Great Danes and Dalmatians can look quite similar – especially Harlequin Great Danes that sport black patches on a white coat. This two-tone coat can lead to some confusion between the two breeds and raise questions as to whether they are closely related.
So, are Great Danes and Dalmatians related?
Great Danes and Dalmatians are related in that they are both dogs and have descended from wolves, but the two breeds are not closely related beyond that. And, in fact, the Harlequin Great Dane coat color is different from the Dalmatian’s unique coat – Harlequins have patches of black while Dalmatians have round spots.
In this article, we’ll look more in depth at how we know that these breeds are not closely related and the history of each breed.
Let’s get started!
All Dog Breeds Are Related
Although dogs are very unusual in terms of the amount of variety within the species, all breeds are indeed members of a single species and the diversity of breeds can be attributed to human intervention. So, in that sense, Great Danes and Dalmatians are indeed related.
However, the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) has studied the question of how closely interrelated each of the recognized dog breeds are, creating a family tree of sorts. This data is a bit hard to make sense of though, so the folks at The Guardian created a handy way to visualize the degree of relatedness between breeds.
Towards the end of their article, there is an interactive field where you can select the breed of dog you want to know more about, and see which other breeds it’s related to – above a certain threshold, as, again, all dog breeds are related to one another if you zoom out far enough.
So, based on their tool, we can see that Great Danes are related most strongly to Irish Wolfhounds (which should be no surprise considering their comparable size), with connections to several other breeds as well: Rottweilers, English Mastiffs, Leonbergers, Saint Bernards, Black Russian Terriers, Rhodesian Ridgebacks, Boerbels, and Bernese Mountain Dogs.
Dalmatians, on the other hand, have no breeds that are closely related enough to show up on their chart, indicating that they are, at most, only fractionally more closely related to Great Danes than, say, Chihuahuas are.
The History of Both Breeds is Murky
Some have suggested that perhaps Harlequin Great Danes were ancestors of the Dalmatian breed, but this doesn’t really check out since Great Danes were really only bred beginning in the 16th century in Germany (confusingly, not in Denmark as their name would suggest), while Dalmatians are thought to date back to 3700 BC and possibly even earlier.
While the history of both breeds is rather contentious, let’s have a look at what we do know…or at least what we think we might know:
Dalmatian Breed History
Dalmatians are typically grouped in with retrievers when it comes to breed categories, although this is more from the lack of a better place to put them than any true relation to actual retrievers. All that fancy DNA sequencing that we discussed above resulted in a big question mark when it comes to Dalmatians, since they don’t match up with any other breed closely at all.
Supposedly, King Cheops of Egypt (who is responsible for the construction of the Great Pyramid) owned a Dalmatian in 3700 BC – or at least a spotted dog who strongly resembled what we would call a Dalmatian today. Fast forward 2,000 years, and the Greeks were painting frescos that show white dogs with painstakingly painted black or brown spots chasing boars.
Dog historians also note that in 400 BC, Cretan Hounds were reportedly bred with Bahakaa Dogs to create a dog that could be used to hunt deer as well as run alongside horses. This seems to foreshadow the Dalmatian’s much more recent history as an excellent carriage dog who was comfortable running alongside horses to protect the carriage from strangers or attackers.
They were then adopted as the unofficial mascot of firefighting, back when fire engines were pulled by horses. Dalmatians served as barking ‘sirens’ to clear the route of other carriages and pedestrians as the firefighters raced to a fire, and then they stood guard over the valuable and potentially flighty horses while the firefighters worked.
The name ‘Dalmatian’ is a confusing mystery in itself. Some contend that it refers to Dalmatia, a province in Croatia where Dalmatians became popular in the mid-1800s with the traveling Romani people. However, Dalmatians almost certainly did not originate there.
Others contend that the name came from the portmanteau ‘damachien,’ which combines Latin and French words to essentially mean ‘deer dog.’
The bottom line is, no one is really sure where Dalmatians came from or why they carry that name.
Great Dane Breed History
Great Danes also have a somewhat mysterious past. There are artifacts from Egypt, Babylon, Tibet, and China that feature dogs that resemble Great Danes as far back as 1000-3000 BC, but of course this isn’t necessarily confirmation that the breed began back then.
The more widely accepted version of Great Dane history is that they were bred starting in the 16th century. German nobles started importing tall, strong dogs from England that were descended from English Mastiffs and Irish Wolfhounds, and then interbreeding them, selecting for characteristics like size, hunting ability, and speed. The German nobles used these dogs for hunting bear, boar, and deer, as well as for guarding their sleeping chambers at night.
Then, in the 1800s, German dog breeders introduced some imported Greek breeds into their stock to create even bigger, beefier hunting dogs, which created a dog that would likely be fairly recognizable as a modern Great Dane.
Great Danes are controversially named as well. Despite what would seem like an obvious indication, Danes are not from Denmark, nor do they really have any association with the country. They were originally simply called English Dogs (or variations thereof) when the German nobles got started importing and breeding them, although in 1878 a committee in Berlin formally changed the name to Deutsche Dogge (German Dog), since they felt that their dogs were by then significantly different than the original English Dogs.
However, tensions were rising between Germany and other countries, which is perhaps why this moniker didn’t really stick worldwide (although the breed is still called Deutsche Dogge in Germany). The name Great Dane actually comes from George-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, a French naturalist who referred to the breed as the Grand Danois (which translates as Big Danish) in his book after seeing one in Denmark.
Perhaps Leclerc mistakenly thought that the breed was Danish since he saw one there, but the name stuck, eventually morphing from Grand Danois to Great Danish Dog to Great Dane. Personally, I think Big Danish has a nice ring to it (and it brings delicious pastries to mind), but the US and most other English-speaking countries decided to stick with Great Dane.
For more on the histories of the two breeds, check out this video:
Dalmatians and Harlequin Great Danes Look Somewhat Similar
So, as we’ve established, Great Danes and Dalmatians basically couldn’t be more distantly related from one another if they tried. However, it does make sense that some people mistake the two breeds, especially when they see a Harlequin Great Dane who sports a white coat with black patches. In some cases, their coloring can be quite similar to a Dalmatian.
Dalmatians and Great Danes share some characteristics, like short smooth coats, similar ear shape and placement, square body profiles, and relatively deep chests that sweep up into a narrow waist. Although Dalmatians are quite a bit smaller than Great Danes, it doesn’t take a huge stretch of the imagination to think that a Dalmatian could be a smaller cousin of the Dane, much like a Miniature American Shepherd is essentially a smaller version of their Australian Shepherd forebears.
Great Danes and Dalmatians are members of the same species, but beyond that, they are about as distantly related as it’s possible to be. The misconception that they are closely related likely comes from the relative resemblance of Harlequin Great Danes and Dalmatians, but that’s merely a surface-level similarity.