Pictures of the newly appointed World’s Tallest Dog, Zeus, have been making their way around the Internet. Zeus stands at 7’4″ tall when on his back legs, making him one inch taller than the former record holder, another Great Dane named George.
Many readers have praised Zeus, with comments like “I wish I had a Great Dane that large!” “He makes my Great Dane look tiny!” “Magnificent!”
For me, that celebration is hard to hear. While I’m sure Zeus is a lovely companion for his owners, when I see these pictures, I see a dog that looks uncomfortable in his own skin. His legs are bow-legged, his toes pointed outward. At three years old, his movement seems awkward and uncomfortable, and I can’t help but wondering how he will move at five, or if he will be able to move at all by the time he’s seven.
The very nature of genetics is that mutations are random. Even responsible breeders may encounter puppies who are deformed or do not meet standards — everyone has heard of the runt of the litter. Zeus may, in fact, be the opposite: the abnormally large pup in a litter of comparatively “normal” sized Great Danes. But if Zeus’s breeder is selecting specifically for the largest specimens possible, shame on him or her!
Responsible breeders do not select for abnormalities (biggest, smallest, longest, lowest, wrinkliest, “rare” coat color), they select for soundness –- soundness of temperament and structure. Ideally, breeding programs would also focus on producing dogs for appropriate function. Can these dogs do the work they were bred to do?
As a giant breed owner myself (I am a Saint Bernard devotee) and a training professional who works with many giant breeds, the “bigger is better” mentality is something I am well aware of and familiar with. Because I know giant breeds are prone to musculoskeletal and joint problems, I have always tried to keep my Saints at a healthy, lean weight. I want to be able to easily feel their ribs when I touch them.
When people see my healthy-weight Saint, they frequently ask, “Why is he so skinny?” However, Cuba’s more reasonable proportions fit the breed standard, which calls for a “powerful athlete.” Cuba’s weight hovers around 150 pounds. I would not go to a breeder who marketed her Saints as consistently over 200 pounds. Some of the largest ones I’ve seen can barely walk at six months, and it’s not unheard of for owners to be shopping around for prices on new hips for dogs that are barely out of puppyhood.
Any breeder of giant breed dogs like Mastiffs or Great Danes who proudly proclaims “We breed the biggest dogs around!” should be avoided. Similarly, if I were looking for a well-bred toy breed, I would ignore breeders who emphasize the word “teacup” (which is not in any breed standard) or declare that they produce the smallest dogs.
Labrador Retrievers should not weigh 120 pounds, either. If the dogs you see in the breeding program are consistently different in height or length than those you would see in a dog show, there is probably something to be questioned about the ethics of the breeding program. A Labrador that big probably is not the right dog to cover miles of terrain hunting and retrieving during a full day of hunting.
I don’t like to see Corgi, Dachshund, or Basset breeders specifically selecting only for the longest backs and lowest legs. A breeder of brachycephalic (“smushy-faced”) breeds like Boxers, Pugs, French Bulldogs, or Shih Tzus should not be selecting specifically for the wrinkliest face and stoutest nose -– sure signs that this dog will be even more likely to suffer from breathing problems than his less wrinkly, longer-nosed cousins. Rottweilers and German Shepherds should not be pushing 150 or 200 pounds on the scales at the vet’s office.
Breeders selecting for these traits are only offering a product. Markets are driven by the law of supply and demand, and if we as pet owners insist on purchasing more healthy specimens, change would likely be inevitable.
If you want to put puppy mills out of business, don’t purchase from retailers who sell puppy mill dogs. Similarly, if you want to see healthier purebred dogs, find a breeder who prioritizes appropriate health testing, conformation, and an ability to perform the historical function of the breed.
I’m not saying Zeus’s breeders are irresponsible — I don’t know enough about them. Perhaps he was just an anomaly. But if they were selecting for this giant size specifically, they are not breeders to be revered or congratulated.
Leaving aside debates of breeders vs. rescues, the truth is that no responsible breeder would intentionally select for “freaks” — and we, as responsible dog owners, should spread the message of why this practice is dangerous for dogs.