Get to Know the Leonberger: A 150-Pound Softie

Leonberger dog breed

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
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.
Leonberger outside on a sunny day
Leonberger outside on a sunny day by Shutterstock
  • 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.
Leonberger studio portrait
Leonberger studio portrait by Shutterstock
  • 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.

Learn more about dogs with Dogster:

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

Get Dogster in your inbox!

Stay informed! Get tips and exclusive deals.

Current Issue


Follow Us

Shopping Cart