History of the Leonberger

Bronco at three months old. You can trace his ancestry back 120 years. A lot of interesting Leonberger history happened in that time.

This post is a sample from my new Leonberger History page. The Leonberger History page is somewhat long (almost 3,000 words), too long for a post, but it is interesting.  This post only covers up to the end of the 1800’s and I’ve also removed all the references. To see the full history see:

The history of the Leonberger, the long story

The Leonberger breed was originally created by Heinrich Essig (1808–87) in the German town of Leonberg, in what was then the kingdom of Württemberg. According to legend, Essig bred the dog to resemble the lion in the town’s coat of arms. Indeed, as you can see in the image on page 132, the lion in the coat of arms doesn’t look like a real lion, so you could say that the Leonberger looks the way it does because Germans were bad at drawing lions back then. All joking aside, though, Leonbergers do bear some resemblance to lions and maybe even bears. In any case, they are beautiful dogs.

When people would stop me and ask me questions about the kind of dog Bronco was, I would say he was a Leonberger—a cross between a Saint Bernard, a Newfoundland, and a Great Pyrenees—and that the breed was created by the mayor of the German town of Leonberg. But, as the economist Tyler Cowen said, “Be suspicious of simple stories.” As it turns out, the story I kept telling was a simplification and not entirely true. History is more complicated, and that’s another reason I’m writing this: I was unintentionally spreading misinformation about Leonbergers, and want to try to correct some of it.

Simple and interesting stories are easy to remember, easy to believe, and easy to propagate. But first, Heinrich Essig was never the mayor of Leonberg. He was a prominent citizen of the town, and he was a successful businessman, farmer, innkeeper, horse and dog trader, large-dog enthusiast, dog breeder, and town councilman, but he was never the mayor.

Essig claimed to have created the Leonberger in the 1830s by crossing a female Landseer Newfoundland with a male long-haired Saint Bernard from the Great Saint Bernard Hospice, a monastery in Switzerland. He continued crossing the Landseer Newfoundland and the Saint Bernard over four generations, then he crossed his Newfoundland–Saint Bernard mix with a Pyrenean wolfhound not, as is often asserted, with a Great Pyrenees (called a Pyrenean mountain dog in Europe). He then crossed that dog with the Saint Bernard again. In 1846, he was finally ready to announce and register his “lion of a dog.” A few years later, Leonbergers were officially introduced to the public at the Munich Oktoberfest.

However, the story is more complicated than that. There’s no specific breed named Pyrenean wolfhound today, so Essig could have used a Great Pyrenees or a Pyrenean mastiff . In addition, later in the nineteenth century, Leonbergers were used to breed the long-haired Saint Bernard dog, and this likely saved the Saint Bernard dog from extinction. At one point, too, Leonbergers were deliberately mixed with Newfoundland dogs to strengthen the Newfoundland breed. In other words, breeding happened in both directions, and the characteristics of the large breeds were in constant fl ux. Th e dogs—including Leonbergers and Saint Bernards—didn’t look like they do today, either. Essig’s Leonbergers were multicolored, mostly white, and lacked the black mask that is so important to the breed now. What has not changed is the essence of what Essig was aiming for: a large but moderately proportioned dog that is friendly and loving and a great companion.

Ultimately, the origins of the Leonberger, as well as the Saint Bernard and the other large breeds from this region, are complex and shrouded in mystery. In addition, some of Essig’s claims have been disputed. Breed standards wouldn’t be codified until the end of the nineteenth century. It should also be noted that it was Essig’s niece Marie who to a large extent bred and cared for the dogs.

Essig was selling his Leonberger dogs as luxury items to the wealthy. He was also a marketing genius and was able to get the attention of European nobility and royalty. The czar of Russia, Emperor Napoleon II, Otto von Bismarck, the king of Belgium, Empress Elisabeth of Austria, Emperor Maximilian I, the Prince of Wales, King Umberto of Italy, Giuseppe Garibaldi, and the mikado of Japan were among those who owned Leonbergers. Not everyone was happy about this. Some people viewed the Leonberger as a fashionable knockoff of the Saint Bernard that could hinder that breed’s development.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the discipline of cynology, or the scientific study of dogs, emerged. Cynologists pushed for breed classification and systematic breeding practices, and breed standards were created. But Essig and others viewed dog breeding as an art rather than a science, and this led to a conflict with the cynologists. Heinrich Schumacher, for example, was a breeder who strove to create a clearly identifiable Saint Bernard type. He was upheld by the cynologists as a paragon, in contrast to Heinrich Essig—to the detriment of the Leonberger.

