Great Dane in the Morning

One Family’s Life with the Gentle Giants of Dogdom

By Pat Nieder

Lotte 1“What was it that attracted you to a Great Dane?” the woman asked. Lotte and I had encountered her on the firebreak that doubles as a dog-walking path at the top of the mountain. She was petting my dog and then fell in with us as we walked.

I told her Lotte was not our first Great Dane. She was in fact our ninth which means that we’ve been hooked a long time. We were expecting our first child when we thought it was time to get a dog. But what kind?  Ed had grown up with dogs, one in particular named Blondie, a Cocker Spaniel mix. He was a dog person. My family had cats. My only experience with dog ownership ended badly almost immediately after it began: A puppy given to me by a high school friend developed distemper and had to be euthanized. Living as we did with a progression of cats that more or less took care of themselves, I don’t suppose it had occurred to my family that the puppy should have visited a veterinarian for shots.

So Ed and I, two young journalists, went into research mode. We bought a dog book and began reading about different breeds. Large breeds, that is. As we were both tall, we determined right away that it should be a big dog. Then we began eliminating from consideration dogs with tendencies we considered undesirable like excessive drooling or shedding great gobs of fur. Or the possibility of frightening small children. As the list became smaller and smaller, we kept returning to the Great Dane description. We learned the dogs originated in Germany, not Denmark, and that German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck used his Great Danes to help him with personnel decisions: An applicant had a better chance of being hired if the Chancellor’s dogs approved. Ed’s heritage is German so those facts appealed to him.

We read about the dogs that people call “gentle giants,” how good they are with children and how impervious they are to being injured themselves by children playing too roughly. We also read that, unlike other large dogs, they did not require vast amounts of exercise space. (The hunting instinct had been bred out of them.) That point had appeal since we were then living in a two-bedroom duplex apartment in Sacramento. Further, it occurred to us that the size and sound of a dog like this could be a deterrent to would-be intruders without our having to worry about attacks on the mailman.

Two family stories involved Great Danes. Ed’s sister Betty and her husband veterinarian Glen Bolton were recent graduates heading south from Colorado in search of a clinic where he might find work during World War II.  In Albuquerque they found a vet who was going into the Army and needing someone to take over his clinic.  So the newlyweds moved in and Glen began his practice. One of his first patients was a Great Dane who needed to be boarded – and fed. We always heard the story of how the young couple would buy hamburger meat, not for themselves but for the dog, while they ate beans.

The other story concerned Ernie Pyle, the famed journalist and war correspondent who brought his gravely ill Great Dane to Glen.  He wrote a very moving column afterward about the young vet who worked tirelessly trying to save the dog and seemed devastated when his efforts proved futile and the dog died.

As we were closing in on a decision, we began telling friends and relatives that we were thinking about getting a Great Dane. “Are you out of your minds?!” they all, to a person, exclaimed. And so, of course, there was nothing for us to do but get a Great Dane. The fact that Ernie Pyle had a Great Dane probably figured in there somewhere too.

Up to this point, however, neither of us had ever been face-to-face with one. So we went to a dog show where we were able to see many, one more gorgeous than the next. There were fawn colored ones, probably the most recognizable, but also brindle, black, and harlequin, the kind that is white with black splotches, as well as one called blue which is really a steel-gray color. We were smitten beyond return. In the next week we contacted a local breeder of Danes and asked to meet for a talk. Ed’s elderly parents, who were visiting at the time, said they wouldn’t mind accompanying us. The four of us sat in the beautifully appointed living room talking with the breeder and her husband until one of them finally said, “Would you like to meet the dogs now?” “Oh yes!” And with that, a door was opened and in bounded four full grown Great Danes.

After their exuberant entrance, the dogs moved from chair to chair inspecting each of us before flopping down on the carpet. I marveled at the graceful way they maneuvered in and around the furniture, never dislodging a tabletop dish or art object. But I can still see Ed’s little white-haired parents, their backs pressed against their wing chairs, hands clutching the arms and frozen smiles upon their faces. I would have had similar reactions but I was trying hard to appear relaxed and casual in the event we might one day purchase a puppy from these people. Once out on the street, though, I said “The only way I could live with one of those beasts is if we started with a very small puppy.”

And that’s what we did, although not one from the breeder we visited. Hers were too expensive for us, and we had an impression that she would come along with the deal, hovering over us with advice and plans for our dog’s show career. We just wanted a pet. So we did more research and eventually found a breeder who was happy to have her puppy go to a family that would love her and give her good care. We learned later that this woman, who was British, had spent the years of the Blitz during World War II, scouring London for cows that had been felled by Nazi bombs so she’d have meat to feed her Great Danes. The breeder’s name was Gladys Jewell, known to everyone as Mrs. Jewell, and she sold us our first puppy, Dagmar, who was a jewel herself.

[Photo: Sandy Driscoll]

24 comments on “Great Dane in the Morning

  1. Margo L. Smith says:

    Wow! How many of your wonderful dogs I remember. But, I han’t known of all their adventures, illnesses, and how many had to be euthanized. This was like the canine version of a Greek epic. And the expense — without your considerable layout for various doggie needs, their healthcare, and occasional recompense to bitees — you could have flown first-class to ever so many exotic places. But, all the love, joy, and delight that they brought to your many households made it all worthwhile. What a wonderful walk through so much Nieder history. Thanks for including me. While I didn’t get to know all of your Danes, the ones I did were, indeed, great.

