The Leonberger

The gentle giant from Germany


About 150 years ago, Heinrich Essig, an animal collector and mayor of the German city of Leonberger, created his own breed of dog--the large, gentle Leonberger--as a tribute to his city and the King of the Jungle that graced its crest.

Essig was a modern breeder's nightmare: he raised several breeds of dogs in a commercial kennel and sold 200-300 dogs each year. Other animals wandered the estate as well: ducks, chickens, turkeys, pigeons, deer, and fox were kept by the mayor.

Essig preferred large dogs, and history records that St. Bernards, Newfoundlands, Great Danes, and Great Pyrenees were housed in his kennels. His dream was to produce a breed that resembled a lion, a golden tawny dog with profuse coat, great dignity and loyalty, and fierce courage, and he used Newfoundlands, St. Bernards, and Great Pyrenees in his breeding program. He began with a Landseer Newfoundland, a beautiful black and white female, and a large St. Bernard male from the St. Bernard Hospice in Switzerland. The puppies were black and white, and they had temperaments that pleased the mayor.

After four generations of experimental breedings, Essig returned to the St. Bernard Hospice and traded two of his puppies to the monks for another St. Bernard male. The monks reportedly found the pups as sturdy and powerful as the Saints and at least as willing to work, a tribute to Essig's quest for a large working dog.

The mayor went back to work, for the dog was not yet perfect. He added Great Pyrenees to the mix, and, in 1846, came up with his perfect puppy. The breed was officially introduced to the public at the Octoberfest in Munich some years later, and it became an instant hit for its leonine appearance. Essig had combined the best points of the breeds he combined to produce his Leonberger, and produced a large, beautiful, intelligent, and gentle dog with the propensity for work on land and in water. As with many other breeds, the Leonberger caught the fancy of royalty in several countries, and its popularity grew. The breed traveled to the courts of France, Britain, Italy, Russia, and Austria, and its fame spread throughout Europe.

Essig died in 1889, and critics of the Leonberger came out of the woodwork, describing the breed as a crossbred St. Bernard. But its friends prevailed and formed the first breed club a few years later. The Leonberger, again like several other breeds, suffered during World War I and was almost destroyed in World War II. Fewer than 300 survived in Germany after the latter conflict, and renovation of breeding programs was extremely difficult under harsh post-war conditions.

Breed conformation

The Leonberger has recovered from its near-extermination and has

established a presence in the US. The Leonberger Club of America counts approximately 300 dogs of the breed in this country, and LCA secretary Bonnie Wilson said that breeding practices are tightly controlled to protect the health of the dogs. The dog is registered by the United Kennel Club, according to LCA, and there are no plans to seek recognition by the American Kennel Club.

Physically, the Leonberger is quite imposing. Males must be at least 28.5 inches tall at the withers, and 30 inches is the preferred height. Females are slightly smaller. Males can easily weigh 150 pounds, and females can reach 110 pounds.

The standard describes the color as "Lion-colored; golden- yellow to red-brown, with black or dark mask. Dark to black tips of the hair are allowed, as are sand-colored hairs with darker tips." A small white patch on the chest and white or light-colored toe tips are also allowed. Lack of a mask is a fault.

This lovely tawny coat is "medium-soft to rough" in texture, with a waterproof top coat that is rather long and lies flat and an undercoat that is dense but still allows the top coat to follow the contours of the body. Mature dogs have a mane that encircles the breast and neck and completes the leonine appearance of Essig's dream dog. Although large and muscular, the Leonberger is slightly taller and has a more refined appearance than either the St. Bernard or the Newfoundland. Its general outline is more akin to the Great Pyrenees, but it should never carry its tail high or over the back as the Pyr often does. And, unlike any of its progenitors, Leos don't drool.

Temperament and care

The overall appearance of the Leo is that of a substantial, muscular, elegant dog of good balance with a strong, durable gait, but fanciers are also captivated by the breed's loyalty, love of children, acceptance of other dogs, and willingness to learn.

The standard describes "an excellent family dog" and Wilson adds that the breed is "mellow, quiet, and serious- minded on one hand and yet playful and sociable on the other."

Those considering purchase of a Leonberger should be aware that the breed's original purpose--other than to please the mayor of Leonberger"was to guard the herds and flocks of their masters. Leos have also excelled in water rescue, tracking, and as backpacking companions, and actually seem to enjoy obedience, according to Wilson. As a working dog, the Leo must have daily exercise to stay in top physical and mental condition. Other than a need for exercise, the breed appears to be low maintenance. Although subject to hip dysplasia, which plagues most breeds to one degree or another, the Leo has few health problems, so all breeding stock should be certified free of hip malformations by the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals. Entropion (inward-turning eyelids) can occur and is correctable by surgery. Dysplastic and entropic dogs should be removed from the breeding pool.

Grooming is minimal except during the annual shedding. Then daily or every-other-day brushing is necessary.

The Leonberger is a big dog with few drawbacks for those who enjoy large, hairy, fun-loving, active breeds. The temperament is suitable for children of all ages, the breed is generally healthy and, unlike many large breeds, does not tend to dominate people or other animals. However, the responsibility to protect the integrity of this breed weighs heavily on those who buy the puppies, and no one should consider a Leo without a strong commitment to breed protection and breeder ethics.

Norma Bennett Woolf

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