History of the Leonberger

Coat of arms city of Leonberg
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 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.

For details see: Madeline Lusby, Leonberger: A Comprehensive Owner’s Guide (Allenhurst, NJ: Kennel Club Books, 2005)

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.

For additional details see: the book, Lusby, Leonberger.

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.

See: Caroline Bliss-Isberg, Leonberger: A Comprehensive Guide to the Lion King of Breeds (Sea Cliff , NY: Revodana Publishing, 2017), 23, 41, 45, 48–49.

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.

See the Leonberger Union’s “The History of the Breed,” at https://www.leonbergerunion.com/breed-history.html

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.

See: Geeske Joel, “Leonberger Breed History,” at

http://www.leonberger-hunde.org/breed_history.html

See:  Joel, “Leonberger Breed History.”

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 http://www.fci.be/en/

World War I was tough on the breed. Some Leonbergers were used to pull ammunition carts and small cannons during the conflict, and others were left to wander unattended. Often, these dogs starved to death. But after the war, two Leonberg businessmen, Karl Stadelmann and Otto Josenhans, worked hard to save the breed. They scoured the countryside looking for Leonbergers who were still alive. They were able to find twenty-five of them whose owners were willing to cooperate in reestablishing the breed. Of these, only five were suitable for breeding. None of the Leonberger clubs had survived, so they founded a new one in 1922 called Deutsche Club für Leonberger Hunde (DCLH), and Stadelmann created an updated version of Albert Kull’s breed standard.

See: Joel, “Leonberger Breed History.”

I’ve read that World War II was even more devastating to the breed. Supposedly there were only eight Leonbergers left in the world after the end of the war, and all Leonbergers today are descendants of those eight surviving Leonbergers. That’s once again a fascinating and simple story that’s easy to remember and spread, but the truth is rarely simple.

See: See the Wikipedia entry for the Leonberger as well as George Hoppendale and Asia Moore, Leonberger: Leonberger Dog Complete Owners Manual (IMB Publishing, 2015). Also see Lusby, Leonberger

The Leonberger, like so many other dog breeds, was devastated by World War II kennels were destroyed; dogs were left unattended or used for food—but Leonbergers weren’t used in the war effort itself, and there were more than eight left afterward. However, there was indeed a “genetic bottleneck” of Leonbergers in the 1940s, meaning that the population was greatly reduced in size, limiting the genetic diversity of the species. This was largely because people repeatedly bred the dogs they thought were the best specimens in a misguided attempt to improve the breed. Of course, for breed (and species) health, you need diversity. Scientific pedigree analyses demonstrate that the Leonberger has twenty-two founder animals, or animal ancestors unrelated to one another (ten males and twelve females).

Things started to go wrong for the Leonberger even before World War II, however. For political reasons, the Nazi regime assigned a party official named Rudolf Schäfer, who had written the breed standards for other dogs, to rewrite the Leonberger breed standard. Schäfer was not very familiar with Leonbergers, so his 1938 breed standard did not correspond well with the way Leonbergers actually looked and behaved, and it deviated significantly from the breed standard that Albert Kull had created. In 1951, another Deutsche Club für Leonberger Hunde rewrote the breed standard again, making it essentially identical to Stadelmann’s 1924 prewar breed standard. Finally, things were back on track.

See: Bliss-Isberg, Leonberger, 316.

In 1963, one Robert Beutelspacher was appointed to the position of Zuchtbuchführer (breed registrar) at the DCLH. He soon became an influential figure in the Leonberger community, and his efforts to collect and report breeding data made him famous among dog aficionados. He initiated a Leonberger studbook (an official record of Leonberger pedigrees) that encompassed all of Europe, and with the DCLH president, Dr. Hermann Herbstreith, a veterinarian, he revised the breed standard yet again and developed various breeding rules and regulations. In 1974, Dr. Herbstreith passed away, and Beutelspacher became the president of the DCLH. Believe it or not, Robert Beutelspacher was also a mailman, and he had to deal with attacking dogs in his line of work. So, he helped advertise a spray that harmlessly deterred attacking dogs. At that point their DCLH breed standard of 1972 became the official FCI breed standard Dr. Herbstreith’s breeding regulations thus became enforceable, and in 1978 the International Leonberger Clubhouse in Leonberg was constructed. In addition, in 1975, the German Leonberger club brought all Leonberger clubs together and formed the Internationale Union für Leonberger Hunde. (Also known as the Leonberger Union or the International Union for Leonberger Dogs, at https://www.leonbergerunion.com/.)

See Bliss-Isberg, Leonberger, 130.

See: Bliss-Isberg, Leonberger, 319.

n (see: Bliss-Isberg, Leonberger, 131–32.)

