There’s no doubt that Great Danes are enormous dogs – the breed is often referred to as the ‘Apollo of dogs’ or ‘gentle giants.’
But why are Great Danes so big, and how did they get that way?
Like all domestic dog breeds, Great Danes were created through human intervention and selective breeding. The breed was first created in the Middle Ages by mixing Mastiffs and Irish Wolfhounds to create very large, very strong dogs capable of hunting boar, bears, and other big game, as well as protecting their masters from threats.
In this article, we’ll look at just how giant Great Danes actually are and how they got that way.
Let’s dive in!
How Big Are Great Danes?
On average, an adult female Great Dane will measure 28-33 inches at the shoulder and weigh 100-140 pounds while an adult male Dane will stand 30-36 inches tall and weigh 140-200 pounds. Great Danes undergo an explosive growth period during the first year or so of their lives – they are born weighing just 1-2 pounds and often reach their full height within 12-18 months and their full weight by two years of age.
That makes them one of the biggest breeds on the planet even when compared to other giants like Mastiffs, St. Bernards, and even wolves!
However, those are simply averages and there are certainly bigger and smaller Great Danes out there. For instance, the tallest dog ever officially measured was Zeus, a Dane who stood a staggering 44 inches tall at the shoulder! Zeus was quite skinny though, only weighing about 155 pounds. However, some shorter and stockier Great Danes have tipped the scales at more than 245 pounds.
Just like humans, Great Danes come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and their overall size is dependent on their genes, diet, and exercise. Additionally, a Great Dane’s size can be impacted by stress, illness, injury, or even by being spayed or neutered very early – this can actually delay the closure of a Great Dane’s bone growth plates, leading to extra-tall Dane. And, of course, if a Great Dane has other breeds mixed into his recent ancestry, that can affect his size as well.
Alright, now that we’ve established how big Great Danes actually are, let’s look more at how they got that way.
Understanding Selective Breeding
Most dog breeds, including Great Danes, have only been created in the last several hundred years (although there are some breeds that date back thousands of years). If you think back to high school biology class, that’s because with selective breeding (read: human intervention), evolution can happen much more quickly than it would through natural selection.
Essentially, humans took advantage of what Darwin described as ‘descent with modification,’ where eventually new traits or characteristics appear in a species by chance via a DNA mutation. Humans could choose the puppy from one litter than had a certain trait and eventually breed it with a puppy from another litter that had the same trait, to then produce puppies with a very high chance of having that trait, and so on and so forth until we ended up with dogs that span the size spectrum from Chihuahua to Great Dane.
Diving for just a moment down this scientific rabbithole, let’s talk about how it is that all breeds of dog are still considered the same species, despite looking so drastically different – especially when appearance is one of the biggest factors in delineating different species.
In fact, the ultimate criterion for defining a species is that two specimens can mate and produce viable offspring – ‘viable’ meaning that the offspring itself can mate and thus create still more offspring. So, since despite certain *ahem* logistical concerns, members from any two dog breeds can theoretically mate and produce offspring which can then eventually do the same, all dogs are considered the same species. All dogs also have the same number of chromosomes (78, in case you were wondering), and the unusually large size variance between members of the same species has been attributed to differences in a single gene.
On the other hand, however, horses and donkeys are actually separate species because, despite their relatively similar appearances (much more similar than a Great Dane to a Chihuahua, arguably), they have different numbers of chromosomes and cannot produce viable offspring. A male donkey and a female horse can breed to produce a mule, and a female donkey and male horse can breed to produce a hinny, but it is exceedingly rare for a mule or a hinny to be able to produce any offspring of their own so they are ultimately ‘non-viable.’
All of this to say – humans have created many breeds of dogs by taking advantage of the fact that all breeds can interbreed, thus making it fairly easy to select for certain characteristics. Plus, since dogs reach sexual maturity within just a few years of age, big changes can be made in a relatively short time through forced selection.
Now, let’s look at how this science applies specifically to Great Danes…
Great Danes Have Big Ancestors
During the 16th century, European nobility began importing tall, sturdy dogs from England, which were descended from English Mastiffs and Irish Wolfhounds.
The same two breeds were bred together in German courts in the 17th century, leading to a wide variety of names for the resulting dogs: Englische Docke, Englische Dogge, Englischer Hund, etc. Still further argument about the name ensued, during which time the breed was also referred to as Deutsche Dogge (German Mastiff), or German Boarhound. Ultimately, the name ‘Great Dane’ was widely accepted, which references the ‘grand danois’ that George-Louis Leclerc mentions in his 1755 natural history book.
The point being, Great Danes got their bulk and musculature from their Mastiff ancestors (as did many other bully breeds) and their long-leggedness and immense height from their Irish Wolfhound ancestors. Some sources also suggest that Great Danes have some Greyhound ancestry, which lent them speed and agility and this breed is surprisingly athletic despite their reputation for being a bit uncoordinated.
Bred For Hunting Large Animals
Regardless of the name controversy, Great Danes were intentionally bred to be huge and hardy for a specific purpose: hunting large animals like deer, boar, and even bears. Other breeds of dogs (scent- and sight-sounds, likely) were used to find and track the big game, and then the Great Danes would step in and seize the animal, holding it in one place until the hunter could catch up and dispatch it. Naturally, bigger dogs had a height and weight advantage over smaller dogs when it came to tussling with a wild boar.
The lords of the court would then invite their favorite Great Danes into their bedchambers at night, to keep them safe from would-be assassins.
However, with the advent of guns, dogs no longer played such a critical role in the hunting process, and many Great Danes were repurposed as guard dogs or simply as affectionate companion animals.
American vs. European Great Dane Size Differences
With the passage of time (and of course some forced selection!), the lines of Great Danes in the United States have diverged somewhat in appearance and size from the European lines. European Great Danes tend to be bigger, heavier, thicker, and have a more wrinkled look that leans towards their Mastiff ancestors.
American Danes, on the other hand, are generally slightly smaller and lighter with thinner necks, longer muzzles, and less pronounced chops. They also have a generally ‘tighter’ look, with fewer wrinkles and less excess skin. American Great Danes have deeper but narrower chests and more defined tuck-ups (smaller waists, basically) than their European counterparts, more closely resembling their Irish Wolfhound and potentially their Greyhound ancestors.
Here’s a further explanation of some differences between American and European Great Danes:
There are several reasons why Great Danes are so enormous, including their genetic makeup, breed ancestry, and their original purpose of hunting big game. Now, however, these giant lovable goofballs make excellent companion dogs – even though they might hog the couch!