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Great Danes have been called many different names throughout their history, and are in fact still referred to by a few different names depending on where you are in the world. As the variety of names indicates, there is still some contention over where exactly Great Danes were developed.
So, are Great Danes from Denmark?
Despite the current breed name, Great Danes are not from Denmark, nor do they have any relation to Denmark or Danish culture. In fact, Great Danes were developed in Germany from mixed breed dogs that were imported from England.
To fully understand the origins of this fast growing breed, we need to go back several thousand years…
Great Dane Ancestors
There are artifacts dating as far back as 1000-3000 BC that depict dogs that resemble Great Danes, from Egypt, Babylon, Tibet, and China. However, the breed’s history is relatively obscure until far more recently.
But, here’s a quick overview of the breed’s history:
In the mid 16th century, German nobles began importing tall, strong dogs from England for hunting and serving as chamber dogs (guard dogs, essentially). These dogs were descended from crosses between English Mastiffs and Irish Wolfhounds, and they came in a variety of phenotypes, sizes, colors, etc. Some have also suggested that Great Danes have Greyhound ancestors as well.
There was no formal breed for this type of imported dog and they were simply referred to as ‘Englische Docke/Tocke’ which was later written as ‘Englische Dogge.’ In Germany, they were also referred to as ‘Englischer Hund.’ Basically, they were just collectively called English Dogs.
Modern Great Dane Breed Was Developed in Germany
The German nobles then began strategically breeding these English Dogs into a more cohesive breed, selecting for characteristics like size, speed, and hunting ability.
The favorites were brought into the lords’ bedchambers to help protect them as they slept. These dogs were called ‘Kammerhunde’ and were often very pampered, sometimes wearing gilded, velvet-lined collars and lounging around as pets.
However, most of these dogs were primarily used to hunt bear, boar, and deer, and the dogs were responsible for essentially pinning the animal in place until the hunters could catch up and kill it. As such, bigger and stronger dogs were prized.
Additionally, this is why Great Danes historically had cropped ears – they were involved in fierce combat with boars, and their dangling ears would get shredded and mangled. Back then, their ears were cropped quite short, although in recent years they were often much longer and pointier. However, many countries are starting to outlaw the practice, since it’s painful and serves no actual purpose anymore.
In the 1800s, as the Germans were developing their ideal hunting dog, they introduced several imported Greek breeds into the mix to make the dogs bigger and beefier, such as the Molossian hound (the common ancestor for all bully breeds) and the Suliot dog.
Then, when hunting guns were introduced, the need for this type of hunting dog was largely eliminated. There was much less focus on breeding the perfect hunting dog, although some nobles still kept and bred English Dogs as a luxurious hobby.
A Formal Name Change
Then, in 1878, a Berlin committee officially changed the name from ‘Englische Dogge’ to ‘Deutsche Dogge,’ which means ‘German Dog/Mastiff.’ They felt that the German line of these dogs was now significantly different from the original English mixes – they were taller, leaner, tighter, and more chiselled. However, these early Great Danes were still stouter and had smaller heads than today’s giant Danes.
The breed was further honed from there, largely as a companion dog and/or guard dog. The dogs were occasionally also called ‘German Boarhounds’ in the 19th century. They were bred with more focus on their temperaments, gentling them after many years of ferocious hunting so that they would be more suitable companion animals.
Some German breeders thought that ‘German Boarhound’ sounded more like a working dog than a luxury dog (which would likely fetch a higher price), so they tried to market the breed as ‘German Dogge’ or ‘German Mastiff.’
However, around this time, tensions were starting to build between Germany and other countries, which is possibly what led to the dogs being ‘rebranded’ with nothing to do with Germany.
So Why Are They Called Great Danes?
The name ‘Great Dane’ actually stems from French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon’s ‘Grand Danois’ (Big Danish) reference to the breed in his 1755 book. He had traveled to Denmark and saw a tall, slim German Boarhound, and, perhaps thinking that it was a Danish breed, dubbed it the Grand Danois.
Experts aren’t sure why this name is the one that stuck, but it eventually morphed from ‘Grand Danois’ to ‘Great Danish Dog’ to ‘Great Dane.’ The AKC has recognized Great Danes as a breed since 1887, and the Great Dane Club of America was established in 1889 as only the fourth breed club to join the AKC.
But, in Germany, the breed is still called Deutsche Dog to this day. In Italy, the breed is called ‘Alano’ (mastiff). However, most English-speaking countries call the breed Great Danes.
American vs. European Great Danes
Today, there is a fairly distinct difference between American and European lines of Great Danes since the breed lines have been largely separated for a few hundred years. American Danes are generally leaner, with thinner necks, tighter skin, smaller and more rectangular heads, and less prominent lips.
European Danes more closely resemble their Mastiff ancestors with larger, squarer heads, blunter muzzles, more dangly lips, and a generally bulkier body type.
American Great Danes typically weigh less than their European counterparts, and the European versions are usually a bit more laid back and relaxed than American Danes, particularly as young dogs.
Great Danes have quite a convoluted history when it comes to their origin and name, but at this point most experts agree that German breeders deserve the credit for creating the Great Danes that we know today, regardless of what you want to call them.
But, either way, there is nothing Danish about them!