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There has been no real improvement on the Great Dane since the golden era of the breed* in the 1920s-30s when type was fixed while the diversity hadn’t yet been squandered by vainglorious fools who glory-bred their mediocrities.
“Breeding better dogs” does not mean breeding prettier dogs. It doesn’t mean aesthetically pleasing the arbitrary subjective criteria of a bunch of people who happen to fancy similar shapes and features and have never worked their dogs or seen the breed do what it was developed to do.
There is no beauty in nature: handsome is as handsome does. What your eye perceives as “beautiful” in animals are life forms that evolved by gradual adaptation to the environment. Form follows Function. And to test function we need the right tools. We need utility tests and mental tests and Estimated Breeding Values for performance and fitness; in other words, we need ways to imitate the processes of natural selection. Without these evaluations, artificial selection causes damage. Without tools to maintain biological fitness, breeding causes harm.
“Breeding better dogs” is not supposed to impair what has been proven by natural selection to be best. The dog is an apex predator: if it doesn’t fulfill that set of criteria it’s a species that would not survive by natural means. A failed experiment.
Breeding better dogs means improving on their anatomical, biological, functional, morphological, conformational, biomechanical, predatorial effectiveness; their species-appropriate, environmental – and – prey – type adaptations, physiological traits and advantages gained over a long period of evolution.
Breeding better Great Danes means improving their health, balance, physical harmony and wellbeing, instincts/drives, mental equilibrium, soundness, intelligence, adaptability, fitness, ability, agility, long-distance-galloping endurance, senses, strength, longevity and reproductive qualities; it translates as betterment of their natural state, not worsening it.
To improve or repair a structure you need the building blocks available. In the case of a biological entity like a dog breed, you need genetic diversity, otherwise improvement (adaptation) is not possible. Genetic diversity is finite therefore improvement is finite. And in closed populations, it’s extremely ephemeral.
Without diversity, the only way from where you started is downhill.
And you can’t undo the damage inflicted.
So if you want to show REAL achievement, as a breeder,
you can’t just aim at show trinkets, ribbons, titles, best – in – show wins and records. You can’t just focus on catching the eye of the generic all-rounder with your superbly conditioned, handled and prepared, generic exhibit, displaying generic anatomy and generic locomotion, poorly assessed in the confines of a show ring without real evaluation of its character and fitness for purpose, by judges who, more often than not, haven’t the foggiest about what it takes to be a big game hunting dog.
That’s not what a BREEDER is about.
That’s what a competitor is about. It’s about winning.
It’s about the human, not the dog.
Breeding is about giving rise to something preciously wonderful and fragile. It’s about striving for a long-term service to life and biodiversity, nurturing something to become and fulfill its potential, participating in a sustainable plan that will outlive you and you’ll never see the full picture of, if you’re doing it right.
It’s like planting trees. If the tree is going to live a real long life, it’s going to take a heck of a long time to grow and bear fruit. Even a proud sequoia starts as a tiny seed.
The pleasure is about sleeping well at night, dreaming of the shade and the blossoms, and your great grandchildren playing in that garden. It’s about enjoying the company of fine, happy, able-bodied, long-lived sentient beings who love you unconditionally and you know that you did them justice.
The satisfaction is in the doing it so well that others might wish to emulate and join you and carry the dream forward and serve the vision long after you’re gone. And doing it even if you don’t find others to share the good deed with – especially then. That’s called a pioneer. Or a conservation breeder. Having the courage to swim against the current that brought dogs to this sad state of affairs. Exactly what we need now in the Great Dane’s case – and in many other ailing dog breeds.
And the integrity is not in the doing it because (you think) you can, or for fame and posterity, to achieve your own immortality in the stud books and breed literature that might mention your name and dogs, but for the mere sense of doing a bit for them, something good, valid and worthy, affecting the lives of others beyond yourself, two-legged and four-legged, in a positive way.
But sure everybody knows that.
At the end of the day even your motives are inconsequential: what matters is the methods, the ethics – as we are basically talking about doing no harm – and the results. Not your good intentions.
The dogs are not your creation: they were here before you and if you did your duty, they’ll be here after you’re gone. They don’t belong to anyone, and yet they “belong” here: to everyone’s world, to our children’s world; they’re part of life on this planet and its infinite variety.
Life is a random process with no purpose other than itself – it’s a circular, unconscious struggle to do all it can, outdo itself, grow, exist, live, survive, reproduce, rear offspring before it dies.
Inbetween cradle and grave, we, thinking apes, seek happiness.