After Essig’s death, in 1887, other people more willing to please the cynologists continued breeding Leonbergers. By that time, the dogs looked for the most part like Leonbergers do today. Then, in 1895, Albert Kull created the Leonberger’s first breed standard. It would go through several revisions in 1901, 1926, 1938, 1951, 1955, and 1972 until finally, in 1996, the FCI-approved version was established. The Fédération Cynologique Internationale, or FCI, serves as a kind of worldwide kennel club for all breeds. It was created on May 22, 1911, with the goal of promoting and protecting cynology and purebred dogs. The Kennel Club in the UK and the American Kennel Club also have their own breed standards. However, most of them are similar to Albert Kull’s 1895 version. The first Leonberger club was formed 1891 in Berlin: two more were created in 1895, then two more were formed in 1901. The most prominent was the Internationaler Klub für Leonberger Hunde, of which Albert Kull was the first president.

See the federation’s website at


Some Fun Leonberger Facts

Coat of arms for the city of Leonberg, Germany
The coat of arms of the town of Leonberg, Germany, was allegedly the inspiration for the first breeder of the Leonberger, Heinrich Essig
  • The Leonberger takes it name after the town of Leonberg in Germany
  • The Leonberger breed was originally created by Heinrich Essig (1808–87) in the German town of Leonberg, in what was then the kingdom of Württemberg
  • The coat of arms of the town of Leonberg, Germany, was allegedly the inspiration for the first breeder of the Leonberger, Heinrich Essig (maybe you can say that the Leonberger looks the way it does because Germans were bad at drawing lions back then)
  • The breed was first registered in 1846
  • According to Essig, the Leonberger is a cross between a Saint Bernard, a Newfoundland, and what is thought to be Great Pyrenees or a Pyrenean Mastiff (not known which). In reality the mixing and matching went back and forth between these three breeds throughout history and it may be more complicated.
  • In the 1870s, Leonbergers were brought to Newfoundland to invigorate the stock of Newfoundland dogs
  • In 1879 President Ulysses S. Grant gave two Leonbergers gold medals
  • The first Leonberger breed standard was created in 1895
  • Leonbergers were used in the World War I to pull ammunition carts and cannons, which was one of the reasons the breed was decimated during World War I
  • Leonbergers have webbed paws
  • Leonbergers are double coated
  • Until 1985, there were only seventeen Leonbergers known to be living in the United States
  • The Leonberger Club of America was founded in 1985
  • The Leonberger was recognized by the American Kennel Club in 2010 as its 167th breed.*
  • The Leonberger is unique in the AKC for being the only dog in the Working Group originally bred to be a companion.†
  • According to an estimate prepared by BioMed Central, there were around 30,000 Leonbergers in the world in 2020 (registered only).‡
  • There are around 3,300 Leonbergers in North America—2,300 in the United States and 1,000 in Canada.§
  • The five countries with the most Leonbergers, in order, are France, with nearly 8,000; Germany, with more than 4,000; and Great Britain, the United States, and Sweden, with approximately 2,300 each.¶
  • The country with the highest number of Leonbergers per capita is Finland, with nearly 2,000 Leonbergers among a population of 5.5 million people.

AKC Communications, “AKC Welcomes the Cane Corso, Icelandic Sheepdog and Leonberger,” June 30, 2010,

†  AKC staff, “Meet 31 Purposely-Bred Dogs,” August 1, 2020,

‡  Anna Letko et al., “Genomic Diversity and Population Structure of the
Leonberger Dog Breed,” Genetics Selection Evolution 52, no. 61 (October

§  Sharon Springel, “Understanding Mean Kinship,” LeoLetter, October 2018,
¶  “Springel, “Understanding Mean Kinship.”
**  “Springel, “Understanding Mean Kinship.”

Leonbergers on-screen

Did you know that three Leonberger dogs played the main character, Buck, in The Call of the Wild: Dog of the Yukon (1997)?

*   See Stuart Fitzgerald, “Leonberger,”, at

And that a Leonberger named Hagrid appeared on Britain’s Got More Talent in 2017? Hagrid was attempting to set a new Guinness world record for catching the maximum number of sausages in his mouth in the shortest period of time.

You can watch Hagrid’s attempt below

The Leonberger Hagrid and his world record in sausage catching

The Worldwide Independent Leonberger Database

One amazing aspect of owning a Leonberger is that there is database where you can lookup information on your Leonberger including his siblings (and where they are) and pedigree/ancestry.

The Worldwide Independent Leonberger Database is a very large and nearly complete database that contains information about more than 160,000 Leonbergers who lived as far back as the late nineteenth century. Considering that there are thirty thousand living Leonbergers in the world, that is quite impressive. The database is updated weekly and free to use. It serves mostly as a tool for breeders and researchers, but it is quite interesting for anyone to browse. It was established in 2005 as a nonprofit organization and is managed and owned by Wilma and Ben Kroon, breeders who live in the Netherlands.

