Large boarhounds resembling the Great Dane appear in ancient Greece, in frescoes from Tiryns dating back to the 14th–13th centuries BC. These large boarhounds continue to appear throughout ancient Greece in subsequent centuries up to the Hellenistic era. In Austria and Germany the Molossian hound, Suliot dog, and specific imports from Greece were used in the 18th century to increase the stature of the boarhounds whereas, in Ireland, it was done for the wolfhounds. Bigger dogs are depicted on numerous runestones in Scandinavia, on coinage in Denmark from the fifth century AD, and in the collection of Old Norse poems, known in English as Poetic Edda. The University of Copenhagen Zoological Museum holds at least seven skeletons of very large hunting dogs, dating from the fifth century BC to 1000 AD.
In the middle of the 16th century, the nobility in many countries of Europe imported strong, long-legged dogs from England, which were descended from crossbreeds between English Mastiffs and Irish Wolfhounds. They were dog hybrids in different sizes and phenotypes with no formal breed. These dogs were called Englische Docke or Englische Tocke – later written and spelled: Dogge – or Englischer Hund in Germany. The name simply meant "English dog." Since then, the English word "dog" has come to be associated with a molossoid dog in Germany and France. These dogs were bred in the courts of German nobility, independent of the English methods, since the start of the 17th century.
The dogs were used for hunting bear, boar, and deer at princely courts, with the favorites staying at night in the bedchambers of their lords. These Kammerhunde (chamber dogs) were outfitted with gilded collars, and helped protect the sleeping princes from assassins. While hunting boar or bears, the Englische Dogge was a catch dog used after the other hunting dogs to seize the bear or boar and hold it in place until the huntsman was able to kill it. When the hunting customs changed, particularly because of the use of firearms, many of the involved dog types disappeared. The Englische Dogge became rare, and was kept only as a dog of hobby or luxury.
In the 19th century, the dog was known as a "German boarhound" in English-speaking countries. Some German breeders tried to introduce the names "German Dogge" and "German Mastiff" on the English market, because they believed the breed should be marketed as a dog of luxury and not as a working dog. However, due to the increasing tensions between Germany and other countries, the dog later became referred to as a "Great Dane", after the grand danois in Buffon's Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière in 1755.