The large and lovable Leonberger has found its footing among the massive Mastiffs and boisterous Boxers of the Working Group. Since its 2010 recognition, the breed’s leonine likeness has not gone unnoticed by big-dog lovers in the U.S.

Eligible to compete for AKC championship points for a mere three years, the Leonberger nonetheless has deep roots in this country. According to the Leonberger Club of America, “The most famous of the early dogs in the United States belonged to a show business couple, who around the turn of the century toured all of America featuring their Essig-bred dogs, Caesar and Sultan, in live theater productions. During this period, Leonbergers participated in the Westminster shows and in dog shows throughout the eastern United States. They are designated and listed in show catalogs and the AKC Stud books from 1887-1902.”

“Essig-bred dogs” refers to the man credited with the Leonberger’s creation, Heinrich Essig of Leonberg, Germany. Described in breed literature as something of an animal collector, Essig was a man of means who flourished in the dog dealing business just as interest in purebred dogs and dog shows began to grow.

Dog breeders of the Victorian era loved nothing so much as going to extremes, with fanciers such as Essig concentrating on producing very large animals. He set about creating the Leonberger as a tribute to his hometown, and as outlined by the breed’s parent club, the breed’s genesis began with the crossing of a Landseer Newfoundland bitch with a longhaired Saint Bernard: “He reportedly then crossbred these dogs for four generations, outcrossing with a yellow-and-white Saint Bernard and later a white Pyrenean Mountain Dog that he had in his kennels.”

Essig’s dogs were not universally accepted by fanciers of the day, although he had no trouble finding a market for his large – and largely white – dogs.

Today’s tawny-colored Leonbergers only appeared with regularity after Essig’s death in 1889. The first Leonberger club, Internationaler Klub fur Leonburger Hunde Stuttgart, was formed two years later, and an early president, Albert Kull, drafted the breed’s first official standard.

World War I decimated the Leonberger population. Two men are credited with resuscitating the breed in the 1920s, according to the LCA. Karl Stadelmann and Otto Josenhans scoured the area around Stuttgart and located little more than two dozen dogs they considered to be Leonbergers. Of these, five were used for breeding and, in four short years, nearly 350 dogs were produced that formed the foundation stock for kennels in Germany and abroad.

Following World War II, the Leonberger experienced a rebirth in Germany and other European countries. In the U.S., five families are recorded as having imported dogs during the 1970s and ‘80s, thereby reestablishing the long-forgotten breed on this side of the Atlantic. According to the LCA, “Through serendipity and persistence they met and established the Leonberger Club of America with an independent registry, code of ethics and a set of breeding regulations. Campbell, Decher, Kaufmann and Zieher are honored names in the Leonberger world, and their breeding and influence continue to impact American Leonbergers. Yves Parent, the LCA Registrar for 27 years, is also counted among the celebrated founders.”

The “Leo,” as friends often refer to the breed, has become better known in the U.S. in recent years. Accepted into the AKC Miscellaneous class in 2008, with full recognition granted on June 30, 2010, the Leonberger is ranked 104th of the 175 recognized breeds for 2012.

The Leonberger is a large, multipurpose Working dog with a calm disposition and a reliably good nature. Photo © Onetouchspark/Dreamstime.

A Lion-Like Mane

The coat of arms of the city of Leonberg bears the likeness of a lion, so it should come as no surprise that Essig’s dogs were developed in the image of the king of beasts. As described in the General Appearance section of the AKC breed standard, a double coat that carries a “lion-like mane on the neck and chest” is characteristic of the Leonberger.

“Leonbergers have a medium to long, water resistant, double coat on the body and short fine hair on the muzzle and front of limbs,” according to the standard’s section on coat. The breed’s undercoat is “soft and dense,” whereas the guard hairs are “medium-soft to coarse.” The outer coat of the Leo may present “some generalized wave,” but it should lie flat, and not so profuse as to obscure the outline of the body. The breed’s mane is greatly in evidence on the males and, like their feline namesake, easily distinguishes dogs from bitches.

The Leonberger’s coat may be of several colors and combination of colors, including a “lion-yellow, golden to red and red-brown, also sand-colored (cream, pale yellow).” The undercoat and feathering are lighter in color and blend well with the dominant body color. According to the standard, all colors may have black tipped hairs on the outer coat to compliment the breed’s black mask. A full mask is a requirement and may extend up to and over the eyes, but never over the entire head.

“A small, unobtrusive stripe or white patch on the chest and some white hairs on toes is tolerated,” according to the standard.

In an AKC Gazette breed column titled, “Natural Coat, Essential to Breed Type,” Astrid Robitaille writes, “The Leonberger carries a gorgeous double coat, with ample feathering on the backs of the forelegs, the breeches and the ears. The characteristic feathering and ‘ear fluff’ are as much a part of breed type as its trademark black mask, and as such should always remain in the natural state – clean and free from mats and tangles, but decidedly unchanged.” The standard also describes a tail that is “very well furnished.”

The natural coat of the Leonberger is always presented without alteration. As directed by the standard’s section on coat, “No ribbon shall be awarded to a dog whose coat appears to be altered, and judges are to err on the side of witholding of ribbons if there is any doubt.” For emphasis, this rejoinder is fully capitalized in the standard.

Curled coats or a coat that is parted are to be faulted. Coat colors other than those listed, however, are a disqualification, as is white hair on the chest that exceeds 5 inches in width, and white hairs extending beyond the toes.

A ‘MultiPurpose’ Working Dog

As the Leonberger is the result of crosses between several large breeds of the molossoid type, the strong and powerful breed excels as a family, farm and draft dog. Its Newfoundland roots even give the Leo an affinity for water work.

For such a large breed, the Leonberger is “light on its feet and graceful in motion.” At 28 to 31.5 inches for mature males and 25.5 to 29.5 inches for bitches, the Leo moves with “a ground-covering, even and balanced gait.” According to the standard, “overall balance and proportion [height at withers to length of body is 9 to 10] are equally as important as size.”

As a Working breed, the Leonberger’s bone is “medium to heavy and in proportion to the body size with sufficient muscle to support its frame.” Forequarters and the rear assembly are powerful, muscular and well-boned.

Praised by farmers in the state of Baden-Württemberg, the Leonberger worked as a watchdog and a draft dog. During the two world wars, the breed was used to pull ammunition carts, a service that nearly led to its extinction.

Today’s Leos are still well-suited for farm work, however most individuals in Europe and North America excel as “vigilant, obedient and quietly confident” companions.

A Reliable Family Companion

The most important task for today’s Leonberger is to fulfill its role as a reliable family companion. “He exudes good-natured watchfulness, depicting intelligence and vigor.” As described by the standard’s section on temperament, the breed may well be an ideal dog for many American families.

The gentle character and even temperament of the Leonberger are of utmost importance for fulfilling its role as a family companion. The Leonberger is self-assured and calm, with a steady, playful demeanor. He is willing to please and possesses a good capacity for learning. The Leo exhibits a marked friendliness toward children and is at ease in all situations, never showing fear, shyness or aggression.”

That good-natured watchfulness seems ideally suited for life in the modern world. Big enough to be imposing, the Leonberger is watchful without being aggressive. In fact, the standard penalizes quarrelsome dogs that display hostility toward people or dogs “in normal situations.” Likewise, a timid or nervous Leo makes for an unreliable companion and is to be penalized “to the extent that it is effectively eliminated from competition.”

Large and in charge, the Leonberger is a modern marvel with a proud heritage and the lion’s share of the most noble canine qualities.