My Week with the Great Danes

Denali lounging on the couch!

Mt.McKinley, as everybody knows, is the tallest mountain in North America.  As anyone could tell you, it’s peak rests over 20,000 feet above southern Alaska.  Many people know this mountain by it’s indigenous name, Denali.  Some people also know that the summit was not reached until 1916, and that temperatures as low as -100 F have been recorded on it’s face. Relatively few people know, however, that
Denali is also the name of an enormous grey mass of Great Dane.  These few people are probably the same few people who know that Denali the Great Dane has a sister named Ella, and that Ella is a Lesser Dane, i.e. a puppy.  Hardly anyone, maybe a dozen people in the whole world, know that Denali eats about five pounds of raw meat every day, and that when you sit on a chair he has to bend his hind legs considerably to sit on your lap.  Which he often will.  And he will remain there as long as he likes, and so too will you.

Great Danes combine the power of a mastiff with the athleticism of a greyhound.  They were originally used to hunt boar, though it was quickly discovered that they could also bring down bears, rhinos, ogres and indeed whole castles.  Today’s Great Danes retain virtually none of their ancestor’s aggression, which is one of the principle reasons that most of us have not been eaten by Great Danes.  In fact, their massive size and pant-wetting bark is so completely intimidating that no potential burglar, intruder, assaulter or ne’r-do-well has ever discovered that Great Danes are in fact about as vicious as a baby bunny.  They are however very dangerous to baby bunnies, but I’ll get back to that.

I’m not a burglar or an assaulter nor intruder.  I’ve never been called a n’er-do-well; in fact I think I might even be considered an oft-do-well or at least an oft-does-okay.  Still, when I first arrived at the Great Danish Hall and approached the door key in hand, the two steel grey, icy-blue eyed Guard Danes inside seemed to consider me their worst enemy.  I felt a little weak in the knees when I heard those deep opera barks and felt the floor shake under me as nearly 400 lbs of dog hopped from the couch and rushed to the other side of a front door, which at that moment was both the flimsiest piece of wood
in the world, and the dearest work of craftsmanship to have ever saved my life.  But I’m a pro: I approach and win over 100 wary scary dogs before lunchtime.  Besides, I’d met the dogs before with their owners present–standard procedure before house sitting–and Denali had by the end of the visit given me a big slurp in the face, which is his way of saying “your existence does not offend me, and I therefore shall not devour you.”  Being a puppy, Ella thought I was her new best friend and licked me constantly, which is her way of saying “you are my new best friend and I will lick you constantly.”

Is there room for John in there?

These dogs live together with their loving parents in a one-bedroom apartment.  Their dog beds take up most of the floor in the bedroom, but when a single house sitter is staying over for the weekend, they share the king-sized bed with him.  They prefer to sleep right in the middle of the bed, but even if they can somehow be rolled, dragged or
leveraged to one side, some part of them, be it a leg or a snout, will inevitably reach over into the space you had intended to use for sleeping.  So long as you don’t mind snuggling up between the snouts and legs, you can sleep very comfortably in the skateboard-sized space between the heaving bodies.  That is, until Ella attacks.

Just a little "horsing" around

Ella the puppy, though herself enormous, is still smaller than Denali. She’s about the size of Mt. Whitney, the Southern California mountain that is the tallest peak in the lower 48 states.  Despite giving up over four thousand feet in elevation and several million tons of mass to Denali, Ella routinely beats up her big brother, attacking him in his sleep, pinning him down, chewing on his neck and ears, and doing whatever else she can to fulfill her chief obligation as a younger sister, namely to be as annoying to her big brother as possible.  The unprovoked late night attacks can be a bit disconcerting for everyone. It is wise, when roughly a quarter ton of dog is snarling and grappling in the darkness right above you, to try to cover your vulnerable organs and move as little as possible. Denali makes a very pathetic, almost mournful moaning sound as he is being gnawed on, and when he decides he’s had enough (he is remarkably forbearing), he will retaliate and put his little sis back in her place.  She will remain in this place for about ten seconds, and then renew her assault. After round 3 or 4 of this, I begin to moan like Denali from my shelter under the blankets.

