing is not going to change: the breed is an international entity and past the point of being possible to effectively manage strictly from a narrowly national or just European point of view, especially as it’s very survival is at stake. The FCI is a global federation with some 80+ country members and has agreements in place with all the other major registries, like the AKC & TKC and the Australian NKC. The breed’s problems are universal and it’s elementary to conclude that they need effective co-operation and communication to tackle them on a global basis. We are stuck in wishful thinking, PR exercises and archaic rhetoric while what the Great Dane and its international community truly needs is practical and decisive support.
What can be done?
We need to return to the original.
Thankfully the classic type still exists in many countries and remains the majority. But we need to clean up our act in Europe and return to moderation.
More like this
on the left was the last of Mrs Clayton’s historical Barvae kennel, Beeline of Barvae (UK) and on the right the timeless headpiece of Am. Ch. Duke of Roxdane, born in 1936.
and more like this
and no more of this
We urgently need a worldwide, unified Great Dane pedigree database to realistically and scientifically estimate the Great Dane’s genetic status and viability. We need a World Congress for the breed and we need it yesterday. We need regular World Conferences to monitor the breed with democratic procedures and input from the bottom up. We must break down the barriers of misunderstanding, mistrust and isolation, we can indeed and we should unite and co-operate to destroy misinformation, prejudice, ignorance and complacency with Education, Communication & Participation. We need brainstorming to come up with ideas, initiatives and campaigns. I referred to some of the breeding tools and framework we need to ensure a holistic approach that favors mental & physical soundness, health and longevity, in the previous installment of this post here as well as here.
We need to protect the hobby breeder and eradicate the commercial breeding for profit. Kennel Clubs can very easily put a limit on the number of litters they register per year from individual breeders and from individual sires. Governments need to be lobbied relentlessly until they understand that dogs are not cattle to be farmed and professional kennel facilities is neither where dogs belong, nor where they are happiest and healthiest, for the best interests of the public at large – i.e., their voters. Putting the onus on the individual breeder or exhibitor to be a hero in the face of adversity, just as he or she is squeezed between the rock of the anti-dog fanatics and the hard place of indifference or incompetence of leadership, presents a real and corrosive danger and a constant challenge to meet head-on. The conscientious, dedicated hobby breeder is the healthiest and most positive part of our community; yet he/she is unprotected, unsupported, largely ignored and as a result, crushed by the combination of rampant puppy farming, bybs & mass-producing professional units that operate under the letter of the law, churning out puppies to supply the pet shop windows. The hobby breeder is the true guarantor of excellence and animal welfare in dog breeding – he/she of the rare degree of integrity, independence and professionalism only afforded by the amateur in the true sense of the word: the one who combines the pro bono artist and practical scientist, the person who doesn’t care to cut corners or balance the books because he/she doesn’t make a living from breeding dogs. It’s a gut-wrenching position to be, especially for those lonely figures who live in regions where the hyper-type dominates but remain true to the classic Dane, therefore are pushed aside; or those pioneers who dare to be trailblazers in projects to save their beloved breeds from fatal hereditary defects, disfigurement and genetic collapse, from certain death sentences and extinction, using unconventional thinking, in most cases without the support of some cynological organizations. These people and these visions that they share are the future, if the dog breeding activity is to have any future at all. We are at a crucial point. Cynological organizations will be dragged to move on with the times or will become obsolete and implode under the weight of their own fossilization.
Dog showing has evolved from being a means to an end to being a self-serving goal per se, a tool for commercialization and a trophy hunting ground, exploited by the ‘dual-purpose’ ‘professional breeders’ who juggle showing, working competitions and puppy factories. It has been allowed to become an enabler of puppy farming in regions of Europe where the ‘noble old traditions’ do not apply and people see nothing wrong with supplementing their incomes by sub-standard breeding. Yet we can’t technically call them back yard breeders – their dogs are FCI-registered and FCI – titled and they are pillars of dogdom themselves, officers and leaders in their countries. Sometimes they or their agents keep multiple addresses in several neighboring countries to register litters and often they wholesale and they fix and they cheat in umpteen different ways, they falsify pedigrees, they show ‘ringers’, they harm or even poison competitor’s dogs, they dye and surgically correct and implant (from missing teeth to missing testicles) and participate in dog fighting and none is the wiser. People are afraid to report because they will be ostracized, face retribution in the show ring by corrupt judging or they might even find their own dogs poisoned. These glorified puppy farmers have friends in high places or are themselves elevated in high places. Vision impairment seems to be endemic within our sport – so many things go unnoticed or fail to become priorities under pressure from oh so much more important business. Kennel Clubs and show societies are anxious to attract exhibitors with trinkets, not realizing why the entries are falling and why there’s little ‘new blood’ coming into the sport. More and more the amateur is pushed out because its the mass exhibitor with the entries in every class that does a lion’s share of winning – and rightly, the people with high quality dogs are fed up losing to inferior specimens; they cut down drastically on their entries or stop showing – apart maybe from breed specialties – altogether. The breeder is being systematically exterminated by the greeder.
