Researchers have yet to agree on exactly when and how it came to be that the dog was considered “man’s best friend.” Recent DNA evidence suggests that the wolfish cousin of our present-day canine companion domesticated himself, that a genetic “friendliness” factor contributed to his success in sharing foodstuffs with our hunter-gatherer ancestors anywhere from 20,000 to 40,000 years ago 1. In this time, humans have benefited from this relationship in so many ways. Dogs have gone on to help us with hunting, herding, protecting, service and therapy work, and they have become one of our most loyal companions.
In the last several thousand years, the “friendliness” factor had an interesting side effect: it changed the appearance of the early domesticated dog. He went from having a wolfish appearance to having a curly tail and splotchy coat and even floppy ears. Our large and giant breed dogs have the closest resemblance to some of these early domesticated dogs, and arguably, that “friendliness” has only seemed to intensify over time. Aside from most of them having earned the moniker “gentle giant,” many of these large breeds are intelligent and hard-working. They can have important jobs like with our law enforcement officers and military, or jobs with the disabled and handicapped. They can make us feel safe in our neighborhoods, in our homes, and – best of all – they can make us feel loved. For these and other reasons, big dog breeds remain very popular.
The specific date of origin for the Bernese is thought to extend to ancient times, but when they started disappearing in the late 1800s, Swiss breeder Franz Schertenleib worked hard to bring their numbers up again 2. Bernese Mountain Dogs have glossy, long coats and very sturdy, strong limbs. They were used on farmland to drove cattle, protect animal herds, and pull carts. To this day, they continue to be hard-working and affectionate dogs.
The name “Old English Sheepdog” is technically a misnomer. His origins can be traced back to sheepdogs from a few different countries, and one of his relations is the Briard dog. Also, he was not a true sheepdog but was used to drove cattle to market. To keep his tax-exempt status as a working dog, his tail was docked and thus earned the moniker “bobtail” which is still used today. The Old English Sheepdog has a double coat comprised of a solid top coat and a waterproof undercoat. He is a very affectionate breed and makes a great guard dog.
In the early 1870s, a German tax collector by the name of Louis Dobermann developed this breed by using the Rottweiler, the German Pinscher, the Weimaraner, the English Greyhound, and the Manchester Terrier 2. The Doberman Pinscher is a very sleek yet muscular and athletic breed. His alertness and intelligence have helped him to excel at numerous jobs such as police work, military work, service duty for the disabled and therapy work. The Doberman is an excellent companion and a stalwart guardian, thus still living up the reputation of his earliest predecessor.
The Mastiff is one of the largest and oldest dog breeds. He made his way to Great Britain over 2,000 years ago via trade routes across Asia and Northern Europe 2. His name comes from the Anglo-Saxon word “masty,” meaning powerful, and he was used as a military and fighting dog when exported to Rome. The present-day Mastiff’s job is primarily companionship, but he is also a terrific guard dog. Due to his size – close to 200 pounds – he needs lots of space and plenty of food!
The Airedale Terrier originated from England in the 1800s and is the result of a cross between the Old English Broken-haired Terrier and the Otterhound 2. He has a wiry, tan-colored coat with a short tan beard. When most people think of Terriers dogs, they tend to think of short dogs. Even the word “terrier” is a French word meaning “of the earth.” The Airedale is not a short dog but does live up to the name! He was bred for the purpose of hunting rats and ducks, and thanks to his muscular limbs and nimble feet, he is a fearless and effective hunter.
One of the tallest breeds on record, the Great Dane is not Danish but German in origin. His ancestors were the Mastiff, the Greyhound, and the Alaunt, an immense dog breed that dates to the Middle Ages. Most Great Danes have a smooth coat, but the coat colors can greatly vary. The Great Dane was first used as a war dog and for hunting purposes. Over time, he has become a good watchdog, and his main purpose today is companionship as he can be very loving and loyal.
