Leonberger pup Leonberger pup

Almost two centuries ago, the Leonberger was first developed for his good looks rather than for a particular purpose. A large, elegant, reddish brown dog, he was supposedly bred to represent the form of a lion, a symbol for the town of Leon, in Germany. Today, his elegance and charming temperament makes him admired by dog enthusiasts world-wide.

History of the Leonberger


In 1846, before any Stud Books formally recording pedigrees of pure breed dogs existed, Mr Heinrich Essig, a town Councillor of the city of Leon in Germany, gave the name 'Leonberger' to pups born to a supposedly planned mating which began the dynasty. Without documenting or describing either the parents of the consequent litter, this alleged mating was between a Landseer (Newfoundland) bitch with a male Saint Bernard from the monastery hospice Grand St.Bernhard. He then supposedly mated a pup from this mating back to another Saint from the hospice. After a few generations the Pyrenean Mountain Dog was thrown into the mix. The myth continued that he was creating a giant breed which could honour the name of his beloved city of Leonberg, which had a coat of arms with a lion-like aspect[1].

Leonberger Advertisement c 1860Leonberger Advertisement c 1860

Promoted by Mr Essig as combining the excellent qualities of all the breeds from which the Leonbergers supposedly stemmed, they prospered. As large dogs were fashionable at that time, Mr Essig became an opportunist, and an excellent marketer. He advertised widely. With no written descriptions of the breed, he used the attached drawing as an illustration. His dogs were sold for huge sums of money to officials in Courts all over Europe, to the Imperial Palace of Japan, as well as to the United States and England. In 1865 Leonbergers were exhibited in Munich, Germany for the first time[2].

After Essig's death, the sceptics emerged! Leonbergers were denigrated to being called 'bastards', 'half-breds' and everything else that detracted from its pure breed status. This situation sounds similar to today's 'Designer' dogs! Below are two separate theories, each of which have merit. Both point to how the Leonberger became stabilized in such a relatively short time. These are:

1. Descendants from the Hospice of Saint Bernard

Leonbergers c 1895Leonbergers c 1895

On November 25, 1878, thirty years after the Leonberger was supposedly created, Mr Herr von Scheideberg, the Editor of the German Sporting paper Der Hund wrote that it was his duty to denounce the Leonberger as a forgery. The reply from a Mr Charles Goas, a German gentleman residing in Manchester was:

'Twenty-five years ago, Mr Essig of Leonberg owned a pure bred St, Bernard dog and bitch of the same breed, which had been presented to him by the Superior of the Hospice of St. Bernard. About this time in an avalanche the whole breed perished in the fulfilment of their noble duty; and Mr Essig, not like a humbug (imposter) that Herr von Schheideberg chooses to call him, but as a thorough gentleman, restored the two mentioned animals to the Superior of the hospice. He therefore, is the man we have to thank that we have at the hospice still the original breed of St Bernard dogs. But before giving up the dogs, he made an experiment of crossing them with Newfoundlands not in a few years, but after a long time, succeeded in producing the present breed of Leonbergers'.[4] 

2. Descendants from the Alpine Mastiff


Another alternative is that Mr Essig gave a new name to an existing type of large reddish-brown dog known as an 'Alpine Mastiff'. In 1838, a decade before Essig in the same area of Germany, Heinrich called this dog a 'Löwenberg' with 'Löwen' meaning 'lion' and 'berg' meaning 'mountain'. This dog was also described by Schön in 1905 in his book 'the Signs that Characterise Dog Breeds'. He put forward the theory that the 'Alpine Mastiff', the oldest progenitor of dogs, was a Livestock Guardian Dog commonly employed in many of Europe's Alpine Regions[2].

As early settlers were originally nomadic, this could have also been fore-runner of a breed today called the Spanish Mastiff, which supposedly dates back to 100 AD and is also closely related to the Pyrenean Mountain Dog. The Spanish Mastiff is also uniform yellow, fawn or red which are dominant deer colours that blend into the terrain and the flock. There is also another ancient breed from near-by Portugal called the Estrela Mountain dog. This is also a Livestock Guardian Dog of yellow, fawn and grey in all ranges of these colours' intensity. This would explain why the colour of today's Leonberger bred true from the time Essig supposedly first 'created' it.

The Leonberger becomes a Pure Breed

In 1895, the International Leonberger Club was founded. That same year it's President, Albert Kull detailed the first written description of the Leonberger which is still the basis for all Leonberger Breed Standards to this day[1]!

Leonberger pupsLeonberger pups

In 1901 a 'Leonberger Hunde Club' was set up in Apolda, followed by another in Heidelberg in 1908. But when World War One broke out, the breed took another blow as the numbers of dogs, including Leonbergers dropped dramatically. But in 1918 a few enthusiasts set up a new registration system which has been operating ever since. In 1922 a new Leonberger Club was formed which, besides keeping the Stud Book, by 1924 it began publishing a specialised magazine. Leonbergers prospered until World War Two broke out. When Germany lost this War, it took many enthusiastic promoters from the City of Leonberg to resurrect the breed. They set up an 'International Union for Leonbergers' and, to provide uniformity of breed type all over Europe, all Leonberger Clubs outside Germany were invited to attend Meetings to discuss the breed. Over the next 40 years, this enriched the gene pool and stabilised the Leongerger's traits[3].

