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 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.