Leonbergers have a long history in North America and the United States—despite the fact that until 1985, there were only seventeen Leonbergers known to be living in the United States.

See: Lusby, Leonberger, 15.

In the 1870s, Leonbergers were brought to Newfoundland to invigorate the stock of Newfoundland dogs. Around the same time, two Leonbergers named Caesar and Sultan were purchased from Essig’s kennel and transported across the ocean to join the Wellesley-Sterling theater company in the United States as the stars of their productions. Then in 1879, Caesar and Sultan visited President Ulysses S. Grant, who called them the largest and most magnificent dogs he had ever seen and presented them with gold medals. During the years between World War I and World War II, a New Jersey family, the Wolfs, opened their home as a temporary refuge for Jews fleeing Germany: they also imported Leonbergers. Unfortunately, this introduction of the breed into the United States did not last, and it would be another fifty years before the Leonberger appeared in America again.

See: Bliss-Isberg, Leonberger, 60.

See: Bliss-Isberg, Leonberger, 64

See: Bliss-Isberg, Leonberger, 101.

During the late 1970s and the 1980s, a few families—Waltraut and Klaus Zieher, Brian Peters, Manfred and Sylvia Kaufmann, Keri Campbell and Melanie Brown, and Mary and Reiner Decher brought Leonbergers to the United States. The Dechers had started a breeding program and were looking for a mate for their first dam, Viona. By chance their neighbor discovered through a newsletter that there was another Leonberger in the United States, and that led to the families’ finding and connecting with one another. I should add that the Dechers were careful to conform to the German breeding regulations and performed hip X-rays that they then submitted to the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA). Viona became the first OFA-certified Leonberger in America.

See: Bliss-Isberg, Leonberger, 152.

On Saturday, November 2, 1985, eight of these Leonberger enthusiasts met at a hotel in Denver, Colorado, to found the Leonberger Club of America (LCA). This group of founders, which has since been dubbed the Denver Eight, appointed a registrar, formulated a breeding acceptability checklist, and instituted various policies, including the requirement that OFA certification is mandatory for breeding. LCA membership grew: it held social gatherings, began publishing LeoLetter, and imported an increasing number of dogs. Now the LCA has thousands of members across the country, and Leonbergers receive high ratings on health tests relative to other large breeds. For example, in 2000, the OFA reported that only 14.6 percent of Leonbergers tested positive for hip dysplasia, compared to 47 percent of Saint Bernards.

See: Bliss-Isberg, Leonberger, 154.

See: Bliss-Isberg, Leonberger, 176.

Another important historical event was the founding of the Leonberger Health Foundation International (LHFI), in 2000 (it was just called the Leonberger Health Foundation back then). According to its website, the organization was founded by Waltraut Zieher and other memers of the LCA’s health, education, and research committee to “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, and of course it administers the Grey Muzzle Award.

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.

The end of the twentieth century marked not only the end of the Cold War but also the beginning of what I call the Dog Wars of America. In 1985, the American Kennel Club (AKC) registry comprised one-third of the world’s known dog breeds. But the AKC had recognized only a few new breeds since 1887—a period of ninety-eight years. So the organization decided to change that policy, but this did not always go smoothly. The members of rare-breed clubs often did not want to be part of the AKC. For example, the Australian Shepherd Club of America (ASCA) was very reluctant to join, so a relatively small splinter group, the United States Australian Shepherd Association, was formed and designated the official member club of the AKC, which was not welcome news to the ASCA. The border collie is another example. Charles Krauthammer, the late political columnist, called the AKC the politburo of American dog breeding.

See: Bliss-Isberg, Leonberger, 159.

Similarly, in 2003, a new Leonberger club was formed—the Leonberger Club of the United States—with the goal of becoming the Leonberger member club of the AKC. This essentially forced the LCA’s hand, so they applied for membership in the AKC, a process that took years to complete. But ultimately the AKC approved the LCA as members in 2010: Leonbergers would officially become part of the Working Group. Fortunately, 90 percent of LCA breeders agreed to continue following LCA regulations regardless of whether the club would remain independent or become part of the AKC. Also fortunately, AKC membership afforded more opportunities for Leonbergers to participate in dog shows, which is important to many owners.

See: Bliss-Isberg, Leonberger, 187

Some fun Leonberger facts

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.‡

• 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

2020),

https://gsejournal.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12711-020-00581-3

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

60.

¶  “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)?*

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.†

*   See Stuart Fitzgerald, “Leonberger,” DogZone.com, at

https://www.dogzone.com/breeds/leonberger/

†   You can watch Hagrid’s attempt at

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