The breeding of purebred dogs as we know it today with kennel clubs, dog shows, pedigrees and stud books has only existed for 150 years. (It is often called “modern dog breeding” but in reality it is very old-fashioned because it is based on a mindset which is not up to date and is not based on current scientific and ethical knowledge). The pioneers were the English, which founded the British Kennel Club in 1873.
Originally dogs were selected according to their specific task, according to the motto “form follows function”.
So the function shaped the dog, appearences like the colour of the fur, the height of the stop or the shape of the ears were of marginal importance, as well as the thoroughbredness. Dogs were mated whose performance were good, and all in a while breeds were mixed with each other. Purebred dogs as we know them today are an artificial product created by the human, a trademark comparable to Pepsi or Coca Cola. Actually every breed was born out of mixed dogs. The great dane for example was created by mixing Mastiffs, grey hounds and boar hounds.
One of the first dog shows in Birmingham, England, 1877
With the industrialisation and urbanisation in the 19th century many dog breeds lost their original purpose and became company dogs, fashion accessoires and prestige objects. From then on they were selected mostly for their look, their temper and health was neglected. The stud books were closed and many dog breeds experienced a “genetic bottle-neck”. Only a few founder animals were chosen which seemed to be the closest to the ideal of the breed and a lot of genetic material got lost and by closing the population no new genes can enter it.
Every dog breed looses genetic variety in each generation! The smaller the effective population size – which means the ratio of males and females who are allowed to reproduce – the more genes are lost.
This phenomenon is called genetic drift. Furthermore the few founder animals of each breed were inbred massively. And so it is not astonishing that now, after 150 years of “old-fashioned” dog breeding many purebred dogs are on the brink healthwise. 150 years, that means 50 generations for the dog (if you assume 3 years for the succession of generations). If you convert this to humans it would be 1000 years (20 years for the succession of generations). Just imagine a village in the mountains, founded by 20 individuals, is isolated from the outside world for 1000 years. That’s what happened to many dog breeds: the immune system is weakened by inbreeding, the fertility and fitness is lowered, inherited diseases are spreading. But also the temperament and intelligence is influenced negatively by inbreeding, as many scientific studies even on humans show.
Furthermore the dogs had been selected only for their phenotype (which means their look) which was in many cases also exaggerated (see: classic type vs. hyper type) and only a few males- the so-called popular sires – were allowed to reproduce. Compared to our mountain village it would mean, that only males who looked like Brad Pitt were allowed to reproduce…over a period of 1000 years!
Main problems of the current pedigree dog breeding:
– small, closed populations
– loss of genetic diversity due to inbreeding, genetic drift and popular sires
– selection only for the look, not for health or temperament
– exaggeration of physical features
– lack of information about health and data of death due to a lack of transparency
– lack of knowledge and professional population management of many breeders and breed club officials
So it is not surprising, that the life expactancy of many purebred dogs is diminished massively. For the great dane it is only 6,5 years in average! It is one of the dog breeds with the lowest life span. (see: life expectancy and causes of death of great danes)
This downward spiral has to be stopped, if we want to preserve purebred dogs! And it is worth to fight for their preservation, they are a living cultural asset!
But for this to happen the mindset of the kennel club officials and breeders has to change. And also the puppy buyers have to be well informed and critical! But unfortunately these changes only happen very slowly despite of a lot of education that took place in the last years by documentaries, books, magazines, internet blogs and social media. This is why responsible breeders, who are focused on health and a sound temper, are often left alone and don’t get supported by breeder colleagues and kennel clubs.
But the interest is very big to maintain the current system of dog breeding, in which champion titles, the own ego and profit is the priority.
And also the concurrence by backyard breeders is big. In Germany about the same amount of puppies are born without FCI-pedigrees than with them, which had been proven by a study in 2011 (only available in German). While the numbers are declining, in 2015 only 1245 great dane puppies have been born in the VDH (German Kennel Club), while 10 years before there were 1807!. But still the great dane is amongst the 10 most popular dog breeds in Germany. And unfortunately many breeders produce rather quantity than quality.
This has to stop, also to oppose the concurrence by backyard breeders. Because today it cannot be proven statistically, that great danes with pedigrees are healthier than great danes without pedigrees. But still one should buy a puppy from a registered breeder, because only with a pedigree it is possible at all to get information about the ancestors and breed for health. And at least in the German Kennel Club there is a minimum of rules and control to protect the dogs. But it is not so easy for a puppy buyer to find a responsible breeder. Therefore we have written some tips for people in search of a good great dane puppy.
A responsible breeder doesn’t only consider his own short-term success or his breeding line, but he always has in mind the whole population of the breed and thinks in generations.