Look, our paws are the same size!

Other than Denali constantly sitting on me, Ella constantly licking me and our nightly wrestling matches, my Great weekend was remarkably incident-free.  Except for the following incidents:

1. I came back to the house after work and found that the toy bucket in the kitchen where the Great Beasts were confined had been broken into roughly 1,000 pieces.  This was not a flimsy bucket; the physical forces applied to it in those Great Danish jaws must have been roughly equivalent to those experienced by a deep-sea mollusk, when it’s being torn apart by Great Danes.

2. Taking them for a final evening walk before bed one night, it suddenly started to rain.  Stricken with a little bit of the “wet dog syndrome” (sudden irrepressible maniacal energy), I started to jog down the quiet, dark, wet street.  It seems the dogs also caught the wet dog syndrome, because they started to run faster and faster.  By the time we rounded the corner for home, we were all three of us sprinting at full speed.  I was laughing like a mad man, right up until the moment it occurred to me that I was totally unable to stop. I was no longer actually walking these dogs–I had become the carriage
in the classic run away carriage scenario.  With the wet street, the high speed and the pulling power of the dogs in front of me, the only thing I could do was to call out “woah!”. Somehow, this worked.  If it hadn’t, we’d probably still be running.

3. Coming home after another night walk, we were starting up the stairs to the front door when the dogs suddenly surged toward a bush.  Until that moment I had thought I was able to restrain them; this sudden concerted lunge proved that I had been mistaken. Both dogs were intently snapping at something, and when I finally managed to haul them off it I saw lying before me a quickly dying rabbit.  I assume the rabbit had seen us approach but had decided to remain still and trust his camouflage.  It had worked, because we practically walked right over him, and if he hadn’t suddenly lost his nerve and tried to
bolt, he might have survived the night.  As it was, about half a second of Danish snapping was enough to nearly sever his head.  The dogs were just as pleased with themselves as could be.  I cleaned up the carnage (this rabbit was 15 lbs easy) and then climbed into bed
with the remorseless killers.

4. At the end of the weekend, the downstairs neighbors (dear, patient souls that they are) asked me if, after this experience, I would ever consider getting a Great Dane of my own. Honestly, I couldn’t say. It turns out it’s a complicated question.  True, one does not need to own a range to keep these animals happy, since when they are not going on nice long traffic accident-causing walks around the neighborhood, they are actually just sort of like big pillows.  Or small sofas.  No, one does not need a huge house or a lot of land.  One does, however, need to be able to afford to buy 5 lbs of raw meat every day.  And like many pure breeds, Great Danes are also prone to certain ailments and cancers.  Vet bills could really add up, and prescriptions would likely cost more than for, say, a Dachshund.  So financially, I can only speculate that one day I could afford a GD.  Probably a Dane or a
family, but not both. Even given perfect health, one must also consider that Danes, like many large breeds, don’t live very long.  For that reason more than any other, I don’t think Ill ever own one.  They are such beautiful animals, so well-behaved and yet endearingly goofy, so loving and mellow and yet respectable as home defenders, so all-around great in every way, that it would be too hard to say goodbye after just 10 or
so years.  But given the opportunity to visit these two mountainous Danes again, I’d say “Great!”  Bunnies beware.

One thought on “My Week with the Great Danes

  1. lynn

    This was such a beautiful rendering of life with a dane (even if only a week’s worth). You wrote in ways that just completely captured their personalities, breed traits, but in a way I’d never read before. Really just lovely. I was first owned by a half-dane/half-lab mix (lived to only 7; and I fell in love with the dane part of him, and that was my downfall), and then a rescue dane (lived to only 7), and now a 4 month old dane pup….there is nothing like them and I am now ruined for other breeds. For all the reasons you so eloquently relay. Thanks for this post!


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