Scandinavian countries are blissfully ahead on a different level of dogdom, Britain is balancing between tradition and pragmatism, America is a different continent and some Great Dane lovers there care very little about what’s happening beyond their own borders (unfortunately, as they too are in danger); where does that leave Brussels? Is the FCI just a federate ivory tower unable or unwilling to interfere in internal affairs or strata within its own territory that simply seem to exist in a past century? like the use of electric shock collars that is widespread among working breed competitors – and don’t get me started on gundogs …Or on committee Chairmen and Secretaries & members who become all round judges all too swiftly – because they can – and proceed to qualify dogs with glaring disqualifying defects – because they are untouchable. Or clubs that block the progress of anyone who doesn’t toe the party line – or simply is more talented and incorruptible, thus spoiling the market…Or working titles and hip dysplasia certificates and surplus pedigrees bought and sold… As I said – don’t get me started!
As I have previously mentioned in another post, it’s astonishing that the awards of the excellent grade to some grautigers (merle dogs) was deemed important enough to warrant the issuing of explicit orders and warnings, yet when dogs that are closer to the Mastino breed standard than the Great Dane win at the highest level, it’s just Tuesday. It’s mind-boggling that the DCM epidemic is not tackled with the same decisive urgency. It’s incredible that we can’t efficiently apply EBVs across the board in dog breeding at this day and age, or replace inbreeding with assortative mating. It’s utterly infuriating that in some regions, breeders and exhibitors who have not betrayed the classic type and at the same time are struggling to find a dog to use that isn’t a ticking time bomb, are driven away from the hobby by thugs who use threats and intimidation. It’s unbelievable that dog shows are held with the participation of puppy farmers and dog-fighting rings anywhere within FCI jurisdiction. Then of course, we mustn’t forget, an FCI World Show is going to be held in a place where the average visitor might be chewing on a dog meat takeaway. Recently a friend asked what can be done in the case of judges who blatantly use the standards to wipe their bottoms with – and I couldn’t find nor give her a satisfactory answer. Other than some expletives, needless to say, and the advice to ‘name and shame’ among dog people.
It’s impossible to fathom the apathy that allowed my beloved breed – and others – to slowly disintegrate for decade after decade. After years of hope and perseverance and good humor I realize that most of my seasoned doggy friends and I have become, if not philosophically cynical grumpy old cats, let’s just say not expecting much at this stage. Yet we refuse to give up. Because there is a whole new generation out there – like my own daughter, who has been turned off by the nastiness and vainglorious attitudes and bad sportsmanship in our ‘hobby’. Ultimately it’s her generation that is going to decide the future of this activity and I do still hope they will choose to reform it and develop it into something more efficient and much more positive for dogdom – dogs and people both.
It’s beyond sad though to see the young ones joining the ranks with dreams and idealism only to soon realize they have exactly two stark choices: either to give in or get out. It’s bad to see considerable talent and ability driven away from a sport they could excel in, because they happen to live in a region where dysfunctional lumps of misfortunate, disabled, tortured four legged souls have replaced everything we ever fell in love with the breed for – except for their enormous capacity for tolerance and forgiveness.
And that’s the hardest part to stomach. Part of me would like to see them change into Hounds of the Baskervilles, exerting an exact revenge for their amount of suffering – and getting away with it. The fact that they can’t and they won’t but instead they will just continue to suffer and ache and die in silence, is the most soul-destroying side of dogdom as it is today.
The safety valves have stopped working long time ago: a major overhaul is long overdue. I want to believe that the breed – and all the others – will somehow weather the storm but the odds are not looking particularly brilliant at the moment. We must stay diligent and plant the seeds of knowledge and rational thinking. There are sound examples of a better breeding strategy out there and we need to emulate them. It’s our only hope.
please remember, every share of the blog posts helps the cause of Great Dane breed preservation reach, inform & educate more people! Thank you for caring + sharing 8)
(read the first part here)
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