The earliest details of the Leonberger are somewhat clouded, and centre around Heinrich Essig, (1809-1889), in Germany. Essig was a prominent businessman that specialised in animal trading and a well respected local politician in the town of Leonberg. The Essig family were obsessed with exotic animals and large dogs, and in 1846 Essig announced the creation of a new breed he dubbed the Leonberger.
The Leonberger was immediately challenged by the dog fancier community of that time for the failure of Essig to establish breed standards and disclose a proper description of the breeding program. Eventually Essig proclaimed that he crossbred a black and white female Landseer with a long-haired Saint Bernard acquired from a Swedish monastery. The result was black and white puppies. He then cross bred these dogs for four generations, out crossing with a yellow and white St Bernard and later a white Pyrenean Mountain Dog. His goal was to have a very large, long haired, all white dog. It was not until after Essig’s death that his nephew bred Leonbergers that were consistently representative of the tawny brown body and black masked face that define the breed today.
Despite the heavy criticism, Essig was a master of marketing and using his political influence. As a result, his breed found it’s way to the Royal houses of Europe and the socialites of America, and clubs were created on both continents.
Albert Kull, one of the first club presidents, established a true standard for the Leonberger giving it credibility and allowing the breed to flourish. World War 1 almost made the breed extinct, but the efforts of two men saved the breed in Germany and again it flourished. Today the breed is well known all over Europe and governed by the Leonberger Union, a federation of clubs across Europe. Also established is the Leonberger Club of America that has an independent registry, code of ethics, and set of breeding regulations.
Often called the gentle giant, the Leonberger is a large, muscular, regal looking dog with a double long haired coat and bear like paws. The long, waterproof outer coat is durable, straight and fits close to the body. The hair on the muzzle and limbs is shorter and more fine. Mature males often have somewhat of a defined mane about the neck giving credence to the legendary lion like appearance. There are some variations in coat colour, but all have the black face mask.
Properly socialized and trained while young, the Leonberger is the perfect family dog: great with children, remains calm and in control around strangers, other dogs and is unaffected by loud noises. It is truly a people dog and loves to interact with and please its family. It may be left alone during the day as long as it can interact with the family when they return. It is a water dog and loves to swim and play in the mud. It also has retained its working dog instincts and enjoys pulling a cart or wagon. The dog does not require a large yard and will adapt to small more intimate living conditions if taken on daily walks and given the interactive personal attention it desires.
Leonbergers shed quite a bit of hair primarily twice a year. Weekly brushing is required to keep the coat pristine except during the molting time when daily brushing is needed. The paws should also be cleaned regularly.
Unlike many other large breed dogs, the gentle giants do not drool. They are not efficient about closing their mouths when eating or drinking water though and may dribble across the floor and furniture.
Its shear size is intimidating to people and children. It is important for the owner to train the dog well to avoid potential problems. Some Leons have a fair amount of play drive and seeing a small running child could be seen as an invitation to chase and its possible the child could be unintentionally hurt.