Unlike other large working breeds, the Leonberger was developed first and foremost to be a companion dog, and that makes the breed unique in the AKC working group.
The Leonberger was created by an ambitious and savvy German business man of the 19th century, Heinrich Essig, who had his sights set on breeding – quite literally – a dog fit for a king. Given that owners included King Umberto of Italy, Tsar Alexander II, the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII), Napoleon III, and Empress Elisabeth of Austria (who at one time owned seven Leonbergers), Essig’s brainchild was a resounding success.
There is no proof that the following account is accurate, but it was written of Essig’s development of his breed that, “Amongst his dogs there was a black and white Newfoundland female (Landseer type). He crossed her with a longhaired Barry-dog (St. Bernard) he owned also. He crossed them for 4 generations, out crossed again with a Pyrenean Wolfhound (Pyrenean Mountain Dog) crossed again with a Saint Bernard.”
The breed became so successful that as is so often the case, other breeders – many of them unethical – tried to copy Essig’s triumph. It got to where these particular breeders called any large dog they produced a Leonberger. Essig himself wrote in 1882, “My nephew will show three dogs in the Hanover dog show. If they are judged as St. Bernard, Leonberger or Newfoundland is of no importance to him.” At another dog show, one English judge found a dog named, “Caesar” to be a marvelous St. Bernard, while a Saint Bernard authority thought the same dog to be a beautiful Leonberger.
Serious cynologists tried to ban these breeders from dog shows because they believed that breeding dogs solely for money was unethical. After Essig’s death, the first Leonberger Clubs were formed, however, and the first breed standard was written a few years later. This helped unify the breed’s appearance, and no longer was it possible to pass off any large dog as a Leo.
As an aside, did you know that the Leonberger is a dimorphic breed? This means that a dog definitely looks like a male, and a bitch is “all girl.”
Baby picture is a male Leonberger at 8 weeks old, and the same dog at 2 years old. Both photos by JoJo Angelmear.