One Family’s Life with the Gentle Giants of Dogdom
By Pat Nieder
“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]