Today the Leonberger is an excellent family dog, which fulfills all the demands of modern life. However, its root as a breed dates back in Germany in the 19th century.
Its origin is a little chaotic, but due to a charismatic breeder and adoption by several members of society, it became recognised as the breed we now see.
Heinrich Essig And The Early History of The Leonberger
The early history of the Leonberger is credited to Heinrich Essig (1809-1889). Essig was a politician and a genius in marketing and public relations. He was an alderman and a prominent citizen in Leonberg, a town on the outskirts of Stuttgart in southern Germany. (Leonberg is just 50 kilometres from Rottweil, another famous town that gave its name to the dog breed that originated there.)
Essig made a successful living as a professional animal trader who surrounded himself with a variety of rare and exotic animals. In dogs, he preferred large and imposing breeds, which he bred, bought and sold internationally.
He bought and sold dogs for a span of fifty years, trading sometimes 200 to 300 dogs a year at the height of his career. In our time, we would probably consider him an irresponsible puppy-farm owner, but back then he was simply seen as a trader.
Like other entrepreneurs, Essig’s strong suit was vision and marketing communications, not attention to detail! This means that, unfortunately, he kept no detailed logs or records of his breeding, nor did he believe it necessary to write a standard for the breed he created.
Development of The Leonberger Breed
What we know of the development of the Leonberger comes from word-of-mouth reports, copies of advertisements written by Essig and others, references in a handful of nineteenth and turn-of-the-century dog breed encyclopedias. Leonbergers were also a popular topic in home and garden magazines of the period.
The more interesting nuggets of information come from some very lively articles and correspondence found in nineteenth-century animal periodicals like Hunde-sport und Jagd, Der Hundefreund, and Der Hund, a German nationwide dog magazine still being published today.
Given Essig’s personality and political position, it is likely, but not clearly documented, that he deliberately combined his desire to promote his town with his desire to promote his business. Our best records indicate that in 1846, he declared the “creation” of the Leonberger as a legitimate breed of dog.
The Leonberg Crest
The town crest of Leonberg contains a lion rearing up on its hindquarters. Although it is not known for sure if the town name refers to a lion, there is a definite association through the crest.
The legend has it that the Leonberger was bred to look like a lion as a symbol of the area and the Leonberger that we know it today, is lion-like in appearance. However, Essig’s early versions certainly weren’t.
According to Essig, he crossbred a black-and-white female Landseer with a longhaired Saint Bernard that he had acquired from the Saint Bernard monastery in Switzerland. The puppies were, of course, black and white.
He reportedly then crossbred these dogs for four generations, outcrossing with a yellow-and-white Saint Bernard and later a white Pyrenean Mountain Dog that he had in his kennels. He was striving at this early stage for an all-white dog because they were very fashionable at the time.
It was many generations and out crossings later that the golden colour and black mask became typical. Early records indicate that in 1865, Essig showed a dog at the Oktoberfest in Munich that was described as a fine dog, resembling a lion, yellow and brown, with black tips.
It is important to note here that the Leonberger we know today could not have come from the mating that Essig initially described. As has been pointed out by Letellier and Luquet in France and Nijboer in Holland, the AY allele does not exist in the three breeds that were supposed to be the originating breeds.
Also, from a genetic standpoint, the Leonberger head is morphologically much different from that of the Saint Bernard or Newfoundland. It is highly likely that local farm and butcher dogs with relatively fixed genetic characteristics, but not identified as a breed, found their way into the developing the Leonberger breed lines.
What we do know is that very large dogs with appropriate colouration and with heads shaped similarly to today’s Leonberger were known in the region and are described in 17th- and 18th-century literature.
Intriguing documentation suggests that dogs from Leonberg were used at the Hospice of Saint Bernard in 1830, well before the origination of the Leonberger, to breed with the only Saint Bernard to have survived an outbreak of distemper.
Whether Essig actually created a new breed by careful selection following genetically sound principles is rather doubtful. What we do know for certain is that Essig bred, acquired, and sold some very imposing, beautiful dogs.
