When Germany unified in 1871 under the Prussians, the new nation began a period of modernization and industrialization. For lack of a better word, it aped much of what the British did. Britain was the world super power at the time, and it made sense to do many of the things that made it successful.
Agricultural improvement was a subject for which the British had a great understanding, and Germans were deeply involved in their own selective breeding projects in a wide variety of species. Dogs were no exception. Indeed, the Germans largely adopted the British dog fancy system as a way of improving canine stock.
In Edward Tenner’s remarkable piece called “Constructing the German Shepherd Dog,” the author points out that German dog fancy was largely derived from the British one, and by the 1880s, there were three main factions that were operating in the field of dog breed improvement: a faction that was working breeding good urban pets, a faction that was interested in experiment with various working breeds to improve them for greater utility, and a faction that was concerned with dogs of the rural gentry, especially Great Danes.
It is in the latter that it most resembled that of the British dog fancy. The dog fancy had come from learned nobility or those very near to reaching peerage, and the main interests were dogs used for hunting or dogs that were used for guarding large estates. The first dog shows in England were about setters and pointers. They later came to encompass virtually every hunting dog, as well as the noble mastiffs.
This part of the German dog fancy was particularly concerned with Great Danes. Bismarck, the Prussian statesman whose Realpolitik had made unification possible, was a much-esteemed leader of the new nation. He was very much a fan of the large boarhounds, and the dogs that surrounded his court and those of his associates came to be known as Reichshund or “dogs of the Empire.”
In this way, the Germans aped the British. The British heavily promoted the improvement of very large mastiffs in the early days of their fancy, and the German did much the same with their own indigenous mastiff.
One of the great ironies is that English speakers call this breed a “Great Dane.” Buffon called the dog “Le Grand Danois,” and such a misattribution has continued in the English-speaking world almost without challenge. Some English-language authors called the breed the “German boarhound” or just “boarhound,” which are far better names.
But if one knew of the popularity of Great Danes among the elite in Germany in the early decades of the Empire, it would be hard to see them as anything other than German.
Indeed, the foundation of breed as we know it today started in Berlin in 1878, just a few years after unification. Various boarhound fanciers–almost all of them nobles who either used them as catch dogs or as estate guardians– got together and began combining their strains.
The breed had a terrible reputation in England. Rawdon Lee saw the breed as a menace and recounts a story in which a Great Dane nearly killed a Newfoundland dog. He also lamented that dogs exhibited at the Crystal Palace shows spent most of their time growling and snarling at other dogs and exhibitors.
This breed did have a reputation very much like we see about pit bulls today, and they are three times the size of a pit bull.
When the Germans began the pioneering of the modern concept of a police dog, the Great Dane was the breed that was used. In the late 1890s, Franz Laufer became a the police commission in Schwelm in Westphalia, where he became instrumental in developing a modern police force.
One thing that Laufer thought was necessary was to have dogs that worked for the police. Initially, he thought the dogs’ main utility would be in protecting the police from hostile subjects, and the breed he chose to work as a police dog was the Great Dane. Indeed, the first modern police dog was a Great Dane named Caesar, who was enlisted for service in 1897.
Great Danes were the first police dogs, but of course the breed isn’t that well-suited the task. They lack the biddablity of the shepherd dogs, and in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, this breed had much of a fighting spark than could ever be made safe for the public. They are also very large and aren’t as easy to transport. They also take years and years before they mature mentally.
The Great Dane, the boarhound, the Deustche Dogge, or German mastiff was really the first attempt by the German Empire to create a unified national breed. But they were mostly the dogs of the elite, because of the limitation in turning them into truly versatile working dogs, they were eventually replaced by the German shepherd, a dog from more rustic and working class roots.
The reputation of this breed has changed quite a bit. Americans grew up on The Ugly Dachshund, Scooby Doo, and Marmaduke formulation of the breed. One cannot do a search for the Great Dane and not see the words “gentle giant” mentioned in the majority of your results.
The breed has been toned down greatly from that über that frightened people all over the English-speaking world. Indeed, the breed is almost never used to catch wild boar and feral swine, which was its original purpose.
The breed still has some capacity for aggression, especially toward other dogs, and some can be absolutely dangerous creatures.
But the passing 123 years since time of Caesar in Schwelm, the breed has become a companion animal and a novelty. Virtually no one breeds a real working Great Dane. Americans prefer their own strains of catch dogs, as do the Australians and New Zealanders, and such methods of hunting are illegal in Germany and most of Europe.
It failed as a national dog. It made a short career as a police dog. It no longer makes the swine squeal.
It fits in now because of its novelty and its rebranding. But in its blood still courses the boarhound of yore. Its blood courses in the Dogo Argentino and maybe a few other feller mastiff strains as well.
But the dog itself go on into the twenty-first century, in hopes to find a space in a world no longer needing such a creatures as true German boarhounds of the old strain.
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