Most people are familiar with this breed because his coat is strikingly different from other dogs! His topcoat is heavy and comprised of numerous dreadlocks, which serve the purpose of protecting him from cold weather and animal attacks 3. He originated from Hungary, and while the specific date is unknown, evidence suggests that he has helped guard sheep and cattle for over 1,000 years 2. Komondor puppies are raised with their flock of sheep, and their coats are shorn when the sheep are shorn. Present-day Komondors are even-tempered dogs and still used to protect sheep herds from coyotes.
Originating from Southern Germany in the 1820s, the Rottweiler is a descendant of ancient boar-hunting dogs and was first used for guarding cattle. Over time, he became adept at police work, search-and-rescue work, and was even among one of the first breeds used to help the blind 3. The Rottweiler typically has a stocky, muscular build. He can be a serious, imposing guard dog but can also be a loyal and funny family dog!
The Great Pyrenees was first bred several centuries ago and originates from the Pyrenees mountains between France and Spain. Related to the Anatolian Shepherd and the Kuvasz, the Great Pyrenees was bred to herd sheep and protect them from predators. In recent years, they have gone from being assertive to calmer and patient, but they have always been described as noble and courageous 2.
The Newfoundland originated from Canada in the 1700s, and his ancestors are thought to be Native American, Viking, and even Iberian in origin. He was primarily used by fishermen to help pull in large fishing nets and, because of his affinity for the water, is used in present-day France for emergency sea rescue services. His large, webbed toes make swimming easy.
Heinrich Essig was a German politician in the 19th century, and he wanted to breed a dog that resembled the lion on the Imperial Coat of Arms of the Town Hall of Leonberg 2. To do this, he used the St. Bernard, the Newfoundland, the Landseer, and the Great Pyrenees. The result was a large dog with a fluffy coat, bushy tail, and webbed toes to help with swimming. Originally developed as a companion animal, the Leonberger has become a very good farmworker and excels at cart-pulling.
The Saint Bernard descended from the aggressive Alpine Mastiff and almost became extinct until he was bred with the Newfoundland and the Great Dane. He is now one of the largest and friendliest breeds in the world. While most people think of them as rescuers of avalanche victims, they were predominantly used for draft work by Bernardine monks in the 1600s.
Because some large dog breeds have deep chests, like Great Danes and Mastiffs, they can develop a condition called Gastric Dilatation Volvulus or GDV, which is where the stomach bloats due to something like excessive food ingestion and then rotates. The rotation or volvulus can cut off the blood supply to the stomach and result in death if not corrected via emergency surgery.
Large and giant dog breeds are more prone to arthritis at a younger age than their smaller breed counterparts. Some of their arthritis problems are congenital in nature (e.g. elbow dysplasia, hip dysplasia) while others may experience soft tissue injuries and ligament tears that simply become more painful over time. It is important for all large breed dogs to maintain good body weight to prevent arthritis from quickly developing.
Hip dysplasia refers to problems with the coxofemoral joint or the ball-and-socket joint on both hips. Most cases of hip dysplasia are congenital, resulting in shallow joints and thickened femoral heads. Mild cases can be managed with joint supplements, occasional use of pain medications, and maintaining a good body condition. Severe cases may require surgical intervention to help with chronic lameness, especially if the dog is very young.
Large and giant breed dogs may be more prone to certain illnesses of the heart. They can develop a condition called Dilated Cardiomyopathy, or DCM, and studies are being conducted through the FDA to determine if there is a link between DCM and grain-free diets. Valvular diseases such as aortic stenosis and pulmonic stenosis may also occur, but these are also described in certain small dog breeds.
Large and giant breed dogs are loyal and hard-working dogs that can serve many roles. Their most important duty is the companionship that they offer. With a little research, quality care, and effective training, they can be a wonderful addition to any family!
Dr. Erica Irish
Erica has worked in the veterinary field since 2006, starting out as a veterinary technician before graduating from the UF College of Veterinary Medicine in 2013. As a general practitioner in an animal hospital, she has many interests and is especially interested in dermatology, cardiology, internal and integrative medicine.