Nikki Riggsbee is approved to judge all Hound and Working breeds and several Sporting breeds. She has been active in both all-breed and specialty clubs. She was delegate to the AKC for Manatee Kennel Club.

She began showing dogs in 1980 with Norwegian Elkhounds and Great Danes. Under the affix McEmn, she has bred nearly one litter of Great Danes per year and has owned and bred over twenty champions, with many more produced from her dogs. In addition to conformation, Nikki has exhibited and titled Great Danes in obedience.



Why Aren't Great Danes Better?

by Nikki Riggsbee

    Do you look in the Great Dane show ring and find yourself disappointed in the quality of the dogs that you see?  Many of us are saddened that we don't see more good dogs.  Among non-Great Dane folks, the Great Dane breed today doesn't have a reputation of being high quality competition.
    I've wondered why.  I've come up with several possible reasons and have heard additional ones suggested by other fanciers.  Maybe you can add to the list.  If we know why, hopefully we can collectively do something to improve the situation.
Danes Don't Breed True
    I was told that Great Danes don't breed true.  I'm not sure that I agree, for linebred dog families tend to resemble each other.  (Some contend that we don't have the lines that we had years ago.)  It is true that the Great Dane is an extreme breed.  Mother Nature prefers the moderate, however, and continually pulls dogs in that direction.  It is very easy to lose size, our unique head, and other breed type features in Danes.  Additionally, many smaller Danes are more collected and move better, and they win as a result.  It is harder, as an Irish Wolfhound breeder friend commented, to breed a good large dog.  It may be harder, but size, head, and other breed characteristics that define the Dane breed must continue to be included in our goals.
Danes Are Too Easy To Show
 Great Danes are easy to show, and I believe this accounts for many of the poorer quality dogs seen in the ring.  All you have to do is get them off the couch, trim the nails (okay this isn't an easy part), groom their ears, bathe them, and off to the show you go.  Oh yes, and you have to hire a handler if you don't think you can do it yourself; but that only takes money.  We don't spend hours and hours each day on coat growth, preparation, trimming, and grooming as many other breeds do.  Terrier people wouldn't invest the time and effort in a dog as faulty as some of ours that are shown.  They want a dog to be worth all that work before investing the time and energy.
    Speaking of handlers, we rely on them to disguise as many faults as possible on our dogs.  Our handlers are masters of this art.  They can win with and often finish the dogs.  But in the end, when we breed the faulty dogs, we get the faults again.  The handlers can't fix that.
Kennel Blindness
    These faulty dogs are shown because breeders and owners are too forgiving of and minimize the faults in their own dogs.  I'm assuming that the exhibitors know better, which many don't.  If their dog is lacking in head, they claim that it is only a minor fault or that the dog has so many strengths elsewhere that compensate.  If fact, the head may well be severely faulty.  This claim has been made of dogs lacking soundness or correct temperament or proper outline or other problems.  The exhibitor may see only a small fault when in fact the fault may be glaring.
Limited Priorities
    Too often breeders don't look at the whole dog when evaluating puppies, stud dogs, or bitches to breed.  They will focus on one or more features that they consider important and ignore the rest.  Some focus on breed type and head and will show and breed dogs with poor movement, structure, or temperament.  Others emphasize soundness and have dogs that move well, but that are common and generic.  Others breed by health test results; the dogs must pass all the tests, and it doesn't seem to matter if they are ugly.
    We need it all; we need the whole dog to be good.  Our good dog must have all five of the elements of breed type described by Richard Beauchamp in his book Solving The Mysteries of Breed Type.  He must have a correct head and expression, correct silhouette, sound movement, correct coat and color, and breed character, which includes not only what the dog looks like but how he conducts himself.  The good dog not only has few faults, he has excellence.  (The absence of a fault is not the same as having excellence.)
We're Getting Younger
    As a group of Great Dane breeders, that is.  It takes a long time years and years -- for people to learn Great Danes well.  While they are learning, those who own bitches breed, some even with a bit of success.  But often, when they have actually learned a bit, they quit breeding.  Great Danes are a giant breed; even the puppies are big.  As people get older, they go into judging, and many stop breeding.  Or they get a smaller, easier breed.  Or they find another hobby altogether.  As these people leave, the average years of experience of the Great Dane breeders gets lower. 
   As a rule, those with less experience and less knowledge don't make the best choices in breeding and therefore don't breed the better dogs.  (This is a generalization, and like any generalization, there are exceptions.)  But if we look at the average length of time in a breed in toy breeders or terrier breeders, you will find that their averages are probably twice that of Dane breeders.  That greater experience must contribute to the greater depth of quality in their breeds.