The database, which is still growing, can be found at

An excerpt from the World Wide Independent Leonberger Database. It shows the entry for our Leonberger Bronco. It contains more than 160,000 Leonbergers.
This screen shot shows the information about Bronco that appears in the WILD database above his full pedigree.

For each Leonberger, the database contains the following information.

  • Full name
  • A photograph if available
  • Registration number
  • Tattoo and/or microchip number
  • DNA profile number
  • Date and place of birth
  • Kennel name
  • Website of breeder
  • Website of owner
  • Export registration number
  • Mean kinship (a measure of genetic diversity)
  • Indicators of hip dysplasia (abbreviated as HD) and elbow dysplasia (abbreviated as ED)
  • Eye test dates and results
  • Indicators of hypothyroidism
  • Results of DNA tests for the genes LPN1, LPN2, LPPN3, and LEMP
  • Number of offspring
  • Coefficient of inbreeding for ten generations and all generations

Like any database, it is fully searchable. Search criteria include the name (or portion of a name), registration number, date of birth, and chip number. You can search in English, German, and French. The website also features informative articles about the data that’s collected. Note that some of Bronco’s information is missing because he was not used for breeding.

With the help of the database, I was able to trace Bronco’s lineage all the way back to 1901, and I found photographs of and other information about several of his ancestors as far back as 1904.

I also found out that twenty-one Leonbergers were born on the same day as Bronco, five of them in Canada. Before I searched, I didn’t know the names of Bronco’s siblings, but now I do. And I found out that thirty-one Leonbergers out of the more than 160,000 in the database had or have the name Bronco. Three of them were born in North America.


The Grey Muzzle Award

Our Leonberger Le Bronco von der Löwenhöhle at different ages, left to right : Three months old, about 4-5 years old, almost thirteen years old.
Le Bronco von der Löwenhöhle a Leonberger. Leonbergers are loving big goofballs and great guard dogs. This blog is mainly about his one hundred crazy adventures as well as information on Leonbergers and how to care for them and train them. Most posts will be a funny or amazing story. Some posts will be tips, advice, breed information, history or health.

At the beginning of 2020 Bronco our old Leonberger received an award for longevity: the Grey Muzzle Award, given by the Leonberger Health Foundation International, which bestows the award on any Leonberger who has reached the age of twelve. The Grey Muzzle Award is also given to breeders, because they are partially responsible for the dogs’ longevity. This is a special award and it made us very happy that Bronco got it.

For those who do not know, giant breeds such as Leonbergers tend to live much shorter lives than small dogs. This may seem backwards to some, after all elephants live longer than mice, but it is a fact. Leonbergers live on average 8-9 years, Bernese dogs live on average 7 years, Great Danes live 8 years, while Pugs live 12-15 years, and Chihuahua’s can live up to 20 years.

The Leonbergers receiving the Grey Muzzle Award are the canine equivalents of centenarians—humans who are at least one hundred years old. You don’t have to have your Leonberger registered with the LCA or AKC to apply for the award—it’s open to all purebred Leonbergers around the world. You can also apply if your dog is deceased, as long as he lived past the age of twelve. Incidentally, the oldest Leonberger on record is Su-Riya (formally Genette of Mutsugoro), who lived in Japan and died in 2017 at the ripe old age of sixteen years and three months.

If you have a twelve-year-old Leonberger, simply fill out a form on the LHFI website or send an email to

The foundation will ask for some information, including the registered name and call name of the dog; the breeder’s name, kennel name, address, and email; the dam’s registered name; the sire’s registered name; the owner’s name, address, and email; the birth date of the dog; and whether the dog is alive or dead. If the latter, they will want to know the cause of death. In addition, they would like you to write a one-paragraph tribute to the dog and send two (preferably high-resolution) photos—one head shot and one favorite photo.

I found out about the Grey Muzzle award via a Facebook group called the Leonberger Double Digit Club. We applied for the award a little bit late, but we received it in February of 2020, when Bronco was twelve years and seven months old. At the time, he had recovered from a heart failure the previous October and was doing pretty well. He was subsequently mentioned at the LCA’s awards banquet and featured in a video about long-lived Leonbergers produced by the LHFI.

I would encourage anyone who owns a Leonberger who is at least ten years old to join the Facebook Leonberger Double Digit Club. There you can gather a tremendous amount of information and helpful tips. Its members share photos and stories and advice for dealing with old-age problems, food issues, and more.

LHFI (the Leonberger Health Foundation International) is an organization that exist to improve the health of the Leonberger breed. They facilitate the solicitation and distribution of donations given to support health related breed-specific research.” The LHFI also administers a program that collects DNA samples from Leonbergers to share with universities and research institutions, in addition to administering the Grey Muzzle Award. I can add that when Bronco passed away, we submitted his DNA for research.

