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Get to Know the Leonberger: A 150-Pound Softie

This big fella who's sometimes mistaken for a Saint Bernard is a lover, not a fighter.

Caroline Coile  |  Sep 8th 2014


He has the look of a lion and a heart to match. But some just call the Leonberger a big pussy cat. One thing’s for sure: He’s big — 100 to 150 pounds worth of big! Be ready for lots of attention and questions when you walk this gentle giant down the street.

Leonbergers always have a shade of red. Leonberger in profile by Shutterstock

Leonbergers always have a shade of red. Leonberger in profile by Shutterstock

More interesting things about the Leonberger

  • The Leonberger may be confused with the Saint Bernard, but the Leonberger is less massive and never has white, and with the Anatolian Shepherd, but the Leonberger is always a shade of red and has a longer coat. It may also be confused with the Golden Retriever, but the Leonberger is much larger and comes in several non-golden colors, often with black.
  • Leonbergers come from the German town of Leonberg. It is said they were purposefully bred beginning in the 1830s to resemble the lion on the town crest.
  • The mayor of Leonberg, Heinrich Essig, was also a dog breeder, and he is said to have crossed a Landseer Newfoundland with a “Barry” (precursor to the Saint Bernard), and then a Great Pyrenees. This claim is disputed, however, as there are also descriptions of very Leonberger-like dogs in Austria as long ago as 1585.
  • Regardless, Essig was a talented promoter and he placed his dogs with the celebrities of the day, including several royal families.
Leonberger offers a paw by Shutterstock

Leonberger offers a paw by Shutterstock

  • Regular folk also appreciated the breed as all-purpose farm, watch, and draft dogs.
  • In the second half of the 19th century, the breed became very popular and commanded huge prices, largely because Essig had given them to nobility to create a fad for them.
  • During World War I, Leonbergers pulled ammunition carts. Only five Leos survived that war.
  • Only eight Leos survived World War II. All modern Leonbergers trace to these dogs.
  • The first Leo came to America in 1971. The AKC recognized the breed in 2010.
  • It is a member of the AKC Working group.
  • The Leonberger is much more popular in Europe than in America.
  • No Leo has yet to place in the Working group at the Westminster dog show.
  • Around 1900, the Canadian government imported Leonbergers as water rescue dogs, a duty they still perform. They are also used at the Italian School of Canine Lifeguards. Leos leap from helicopters into water to reach victims in danger of drowning.
  • Leonbergers played the starring role of Buck in the film The Call of the Wild: Dog of the Yukon.
  • A Leonberger is the subject of the book, Inca Dink, the Great Houndini.
  • Owners include Napoleon II, Emperor Napoleon III, Empress Elizabeth of Austria-Hungary, the Prince of Wales (future Edward VII), Otto von Bismarck and Umberto I of Italy.
  • We couldn’t find any modern celebrities who own a Leo. It’s not exactly like he’s a pocket-pooch, after all.
  • The Leonberger is currently the 98th most popular AKC breed, our of 177 breeds. That’s a tremendous surge in popularity for a newly recognized breed.

Do you own a Leonberger? Have you spent time with one? Let’s hear what you think about this fascinating breed in the comments! And if you have a favorite breed you’d like us to write about, let us know that, too!

Interested in other breed profiles? Find dozens of them here.

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About the author: Caroline Coile is the author of 34 dog books, including the top-selling Barron’s Encyclopedia of Dog Breeds. She has written for various publications and is currently a columnist for AKC Family Dog. She shares her home with three naughty Salukis and one Jack Russell Terrier