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

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)