Leonberger

Stuart Fitzgerald
Dr Stuart Fitzgerald (MVB MANZCVS, University College Dublin)
 
Photo of adult Leonberger

The Leonberger is truly a gentle giant, and makes an ideal family dog for those with the space to accommodate such an enormous pet. Now classed as a working or utility dog, legend has it that the breed was developed for appearance rather than function, as the breed’s founder sought to produce a dog resembling a lion. If this is true, it is remarkable that such an effort produced one of the gentlest and most affectionate breeds known today. Leonbergers are more energetic and graceful than many other giant breeds, and for their size, produce remarkably little drool, which can be an issue with some of its cousins, for example, the St. Bernard.

They require a reasonable amount of exercise, and early lead training is essential to ensure they are easy to control. With such a large and heavy frame, this is a dog which can take even the strongest owner for a walk in a sheer battle of strength. The striking double coat, which does resemble a lion’s mane in some individuals, sheds moderately year-round, and heavily in the spring and autumn, and thus, requires regular grooming.

As an intimidating physical presence, and with a deep, booming bark, most Leonbergers will serve very well as guard dogs, although truly aggressive behaviour is very rare in this breed. They are usually very tolerant of other pets, and so are suitable for most family situations. Unfortunately, being a giant breed, they are not especially long-lived, and have a life expectancy of 7–10 years.

About & History

Heinrich Eisig is generally accepted as the breed’s founder. As the mayor of the German town of Leonberg, it is said that he desired a dog with regal ‘leonine’ qualities to feature on a rebranded version of the town’s coat of arms. Unable to find such a dog, he went about creating one himself, beginning his breeding programme in 1846. The exact mixture of genes which went into creating the breed is, of course, the subject of much debate, but Eisig himself claimed to have produced the first Leonbergers through a series of crosses between Landseer Newfoundlands, St. Bernards, and Pyrenean Mountain Dogs.

The St. Bernard of the day was quite different from the modern version of the breed, which was extensively out-crossed to produce the dog with the large, blocky head which we now see. It can be seen from imprints at the time that the St. Bernard had a high, domed head, much more similar to that of the Leonberger. However, it is believed that early Leonbergers exhibited a variety of coat colours which would be impossible to achieve from this relatively narrow gene pool, and so many authorities contend that other breeds must have been involved in the early breeding programme.

Eisig promoted the breed heavily, gifting Leonberg puppies to royalty and celebrities, and thus establishing a considerable fan-base, and by the 1880s he was breeding and exporting more than 300 puppies a year. However, tough times lay ahead for the Leonberger, as the breed was almost wiped out by World War I, with only a small population remaining, and with apparently all written genealogical records destroyed. Thankfully, most of these survivors were gathered by a small number of enthusiasts who set about reestablishing a healthy breeding population. Disaster struck again with the loss of all but eight dogs in World War II, and it is from these eight dogs that the modern Leonberger has descended.

The breed has only very recently been recognised by many international bodies, and was first registered with the Kennel Club in 1988, and by the American Kennel Club in 2010.

Appearance

Leonberger Large Photo

Leonbergers are very tall dogs, quite long-limbed in proportion to the overall body shape. They have a fairly long, and quite coarse coat, which consists of a long outer layer, and a closer, softer undercoat. The coat is quite weatherproof, and comes in several recognised colour variations:

  • Lion gold
  • Red
  • Red-brown
  • Sandy

All colours in between these shades are accepted by the Kennel Club, but all dogs should have a dark ‘mask’ around the muzzle and eyes, sometimes extending to black ear tips. There is marked disparity in the appearance of males and females, with the males appearing more heavy-set and coarse, and the females appropriately more feminine and refined in their facial features.

The head is well-proportioned, being strong and domed, but not excessively broad or square. The muzzle is moderately wide with snug lips which do not droop in the manner of other giant breeds. The bite should be neat and scissor-like. The eyes are hazel to dark brown, and are set a little obliquely, conveying a kind expression. The ears are not overly large, and are set quite high and flat on the side of the head. The Leonberger’s chest should be deep, as should the abdomen, which is only slightly tucked to the pelvic brim, while the legs are well-boned and powerful. The neck and back are strong and broad, particularly in the lower back. The tail is carried slightly down, but with an upward curve.

