This section is from the book "A History And Description Of The Modern Dogs Of Great Britain And Ireland. (Sporting Division)", by Rawdon Briggs Lee. Also available from Amazon: A History and Description of the Modern Dogs of Great Britain and Ireland: Sporting Division.
It would appear that, within the last eighty years or so, considerable improvement must have been made in the size and power of the Great Dane. Sydenham Edwards, who wrote of him in 1803, said he was usually about twenty - eight inches in height, though, occasionally, he would be found thirty - one inches. The same writer goes on to describe him : "Ears, usually cropped; eyes, in some, white, in others yellow, or half white or yellow. A beautiful variety, called the Harlequin Dane, has a finely marked body, with large or small spots of black, grey, liver colour, or sandy-red, upon a white ground . . . . The grand figure, bold, muscular action and elegant carriage of the Dane, would recommend him to notice, had he no useful properties; and thus we find him honoured in adding to the pomp of the noble or the wealthy, before whose carriage he trots or gallops in a fine style; not noisy, but of approved dignity, becoming his intrepid character he keeps his stall in silence." Edwards further says this dog must be muzzled, to prevent him attacking his own species.
Contrary to the above statement we have that of Richardson, who, writing about 1848, says the Great Dane is a dog of gigantic stature, standing from thirty to thirty-two inches in height at the shoulders, or even more. He says the ears are short, and drop down very gracefully. At the present time they are big, and hang down in a fashion so ungainly, that until quite recently it was the custom to crop them, an operation that was best performed when the puppies were about three weeks old, and when suckling their dam. One large breeder, Mr. E. H. Adcock, followed this custom successfully, and the wounds were soon healed by the contact of a mother's tongue. Others "cropped" their puppies when three or four months old, some still later, when the dog was more matured, say at eight or nine months, but at that time it was a nasty job, and a terribly unpleasant one, to him who took it in hand. Happily this cropping is illegal nowadays, and is only alluded to here as one of the follies of a fast passing away generation.
Perhaps it was the custom to have these dogs shorn of part of their ears that led to their, comparatively speaking, non-popularisation, for it is difficult to find proficient operators, who run the risk of fine or imprisonment if the cruelty they perpetrate be brought to the notice of the authorities.
A few years ago, I was attending one of the Crystal Palace dog shows, and engaged in conversation with a man, well known as a skilful performer on the ears of terriers and other dogs. Walking past the benches where the Danes were chained, we were startled by a terrible growl and furious lunge, a huge brindled dog springing up and making violent attempts to reach the man to whom I was talking. Luckily for him the chain and collar and staple held. I never saw so much ferocity depicted on the face of any animal whatever, as there was on the countenance of that Great Dane. It would have been bad for that man had it got loose. Need it be said, we soon gave it a wide berth. "What was the meaning of that?" said I to the fellow, who was, in reality, very much frightened and shaken by the occurrence. "Well," said he, "I know the dog, he was badly 'cropped,' and about five months ago, Mr.----------called me down to his place to 'perform' on his ears again. We had a terrible job with him, and I guess the dog just recognised me, and wanted to have his revenge. I shall have nothing more to do with cropping 'boarhounds,' " continued the whilom operator, "nor do I think I shall go near his bench; no, not if I knows it!"
I fancy from the above and other experiences I have gained, that no other variety of British dog possesses the same strength of mind, and is so ready to resent a supposed injury as he. It is dangerous to thrash some of them; they may turn on you, or will surlily growl; and in fighting with any opponent they are not always able to discriminate between the hands of their master (who may be interfering in the combat) and the throat of an opponent. Still, faithful and intelligent, many of them are thoroughly trustworthy when their master is about - not always in his absence. They possess great power and activity, and are most symmetrically built. The Great Dane is usually a good water dog, but there are some which will not swim a yard.
As we know him here as a companion and a guard only, no more than passing allusion need be made to him as a sporting dog, to hunt the wild boar and chase the deer. That he was used for these purposes long before he came to be a house dog there is no manner of doubt, for his portraits can be recognised in all the great pictures of hunting scenes that took place in the Middle Ages. This is the reason I place him in the group of Sporting Dogs.
That he is thoroughly amenable to discipline I found some few years ago, in 1884, during a visit to the Oxford Music Hall, in London. Here Mr. Fred. Felix, a well-known trainer, had a group of performing dogs, which included three Great Danes, and all good specimens, especially the best trick dog in the lot, who no doubt gloried in his name of Grandmaster. These dogs went through a variety of performances in an extraordinarily kindly and willing manner, jumping through hoops, walking on their hind legs, sitting on chairs, jumping over each other's backs, with all the docility and more of the freedom than the poodle would have displayed.
Grandmaster made some astonishing leaps, and two of the hounds had a "make-believe" fight, growling, seizing each other, and rolling on the stage as they might have done in a less friendly strife. The latter was a performance I have not since seen attempted, and must be a most difficult thing for a trainer to teach. I do not know when I was better pleased with a group of performing dogs than I was with these Great Danes. I have seen other showmen performing with them in a cage of lions, and similar dogs formed a portion of "a happy family" of wild beasts that a few years since proved a great attraction at the Crystal Palace.