Leonberger performing Water RescueLeonberger performing Water Rescue

History of Leonbergers in Australia

A comparatively new arrival in Australia, the first Leonberger did not arrive here until 1989. A bitch, Beatrix Ave Lykesth was brought into Darwin from Norway by Alison Webb. After she was titled, Alison imported another from Norway plus one from UK. These three provided the foundation stock for the breed here[5]. Not only are they a striking looking dog, they are capable of taking part in the activities of carting and water work. The latter includes retrieving objects from above and below the surface of the water, as well as rescuing people.

Comparison between the Newfoundland, Saint Bernard and Leonberger

Newfoundland Saint Bernard Leonberger
Historical Purpose Developed on Canadian Island of Newfoundland to rescue people from the sea so can swim strongly. Developed by Swiss monks centuries ago specifically to rescue people lost in snow blizzards or buried by avalanches. Supposedly developed in the mid-1860's as a cross between the Saint Bernard and the Newfoundland.
Size Dogs: 71 cm (28 in) Bitches: 66 cms (26 in). Weight: Dogs: 63.5-68 kg (140-150 lb) Bitches: 50-54.5 kg (110-120 lb) Dogs: 70 cm to 90 cm (27.5 to 35.5 ins) Bitches: 65 cm to 80 cm (25.5 to 31.5 ins) or exceeding the upper limits of this height Dogs: 72-80 cms (28.5-31.5 ins)
Bitches: 65-75 cms (25.5-29.5 ins)
Colour Dull jet black with a tinge of bronze, brown which is chocolate both with or without a splash of white on the chest and toes. Alternatively evenly marked black and white called a Landseer. Primarily colour is white with small or large clear red patches of clear to dark red or reddish-brown covering the back and flanks with dark shadings on the head. The chest, feet, tip of tail, muzzle band, blaze and patch on the neck are white.
The Leonberger is lion gold, red, reddish brown, sandy (fawn or cream) and all combinations in between, always with a black mask but black hair tips permitted.
Coat Oily double coat Smooth haired or long haired The fairly long, close fitting, straight double coat is medium soft to harsh. There should be a mane on neck and chest, especially in males, distinct feathering on front legs and ample breeches on hindlegs.
NewfoundlandNewfoundland Saint BernardSaint Bernard LeonbergerLeonberger

The head is broad and massive, Slightly arched with prominent brows over the eyes and a well developed occipital bone. Muzzle no longer that the skull.

Powerful and slightly rounded from the front and in profile. There should be wrinkles on the forehead above the eyes and a moderately developed occipital bone. Muzzle one third the total length of the head. The head should be strong but not heavy, elongated rather than stocky. The skull should look slightly dome shaped, with no wrinkles. The back part of the skull should not be substantially broader than at the eyes. Muzzle and skull of equal length.

Looks steeper when viewed in profile than a closer examination reveals.

Pronounced causing the frontal furrow to run up the middle of the skull. Medium stop.
Foreface The very strong muzzle should be no longer than the skull with square flews which should never be excessive. The bridge of the nose is broad, square and straight despite a slight groove. The black nostrils are well opened. The flews are strongly developed, but not too pendulous with the corners of the mouth visible. The muzzle should be moderately tapered, but never snipey. Nasal bridge of even breadth and slightly arched (Roman nose). The black lips should be close fitting with the corner of lips closed.
Mouth Normal scissors or level bite Normal scissors or level bite but reverse scissors acceptable A complete normal scissor bite with complete dentition but a level bite is tolerated.
Eyes Small with tight fitting lids showing no haw Medium sized with a little haw acceptable Medium sized, oval eyes are brown to dark brown with close fitting eyelids showing no haw.
Ears Small blending into and lying close to the head Triangular, pliable ears of medium size with rounded tips Medium sized, fleshy, well feathered ears are set on high, hang close to the head, have have rounded tips and are well feathered.
Newfoundland (brown)Newfoundland (brown) Saint BernardSaint Bernard LeonbergerLeonberger
Neck Sufficient length for a proud head carriage Medium length with moderate dewlap The moderately long neck is strong, flowing into the withers in a slight arch, with no dewlap.
Legs and feet Straight legs with webbing between the toes Straight legs with dewclaws on hind legs tolerated Forelegs straight, well boned and not too close with strong, straight pasterns.
Body Broad with topline as straight as possible with the body swung between the legs Broad, strong and firm with horizontal topline Height at withers to length of body in ratio of 9 to 10. The broad chest should be approximately 50% of height at withers, reaching at least to elbows. The ribcage should be oval, the firm back should be straight with broad loins, and a moderately sloping croup.
Tail Hanging downwards with just a slight curve at the end Long with the last vertebra at least reaching to the hock joint with the last third is slightly turned up. The well furnished, straight tail should never form a ring. It should reach at least to hock and, on the move tail it may curve slightly but never carried above level of back.

References and Further Reading

Alaso published as 2020 - Jane Harvey - 'History of the Leonberger' - Published in Dog News Australia (Top Dog Media Pty Ltd Austral NSW) April 2020, Page 10

[1] Guido Perosino, 'The Leonberger' Bettona, Italy: Self-publ., 1998); see 'The Origins and History', P. 13-18

[2] Ibid P. 21-24

[3] Ibid P. 19-21

[4] Vero Shaw B.A, "The Illustrated Book of the Dog" Published by Cassell, Petter, Galpin & Co, London, Paris & New York 1881 Chapter LXV The Leonberg Pages 488 - 492.

[5] Dr Grahame Alison Webb, "The History of Purebred Dogs in Australia" The Newfoundland published by OzDog Newspaper 1997 Page 214