The following aspects are part of modern dog breeding, in which health and longevity, a sound temper and the wellbeing of the dogs are the main focus.
Solution approaches of modern dog breeding:
– transparency with health and death data
– use of pedigree databases
– avoidance of inbreeding and loss of genetic diversity
– selection for health and longevity
– health testing
– breed shows instead of “beauty competitions”
– avoidance of physical extremes
– comprehensive professional behavioral tests of breeding dogs
– sozialisation of the puppies according to behaviour psychology knowledge
– keeping the breeding dogs as family members in the house, not in kennels
– protecting the breeding dogs from exploitation
Transparency and Information
Without informaton about the ancestors and relatives of a dog it is almost impossible to select for health and the pedigree is almost useless, as it only consists of names. This is why it is inevitable for a modern breeder to work with digital pedigree databases which contain health testing results and data of deaths. For great danes there exists the database www.danesworld.info which is not offical but is the biggest database for great danes worldwide now with almost 300.000 dogs entered (mostly Germany and Continental Europe). It is similar to the official database of the Finnish Kennel Club “KoiraNet“, which is free of charge for all breeders and dog owners. There are also several other international databases for great danes:
- www.danesworld.info (mainly Germany and Continental Europe)
- www.jalostus.kennelliitto.fi (mainly Finland)
- http://greatdanes.dog (Russia and Europe)
- https://www.nemecka-doga.cz/databaze (Czech Republic and Eastern Europe)
- http://www.quintessa.net.au/Databases/search.html (USA and Australia)
- https://www.ofa.org/ (USA)
- https://www.dogweb.no (Norway)
- https://www.hundeweb.dk (Denmark)
- https://hundar.skk.se/hunddata/ (Sweden)
- https://www.champdogs.co.uk/breeds/great-dane (UK)
Unfortunately there is no official database in Germany, even the opposite, officials from the great dane clubs DDC and KyDD and many breeders fight “danesworld” because it reveals what many already know: the great dane has an alarmingly low average lifespan and something has to be done to change this situation. And unfortunately still many breeders hide diseases and deaths of their dogs. And so it is a detective work for a responsible breeder to get information and due to the lack of information every mating is kind of a Russian Roulette. Transparency and honesty distinguish a good breeder from a bad breeder, and he will also answer the questions of puppy buyers about his breeding dogs and their ancestors – if he has the information himself.
Only with a database like Danesworld a breeder has a tool to plan his matings reasonably. It offers for example the possibilty to calculate the inbreeding coefficient up to the 6th generation. To determine the genetic variety of a mating it is on one hand important to know the COI (Coefficient of inbreeding), on the other hand it is also necessary to know the ALC (Ancestor loss coefficient). The COI tells you who closely related the mother and father of a litter are, which means how many common ancestors they have in which generation. A COI of 25% describes the mating of full sibblings or parents with offspring a COI of 12,5% describes the mating of half sibblings or grandparents with grandchildern and a COI of 6,25% describes the mating of cousins.
The COI of 6 generations should be lower than 6,25% and the ALC higher than 80 to guarantee a minimum of genetic diversity.
Because of the negative impact of inbreeding (read above) a COI as low as possible is recommended. The ALC describes how many ancestors are doubled in the pedigree and this way also determines the inbreeding of the ancestors. A high ALC means that the genetic diversity is high, because only a few ancestors double up. The ALC should be higher than 80%.
To reduce inbreeding dogs from populations which are far away should be used, and the colour groups should be mixed with each other. This is also recommended by the FCI, explicitely for the great dane, which is bred in three seperated colour groups (fawn/brindle, blue/black from blue, harle/black) which are almost like three sub breeds, which limits their genetic diversity. In some clubs like the Swiss Great Dane Club (SCDD), the Finnish Great Dane Club and the KyDD (2nd German Dane Club) these recommendations of the FCI are already implemented. In the DDC it is unfortunately still very difficult to mix colours or use stud dogs from far away and is possible only with a special permission.
Selection for Longevity
It seems logical to breed with dogs with old ancestors to get offspring which will get old as well. A high age shows a good health and immune system, which can be inherited by the offspring. And there exist even genes for long life!
The most frequent genetic diseases of great danes appear in all breeding lines. The question is, how often do they appear and how does the breeder handle it. Does he hide them or is he honest. And does he try to fight them?
Breeders should try not to mate dogs, whose ancestors died of the same inherited disease. But this is not so easy because of the lack of transparency and the frequency of some diseases. It is also advisable to use old stud dogs (or frozen semen of stud dogs who reached a high age and are already dead), since the heart ultrasound is more reliable in high age and it is known if the dog suffered from diseases or not. And there is more information about his parents and grandparents and about offspring he has already produced. If you use a 2 year old male with 4 year old parents and 6 year old grandparents you almost have no information about their health or life expectancy.