I can’t tell you if a dog seeks happiness the same way.
But what I can tell you, by watching dogs, studying horses, cats, wild animals run, play, vocalize, fly, soar, swim, dive, gallop, jump, hunt, flirt, mate, give birth, they do experience pleasure, great joy, if not happiness as we understand it.
And they deserve it. Every living breathing sentient being does.
A breeder is someone who understands that.
And would never be satisfied with less.
So you want to be called a Great Dane breeder?
It’s a tall order. Better think long and hard about its immensity in demands and consequences. Would you intentionally make your children suffer?
They’re not our children. We’re their keepers. But they do suffer. And to them, we’re like Gods. Life and death.
If you really want to be called a Great Dane breeder today, your duty is to raise your target, raise the level and aim higher than where the breed has been allowed to descend, by monumental mismanagement, ever since its inception: your duty is to heal, preserve, uphold and improve; the breeder’s duty, in our present era, is to restore the Dane to its former capacity, if not glory: an apex predator, a dog fit for function; an animal with equine and feline grace, with dash and dare, ready and able to go anywhere and do anything, in peak condition and health; a dog shaped for and by pursuing a stag for miles, driving it to exhaustion, out-swimming a bigger, stronger wild animal of optimal fitness fleeing for its life to deep mid-river strong currents and still capable of overpowering it one-on-one (yes, that’s what they were able to do, when they were Fit for Function); doing fifty miles a day without batting an eyelid, living 14 years on average and dying from ripe old age, having sired or nursed naturally, good size litters of healthy pups; not being geriatric at five or six years, and expiring prematurely from degenerative skeletal ailments, collapsing joints and avoidable, genetic, inherited defects.
Breeding better dogs means – outdo this wolf, if you can.
Equal it, at least – that should be your ambition, match that amazing natural ability, not diminish it.
You are supposed to be breeding dogs Fit for Function. That is the feat required.
Breeding for an animal that was the finest ever hunter of big game, equipped by nature, shaped by environment and function, bred by man.
You are supposed to bequeath it in a better state than you inherited it – at the very least, not worse.
Do not accept anything else. No cutting corners and compromise with dogs’ lives.
Not letting anything less than fit for survival become your norm – because that’s what you are competing with: you are dealing with natural laws, your bricks and mortar are bits of DNA, you’re conducting an experiment in biology. You are attempting to imitate a process that takes thousands of years in the wild; you are embarking on an epic, heroic adventure that involves applying the same ruthless criteria and in a much shorter timeline.
And if that lofty goal is not firmly seeded in your consciousness, if you don’t possess that breadth of mind, that integrity and magnanimity of empathy, you better not even contemplate starting on that journey. Because you’d be destined for guaranteed failure. And the collateral damages would be dogs.
It’s not a job for everyone and anyone. It’s not for the arrogant ignoramuses who think “oh I want to strut my stuff in that show ring too, and win big trophies” or that all that it takes is to bring champion bitch X to popular sire Y and hope for the best and wait for the ka-ching of the cash register. It’s not a dog-given right for every Tom, Dick and Harry who think it’s a cool social activity and don’t mind dabbling in a bit of that among tea and biscuits. If you think like that, then you’re definitely not cut-out to be a breeder.
It’s not about playing creator.
It’s about being a servant.
Dogs are humanity’s best friends – not because it’s a nice phrase, but because it’s true: together with the horse, and even more than the horse, dogs shaped our civilization. Without dogs homo sapiens would have probably not survived.
Dogs deserve better. We ought to breed them better. As good as nature has intended. No less.
Now that is a BREEDER’s goal and noble cause. That’s a Great Dane breeder.
Because THAT’S the dizzying heights of sheer ability, quality and biological fitness we inherited in the Great Dane breed, the most majestic and mind-blowing of all.
And that’s the magnitude of what we WASTED.
A dog that could do what a dozen other landraces together, all bred for big game hunting couldn’t do.
And we destroyed it. We ruined it.
Because of human stupidity.
Glory-breeding is for puppy-producing greeders and their blind, mislead customers.
The real challenge is to produce the outstanding flowers of the Great Dane Hall of Fame that the early breeders produced – not because they knew genetics, but because all the available diversity they had to work with made it possible; and the great challenge is to repeat the Herculean feat and to do it NOW, with all the bad history behind us.
But that is for real visionaries, trailblazers, breed architects, not pathetic followers of recipes for disaster.
*There have been some marvelous-looking, well-made dogs. But they have not really been tried and tested in the field. Only in simulations.