LHFI’s global biobank contains DNA samples from more than nine thousand Leonbergers. Among the organization’s notable achievements are the eradication of Addison’s disease among Leonbergers and the raising of nearly half a million dollars for research into conditions that affect canine health, including osteosarcoma, hemangiosarcoma, glaucoma, cardiac diseases, thyroid diseases, and neurological disorders. Its research also supports healthful longevity and aging as well as population diversity. Another success is the fact that since 2011, no Leonbergers with two copies of the LPN1 gene mutation (which causes Leonberger polyneuropathy) have been recorded in LHFI’s biobank. LHFI is one of my favorite charities

For more information, see; to see the 2019–2020 awardees, including Bronco, visit

The Grey Muzzle Award: For Leonberger longevity is presented with gratitude by the Leonberger Health Foundation International to Bronco, for offering hope and potential for longer lives for Leonbergers throughout the world.

What is a Leonberger?

The Leonberger breed was originally created by Heinrich Essig (1808–87) in the German town of Leonberg, in what was then the kingdom of Württemberg. According to legend, Essig bred the dog to resemble the lion in the town’s coat of arms. It was bred to be a large companion dog. He registered the new breed in 1846. The Leonberger is often said to be a cross between a Saint Bernard, a Newfoundland, and a Great Pyrenees. However, in reality the story is more complicated. More on that later. One thing is for certain, the history around the interactions between the Leonberger breed and the St. Bernard is quite interesting. Also, more on that in another post. Another interesting fact is that Leonbergers were used in World War I to pull ammunition carts and cannons. Both World War I and World War II was tough on the breed and few survived.

Very few Leonbergers existed in North America until the 1980’s, when a breeding program was established. Saturday, November 2, 1985, the few families owning Leonbergers, the so called, Denver eight, got together to form the Leonberger Club of America. The Leonberger was recognized by the American Kennel Club in 2010 as its 167th breed (in the Working group). Today there are more than 2,300 Leonbergers in the United States and a 1,000 in Canada. There are about 30,000+ Leonbergers in the world. Since there are not millions of them you can still consider the Leonberger a rare breed.

Leonbergers are confident and brave gentle giants. They are great with children, very social and good companions and guard dogs. Leonbergers are double-coated, and they have webbed paws, so they’re natural swimmers. They are sometimes used in water rescue operations. But be careful, they are big, full of energy, and can be rambunctious when they’re young.

According to the original purpose of the Leonberger, and the breed standards, the Leonberger is a large, strong, muscular, elegant dog. He is distinguished by his balanced build and confident calmness, yet he has quite a lively temperament. Males, in particular, are powerful and strong. As a family dog, the Leonberger is an agreeable partner for present-day homes and living conditions who can be taken anywhere without difficulty and is distinguished by his marked friendliness toward children. He is neither shy, nor aggressive. As a companion, he is agreeable, obedient, and fearless in all situations of life.

The following are particular requirements of a steady temperament:

•             Self-assurance and superior composure

•             Medium temperament (including playfulness)

•             Willingness to be submissive

•             Good capacity for learning and remembering

•             Insensitivity to noise

Leonbergers are large and muscular dogs. The height of an adult male is between 28 and 31.5 inches (72 to 80 centimeters) at the withers. The height of an adult female is between 25 and 29.5 inches (65 to 75 centimeters) at the withers. (The withers is the ridge located between the shoulder blades of an animal, on the back right below the neck.) Reputable breeders try to maintain these characteristics.

Leonbergers are sexually dimorphic—that is, there are noticeable differences between males and females. This is not always the case in dogs. Female Leonbergers are usually smaller and look more feminine. Males typically weigh between 120 and 170 pounds, and females usually weigh between 100 and 135 pounds. For comparison’s sake, below are the standard heights and weights for male dogs of other breeds.

• An Irish wolfhound, the world’s tallest dog (when standing on two feet), is 32 inches tall at the withers and weighs between 120 and 155 pounds.

• A Great Dane stands between 31 and 35 inches at the withers and weighs between 110 and 180 pounds.

• A Saint Bernard is between 28 and 35 inches tall at the withers and weighs between 140 and 180 pounds.

• A German shepherd stands between 24 and 26 inches at the withers and weighs between 66 and 86 pounds.

In other words, the Leonberger is right there among the largest breeds in the world.

In the picture below is an overview of the FCI breed standard for Leonberger dogs. I will post the full breed standard in another post.

This photo is a summary of the Leonberger breed standard
Summary of the FCI Leonberger breed standard (Photograph of Leonberger © Shutterstock/Eric Isselee)