    • patnieder says:

      Thanks, Margo. While that could have been your late lamented glove in Dagmar’s mouth, it wasn’t; we were too horrified at the time to take a picture. As for all the exotic trips we’ve missed, I always say to people who ask about the expense of these dogs, “Well, we don’t own a boat.” And I guess seeing all the euthanizations in one place might seem like a lot, but I’ve always felt an advantage animals with incurable and debilitating illness have over people is that animals’ suffering can be mercifully ended. Unless you are a person living in Oregon, Washington, Vermont or The Netherlands.

      • Margo L. smith says:

        And, best of all, is the warm wonderful stream of unconditional love that flows between you and Ed and your ever majestic and elegant canines. They have been and are truly members of your family.

  2. patnieder says:

    And that from a non-dog owner. Imagine!

  3. Betty Dana says:

    I can’t believe how many dogs we’ve enjoyed with you. Our friendship all began with Bismarck who was magnificent and we are still enjoying Lotte when we visit. I remember our daughter dog sitting with a high school friend. When I phoned to see how they were doing they said all was well, they were watching movies with the dogs in their laps. It was good that the phone was right there as she claimed they were pretty much happily weighted down by the dogs on the couch. Our grandchildren thought they were like “Clifford, the Big Red Dog.”

    A grand story of your life with these majestic Danes.

  4. Linda Adoff-Valdez says:

    I am only half way finished and so sad about how you lost dogs so early, it breaks my heart.
    I also am touched by the love between you and your husband and how well you worked together.
    I really feel like going to your house and giving Lotte a big hug. To say the least I am really enjoying and moved by your story.

    • patnieder says:

      Oh my! Thanks so much. But don’t be sad. We loved and enjoyed each of these wonderful dogs for the time they were with us. And they continue in our memories and apparently now with people like you who read about them. I’ll give Lotte a hug and tell her it’s from you.

  5. Mary Cervantez says:

    Loved the article & have had the priveledge of living with your Lotte, as her sitter for short periods, a number of times. Thanks.

  6. Herta says:

    Really great stories, enjoyed very much reading it and also meeting you at Ingrid’s!

  7. patnieder says:

    Thanks so much! Hope to see you again and to talk dogs some more.

  8. Carol Neis says:

    Loved the synopsis on the Danes..I remember meeting two of them when you were living in Montclair…I am anxious to read the full story…

    • patnieder says:

      Thanks for reading, Carol. Yes, we’ve frequently had two at a time. We’ve gotten a little smarter in our old age and realize one is plenty. And you know, Lotte is so perfect because we have been able to lavish all our attention, such as it is, on her.

  9. Pat; I hope this is not an inappropriate response. This is Linda, the owner of Buster, not Lotte’s favorite. I heard Lotte had passed away and David and I are so sorry to hear that news. Lotte was the first dog I met in Mt Washington and she was just so sweet and when we visited your home, she was a great hostess. I will miss her and wanted to give you my condolences.

    • patnieder says:

      Not inappropriate at all. Thank you. Did you read about her in the final chapter of my unpublished book, Great Dane in the Morning on this site? She was special. But I guess all dog owners think that about their dogs.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Pat; My husband David and I and our dog Buster moved to Vancouver about 6 months ago. We knew you and Lottie, I heard that Lottie had passed away and just wanted to let you know that as far as I am concerned Lottie was a one of a kind gal. I always just thought she had so much class. One day you invited us in to see your house and have a glass of wine on the deck. Lottie was the perfect hostess and all around great dog. Please accept my condolences.
    I hope one day when your heart heals you will find another wonderful companion.

    Linda, David and Buster (Lottie never really cared for Buster)

    • patnieder says:

      Thank you, Linda, for these lovely words. I’m sorry to be so late in acknowledging this. Lotte died in April, and in July my husband Ed also died. As I plan to write in my Christmas letter, “Not a banner year here.” But right now I plan to post something about Lotte and Halloween. Watch for it.

  11. Thomas Tamburin says:

    Greetings Pat! I’ve just come to learn about Ed’s passing and I wanted to reach out and pay my condolences. I guess I’m still on “snail mail” mode in that had I known earlier I would have reached out sooner. If you’re ever back on the East coast let me know and maybe we can coordinate an MSU reunion. If there’s ever a need for a dog-sitter, I’d still jump at the opportunity! Fondly, Thomas

    • patnieder says:

      Thank you, Thomas. Nice to hear from you. Would that I did still need a dog sitter. I think Lotte closed the chapter on that part of my life. But they were wonderful dogs, weren’t they?
      Pat

  12. Anonymous says:

    Just re-reading your wonderful stories of your dogs and I saw the post saying the Ed had died. I wanted to send my very late condolences. I only met your husband once, but he, like Lotte was very kind and it seemed a gentle person.

    • patnieder says:

      Thank you. Yes, Ed and Lotte were both kind and gentle, and I miss them terribly. That fact and a lot of other unanticipated occurrences are the reasons for my inactivity on this blog. But I will get back to it, I promise. Pat

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