Making room for gentle giants

Ellen Whyte

MALAYSIA (THE STAR) – The first time you see a Great Dane, you might mistake it for a small pony. These dogs were bred to hunt wild boar and deer in Germany, so they are incredibly big and strong. Not, you’d think, a dog to have as a pet. But Joanne Raena Raj doesn’t have just one, she has two.

Joanne Raena Raj grew up in Subang Jaya, Selangor, but now lives in San Francisco, the United States (US). She lives with Levi, a three-year-old Great Dane and Leia, a three-and-a-half-year-old Boxer-Great Dane mix.

“Levi is big, about 82centimetres at the shoulder and weighs 57kilogrammes,” Joanne said. “Leia is smaller, about German Shepherd size. She’s 71centimetres at the shoulder, weighs 27kilogrammes.”

While they’re big dogs, they are surprisingly easy to have in the house.

“They don’t knock stuff over, we have glass coffee tables and they are fine,” Joanne mused. “But if Levi sits on the couch, there’s no space unless you snuggle.”

The dogs are family, and they share the bedroom. “Levi sleeps like a human, head on the pillow, but Leia sleeps at the bottom of the bed”.

Joanne often takes her dogs Levi (L) and Leia on two-hour treks. PHOTO: THE STAR

These gentle giants are low energy inside for two reasons: a lot of training and even more exercise.

“They are very strong dogs, and bred to hunt, so if you’re out and they want to go somewhere, it’s impossible to hold them back,” Joanne shared. “They need to be trained properly or they can drag you into the road or pull you over.”

Joanne is a hiker and so the dogs get to go on two-hour treks often. In addition, they play ball and frisbee in the garden, great games that help them exercise.

“Great Danes are friendly,” Joanne pointed out. “They love small animals and are good around kids. But when they run up to you full speed, it can be a bit scary. They can knock you over so you have to brace yourself as they’re so big”.

As they’re super smart, the dogs are careful when playing around their human family and small dogs.

“We all play fetch and with the frisbee,” Joanne shared. “But when they do zoomies, I don’t engage as they’ll knock me over. But it’s cute to watch them run and chase each other.

“We also love tug games. Leia is strong and has a high prey drive; she can pull you to your knees without even thinking about it. But Levi knows he’s really strong and he is careful not to overdo it. And when he plays with Leia, he lets her win!”

All dogs are adorable and these two are no exception, but like all pets, they have their quirks.

Levi is a pedigree and grew up in a caring home, so had a good start in life. However, Great Danes are known for separation anxiety and the big boy becomes anxious when left alone.

Leia is a rescue crossbreed who spent a year in the shelter. Locked up in a cage for so long, she has barrier aggression, which means she barks whenever anyone comes near to her territory.

Putting the two together, has resulted in some interesting synergy.

“We adopted Leia as a companion dog for Levi,” Joanne said. “He was lonely, and when dogs are upset, they chew, because it soothes them. Levi being big, it can do a lot of damage. One day, he ate a sofa. But when we got Leia, she kept him company and Levi was okay.”

“However, Levi was never noisy. He’d bark when we get home, to say hello, and it’s a big sound, but he’d just woof once maybe. But Leia was noisy when she arrived and Levi picked up barking from her. Curiously, he doesn’t do it when she’s not around.”

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that feeding a Chihuahua will be more affordable than a Great Dane. Big dogs eat a lot and they need quality meat. But it’s not food that makes this breed expensive: their giant size means they have a lot of health problems from puppyhood.

Great Danes are prone to dilated cardiomyopathy, a life-threatening heart condition where the heart becomes too weak to pump blood effectively. Dogs collapse, have trouble breathing, and die from heart attacks.

“Good breeders test both parents before they have puppies, but it’s expensive,” Joanne warned. “Also, puppies have echocardiograms, to ensure they are healthy. Again, this costs. But when it’s not done, people buy Great Danes, only to have them collapse and die when they’re just two years old.”

Levi is purebred and he needs regular monitoring, medication, and dietary supplements.

“Great Danes cost as much as a child to raise,” Joanne pointed out. “You need a big budget for vet bills and medication. Levi’s visits are USD400 a go, and that’s without the meds”.

In addition, Great Danes are super heavy, so they tend to have joint issues. They need to be trained not to jump, so they prevent themselves from damage, and they need supplements, too. Levi has been taking his supplements since he was two years old, another expense.

Great Danes are sweet but they entail a lot of work, training and maintenance. Would they go over well in Malaysia?

“It should be OK,” said Joanne, the enthusiast. “You just have to walk them two hours a day, and it’s best not to do it when it’s warm. Big dogs dehydrated fast so we carry water bottles for Levi when we go hiking. And in summer we go early to avoid the heat.”

Great Danes are giant, adorable dogs, but it’s very clear that they are more than pets. Taking care of them is more a lifestyle choice.