Males are generally around 72–80 cm (28–32 in) tall at the withers, and weigh between 56 and 62 kg (123–136 lb), while females are usually 65–75 cm (26–30 in) tall and weigh 50–56 kg (110–123 lb).

Character & Temperament

A plethora of complimentary adjectives can be applied to the Leonberger. The breed as a whole tends to be gentle, kind, affectionate, loving, and playful. Despite their large size, they are reserved enough in play to be able to interact with even young children, although simply because of their bulk, they should always be supervised. With this comes a natural inclination to submissiveness, and most will defer to even the youngest member of the family, being quick to roll over and show their bellies.

Indeed, it is very unusual for a Leonberger to get involved in any sort of confrontation, and no matter the adversary, it is generally the ‘Leo’ that gives way and allows the other part to have their way. In spite of these qualities, young pups are inclined to being ‘mouthy’, and it is important that this is discouraged, as even a gentle, playful nip from one of these dogs has the potential to cause significant injury.

Trainability

Photo of Leonberger puppy

Leonbergers are moderately easy to train, being excitable and boisterous as puppies, and finding it hard to concentrate on one task for a prolonged period of time. As adults, they are extremely biddable, and will aim to please, without necessarily excelling at obedience work.

Lead walking is a skill which must be mastered in puppyhood, as an adult Leonberger is potentially too strong to pay any attention to the puny human tugging at the other end of the leash. Similarly, early socialisation with people and animals, with positive reinforcement, will prevent any potentially scary confrontations in later life.

Health

Several health problems are common in the Leonberger breed, notably hormone disorders and certain types of cancer. In addition, the breed suffers from a unique neurological condition.