In many breed clubs health testing is not mandatory. But responsible breeders will perform several health tests before they breed a dog. The most important health test is probably the heart ultrasound and ECG. It should be performed at least every two years by a specialized cardiologist.
Only if the Heart Ultrasound will be performed over generations and with as many danes as possible (also the ones not used for breeding) it will become obvious which lines are more and which ones are less affected by DCM and breeders can start to select against this heart disease.
Until now there don’t exist any prophylactic screenings for stomach torsion and bone cancer. This is why further resarch is important and supported by our association (see: research).
Health tests which are advisable for the great dane:
- heart ultrasound (at least every 2 years)
- hip, elbow and spine X-ray
- eye examination
- gene test for Ichthyosis
Some breeders argue that health testing is too expensive. On the other hand they drive to many shows, which are mostly far away and cost a lot of money. Someone who wants to improve a breed (and this means in great danes foremost to improve the health situation) does not shy costs and efforts. Und the several hundred Euros all health tests may cost are quickly earned by selling puppies. Generally the current show system is very old-fashioned and not up to date. And in times, when in Continental Europa great dane hypertypes with disqualifying faults are awarded with Champion titles one may ask what value those papers still have.
Champion titles actually proove only one thing nowadays: the diligence of the dog owner. If you breed and own only dogs to collect tin prize cups and plastic ribbons to polish your own ego you should rather devote yourself to a hobby which does not harm animals.
If the money and energy that might be saved by quitting the current show system would be invested in the health, our purebred dogs would recover in a few years. The only shows that would make sense are “breeding shows”, which means the dogs are not judged “anounymously” and indivdually, but knowing their names and presenting their offspring and relatives, together with a behavioral testing, a standardized cataloguing of all dogs and health testing. This way breeders and other interested people could choose future breeding dogs not only by their look (phenotype), but by the way they pass on certain features (genotype).
A breeder should only breed anatomically sound dogs without physical exaggerations (see “Classic type vs hyper type“) and with a good movement. The great dane does not have any extreme features according to its standard. Its anatomy is not so far away from its forefather the wolf. Even the size of the great dane is not so extreme if you consider that wolves can also reach 80cm at withers. But it is important to be moderate and to avoid extreme size, huge amounts of loose skin or extreme weight.
At least in Europe you can regularly find great danes which are timid and tend to be fear-aggressive. The temperament does not play a big role in the EUDDC breeding license (only 12 of 310 points) and the so-called “temperament test” often doesn’t last longer than 2 minutes. You can even see dogs who cannot be touched by the judges and are very anxious achieving their breeding license.
It’s disastrous if a dog which reaches 60-90kg does not have a sound temper and acts unpredictably. Great danes are companion dogs nowadays, they live in families and they have to adapt to human society, especially in times when the hostility towards dogs is raising.
The Swiss Club for Great Danes (SCDD) has a very comprehensive temperament test, which you can see in this video by Ruth Stolzewski from 2013. It is only in German but you can still get an impression.
As the temperament is both inherited and influenced by the environment a good rearing is crucial too to obtain dogs with a sound and stable temper, because what a puppy doesn’t get to know in his sozialisation period until the age of 12 weeks he will rather react to warily as an adult dog. It is therefore important that the puppy will get to know different environmental stimuli – suitable for its age – like noise, different grounds, many different people, dogs and animals, leash and collar training, car training etc. But the breeder should not overwhelm the puppies, this is as contraproductive as rearing in an environment with no stimuli like an empty kennel or a room in the cellar.
What relationship does a breeder have to his dogs? Does he treat them fair and according to animal welfare or does he regard them only as a means to an end?
One important aspect of breeding ethics is the protection of the brood bitches: a female should have at least one heat break between two litters, which means a minimum of 10 months. She should also not have too many litters in her lifetime. In most breeding clubs there is unfortunately no maximum number of litters in the breeding regulations.
A female needs an appropriate time to recover from pregnancy, birth and rearing. And a great dane should not spend her anyway short lifetime with producing one litter after another!
Some breeders also give their “decommissioned” breeding dogs away since they only cost money. You can recognise a good breeder if he also keeps his seniors and cherishes them. It is also important how the dogs are kept. Because of their affectionate personality and their sensitivity to weather great danes are not suitable for living permanently in a kennel! A great dane should live in the house as a family member. Epigenetic research has also proven, that a stressful environment of both mother and father influence the health and temperament of the offspring. As a consequence a breeder should not own too many dogs to be able to meet the requirements of each individual dog according to age with walks, dog school and other activities.