   This is one reason why I would like to recommend that those Great Dane breeders who go into judging should continue breeding.  If they leave the group of active breeders and take their experience and knowledge with them, we will have a less knowledgeable pool of breeders and therefore probably fewer good dogs produced.
   Another reason I would like breeder-judges to keep breeding is that the experience of judging will improve their breeding decisions.  The more dogs you look at, the more you see (to paraphrase Yogi Berra).  The more you see and understand, the more you will know that it is the whole dog with the most quality that you want and must have.  You will be less forgiving.  You will take this understanding to your breeding decisions, and you will make better decisions.  I wish all breeders could judge enough to learn this.  (If you don't judge, sit ringside and judge dogs of other breeds from there.  You can learn that way, too.)
When To Pick Puppies
    Some breeders claim they pick their puppies wet.  Others prefer eight weeks.  I prefer ten to twelve weeks, when my puppies begin to differentiate themselves.  But, in fact, we would be far more accurate in our decisions if we grew our puppies out and picked at about a year.  A Chihuahua friend keeps her puppies until they are six months; how can you know what you have before then, she asks.  Can you imagine keeping several Great Dane puppies until they were six months?  You'd be crazy; they'd be wild; and none would have his/her ears up.
    I think one reason why we make errors in evaluating and picking puppies is because we have to do it too soon.  They get so big so fast that we can't keep them long enough to be sure.  It is like deciding on who will be Miss America in fifteen years by selecting among a group of five year old girls.  How can we get our best dogs in the ring if we don't know who they are when we have to decide who to keep?
Great Sires
    A great sire is one who consistently produces competitive quality puppies when bred to almost any decent bitch.  A great sire used well raises the average level of quality within a breed.  (Yes, he may also introduce some problems that will plague a breed for years, but that is another article.)  I don't think we have such great sires available within our breed and haven't for years.  Without them, a breed makes little progress and can actually deteriorate.  Good bitches, apparently, cannot compensate for the lack of great sires.
    To qualify as a great sire, the dog must produce excellence and few faults, and those faults only to a minor degree.  Non-great sires may offer a great head or sound movement or good size and substance.  But each carries one or more significant faults that their puppies get along with the virtues.  As a result, they don't raise the average level of quality; they shift the faults and virtues.
    The appearance of a great sire requires not only competent breeding to produce him, but also a lot of luck to make all the pieces come together in one dog and to enable him to reproduce them.  He has to be recognized early enough to either be kept or placed in an appropriate environment.  It also takes management.  He must be kept intact and in condition.  He should be shown often enough and advertised so that bitch owners know about him.  He should be used only on quality bitches, for he will get the blame as well as the credit for the puppies produced.  Those puppies must be placed well, too, so others will see them and recognize the quality.
    Most good breeders focus on their bitches.  Maybe we need to try to produce some great stud dogs.  This assumes, of course, that we can recognize them and place them in an environment where they can become great sires if they are entitled to be.
What To Do
    First, though it seems trite, is to provide more breeder education.  Not just the care and feeding programs.  Not just veterinary updates or even grooming discussions.  We need education on how to determine whether or not to breed a bitch, on how to select a stud dog, on how to evaluate puppies.  We need to discuss breeding programs and philosophies.  A good place to start, if you haven't seen them already, are the Breeding Principles of Raymond Oppenheimer, who was a top Bull Terrier breeder in England.  You can see them at http://www.mcemn.com/oppenheimer.html
    We must learn faster and sooner, keep learning, and stay in the breed longer and help those who want to learn.
    We need to set the bar higher on what we consider a good enough bitch, a good enough dog to breed her to, a good enough puppy to keep, a good enough dog to show.  Look at good dogs in other breeds; is your Dane that good?  It's not enough for the dog to have good parts; the whole dog must be good, with as much excellence as possible.  If your dog isn't good enough, don't show it or breed it; love it, but get another better one.  Look at the puppies your bitch produces.  If they aren't good enough, don't breed her again, don't keep one for yourself, and don't sell them to others as show dogs. 
    We could try to produce some great sires.  We could certainly use some.  Maybe if we deliberately try, we could breed one, eventually.
    If you have more ideas on how we can do better, please share them.  We can all use them.



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