We also know that his marketing genius resulted in such widespread popularization of the breed that the Leonberger, as a breed, survived cries of outrage from breeders of Saint Bernards and Newfoundlands, from judges, and from the editors of dog magazines.
Essig was free to travel and promote his animals because his niece, Marie, who was known as the “soul” of the kennel, actually trained and maintained the animals. At the same time that he was being attacked, Essig’s ardent fans paid great sums for his dogs and defended him publicly. Essig’s Leonbergers caught the attention of some popular German artists of the time who used the dogs as models, and this also increased their popularity.
Through Essig’s marketing skill, his dogs found their way into the castles of royalty, such as the Empress Elizabeth of Austria, the Prince of Wales, Emperor Napoleon II, Garibaldi, the King of Belgium, Bismarck, King Umberto of Italy, and the Tsar of Russia. They were exported as far away as the United States, England, Newfoundland, and Japan to the wealthy that desired large, fashionable dogs.
Albert Kull And The Breed After Essig
Essig died in 1889 without ever having defined a standard for the breed or a defensible description of his breeding program. It is a tribute to the qualities of the Leonberger that in spite of these obvious deficiencies, and in the face of ever-harsher critics, there were enough enthusiastic owners to form, beginning in 1891, the first Leonberger clubs.
Four years later, the first significant club, the International Leonberger Club was founded in 1895 in Stuttgart. The Club President, Albert Kull, was an artist with an eye for detail. He wrote the first standard for the Leonberger. This standard formed the foundation for all subsequent standards. Kull’s work did much to re-establish the credibility of the breed, and the Leonberger began to flourish with three more serious clubs founded.
World War One
World War I almost rendered the breed extinct. If it were not for the determination and dedication of two men, Herr Stadelmann and Herr Otto Josenhans, the breed would surely have become a mere footnote in the history of German dogs.
After the War, Stadelmann and Josenhans scoured Germany searching for Leonbergers. They found 25. Of these, only five were suitable for breeding.
Because of inflation and food shortages, it was unlikely that individuals could have personally and individually supported breeding programs, so a group of seven people joined together in 1922 to form the Leonberger Hunde Club in Leonberg and a breeding cooperative known as the Leonberger Hundezucht Genossenschaft.
Within four years, they had selectively bred 350 Leonbergers. The organized breeding program of the Genossenschaft brought about a revival of the breed and provided foundation stock to establish several kennels. In addition, these men established the official Breed Registry, which continues uninterrupted today.
The Third Reich
Stadelmann’s work progressed until the early 1930s when the authoritarian control of the Third Reich began to influence the dog world. A Reich-governed club, the Fachschaft für Leonberger, was established in Sandhausen when the Reich assumed control of all breed registries.
Surprisingly, breeding, although very reduced, continued throughout the war. Both dogs and accurate records survived the destruction. In 1945, 22 puppies were registered and in 1946, 17.
Post World War Two To Today
At the end of the war, it again took a group of devoted enthusiasts to re-establish an organized breeding program. Two rival clubs were established in 1946 and 1947.
The club founded by Albert Kienzle, Hans Weigelschmidt and Otto Lehmann became in 1948 the present-day Deutsche Club für Leonberger Hunde. In the early 1950s, the Breeding Committee Chairman, Werner Lutz, and the third president of the DCLH, Robert Beutelspacher, wrote the first modern-day standard and breeding regulations, which had a profound impact on the development of the Leonberger, as we know it today.
In 1975, the German Club brought all the Leonberger breed clubs from the major European nations together and founded the International Union of Leonberger Clubs.
Now, clubs from 18 countries correspond frequently and meet annually on the last weekend in September in Leonberg to work cooperatively to protect the health and quality of Leonbergers and to ensure homogeneity of the breed throughout the world. Today, the President of the Deutsche Club für Leonberger Hunde, Gerhard Zerle, leads the Union.