  • Pyotraumatic Dermatitis – Also known as ‘hot spots’, this severe, localised inflammatory reaction, which is usually caused by insect bites, appears suddenly as deeply infected and ulcerated areas of skin. Clumps of hair may be rapidly lost from the area, and the dog is usually severely irritated. Treatment involves a combination of topical and systemic treatments, including antibiotics and steroid. Clipping the wet hair from around the area is also usually very helpful.
  • Hypoadrenocorticism – Commonly known as Addison’s disease, this condition is caused by immune-mediated inflammation of the adrenal glands. These glands, which are located just in front of each kidney, are responsible for producing cortisol in response to all sorts of daily stresses. Damage to the adrenal gland dramatically lowers not only cortisol levels, but also levels of other hormones, known as mineralocorticoids, which are responsible for regulating salt levels and blood volume. Many dogs with Addison’s disease may have recurrent bouts of gastrointestinal upsets, while others may present acutely collapsed and with blood volume depletion, requiring treatment for shock. With recognition and diagnosis, hypoadrenocorticism can usually be successfully treated and managed for years.
  • Cranial Cruciate Ligament Rupture – Leonbergers are one of many breeds predisposed to weakening and rupture of this ligament, which is vital in the normal function of the knee joint. Genetically predisposed dogs may experience ligament rupture at a young age (less than one year), or later in life, in response to minor trauma. Various treatment approaches are possible, but surgery is generally required to prevent the injury causing long-term injury to the joint through instability.
  • Leonberger Polyneuropathy – The breed suffers from a unique disorder of the nervous system, where degeneration of nerve cells, as well as the conductive sheath which surrounds them, leads to progressive clinical signs. Affected dogs exhibit an awkward gait, which is usually more pronounced on the hindlimbs, muscle wastage, and changes in voice or difficulties in breathing due to failure of the larynx to function normally. This syndrome actually represents at least two distinct genetic disorders, and work is underway to identify the genes involved, in order to try to remove them from breeding lines.
  • Atopic Dermatitis – Many Leonbergers suffer from chronically irritated and itchy skin, particularly affecting the ear canals and groin. Most cases are atopic, meaning that the allergy is a reaction to inhaled allergens. These allergens can be of many different types, with household mites, moulds, and plant pollens commonly implicated. Prevention of exposure to the allergen is ideal, but often not possible. Allergy testing, as well as a food trial on a hypoallergenic diet, are mandatory parts of the investigation of skin disease in the breed.
  • Cataract – Visual impairment may occur due to the formation of opaque cataracts in the lens of one or both eyes. If this impairment is severe, surgery may be considered, but requires intervention by a highly qualified veterinary ophthalmologist.
  • Hip Dysplasia – In common with many of the larger breeds, the Leonberger has suffered a great deal of trouble with developmental hip disorders over the years. However, efforts to remove badly affected individuals from the breeding lines have been largely successful, and this is much less of an issue now than it has been in the past. Nonetheless, prospective buyers of Leonberger puppies should still insist on seeing a hip scoring certificate from both parents, as this is a debilitating disorder in such a large breed of dog should it develop.
  • Osteosarcoma – A cancerous growth affecting the long bones of the legs. Most commonly arising close to the shoulder, wrist, or knee joints, osteosarcoma is usually very painful and presents as a severe lameness. It is also a very aggressive form of cancer, and has usually spread to distant sites at the time of first detection.
  • Hypothyroidism – Reduced thyroid hormone production as a result of lymphocytic autoimmune thyroid disease can exacerbate skin problems, cause alopecia and coat changes, reduce energy levels, and lead to obesity. This is most commonly first noticed in middle-aged dogs, and may be treated with thyroid hormone supplementation.
  • Haemangiosarcoma – This tumour of blood vessels is more common in Leonbergers than in most other breeds. Growths usually occur on the spleen (an organ within the abdomen), but can also appear on the heart or in the skin. These masses are fragile, and bleed easily and often very heavily. The first sign of a haemangiosarcoma is often a dog which is suddenly unable to stand and is breathless, due to internal blood loss. Tumours on the spleen and in the skin can be surgically removed, but have often spread by the time of diagnosis.
  • Osteochondiritis Dissecans – A genetic predisposition exists in the breed for abnormal development of cartilage in the knee, shoulder, and ankle (hock) joints. This may cause lameness, and can result in the formation of loose flaps of cartilage floating in the joint fluid (these are known as ‘joint mice’). Good nutrition and avoiding excessive exercise in young pups can help prevent this condition from developing, and treatment may involve surgery, depending on the joint affected, as well as the presence or absence of joint mice.

Exercise and Activity Levels

The breed needs a fair amount of exercise, and a good-sized outdoor area is a must for additional freedom. Around an hour of brisk lead walking is the minimum amount that must be factored into each day. If it is possible to supplement this with other activities; so much the better. Leonbergers are usually strong swimmers, and will enjoy taking to the water if given the opportunity.

Grooming

The coat is quite weatherproof, and as such, will usually stay reasonably clean and pleasant-smelling. However, such a big dog simply has a lot of hair, and regular brushing (at least twice a week) is advisable to prevent matts and build-up of loose hair. Expect a heavy moult at least twice a year, during which time the dog will shed far more than usual for up to several weeks.

It is important to be able to perform basic health tasks with your dog, whatever their size, and so Leonberger puppies should learn to accept having their teeth brushed, nails clipped, and ears handled and cleaned.

Famous Leonbergers

The Leonberger has been the pet of choice for many of the rich and famous, as well as being a star in its own right:

  • Buck, star of ‘The Call of the Wild’, released in 1997, was actually played by three Leonbergers
  • Jojo, co-starred with Grumpy Cat in ‘Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever’
  • In addition, Heinrich Eisig’s enthusiastic gifting of his pups meant that the Tsar of Russia, the Prince of Wales, and King Umberto of Italy were all early owners of Leonbergers.

Cross-Breeds

At the time of writing, there are no known or reputable cross breeds of Leonbergers. The breed itself is a crossbreed of sorts, however, as it was originally crossed over time with the Newfoundland, St. Bernard and Pyrenean Mountain Dog to create the Leonberger that we know and love today.

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