Meet the Lovable, Lion-esque Leonberger Dog Breed

Leonbergers playing
Leonberger courtesy Vic Neumann and the Leonberger Club of America.

Editor’s note: Have you seen the Dogster print magazine in stores? Or in the waiting room of your vet’s office? This article appeared in our April-May issue. Subscribe to Dogster and get the bimonthly magazine delivered to your home.

One of the largest German breeds, the Leonberger is celebrated for his magnificent coat, lion-like mane, gentle temperament and graceful carriage (heads turn as he walks by!).

Early Leos worked as all-around farm dogs, watchdogs and draft dogs pulling carts. The breed originated in the early 19th century around Leonberg, a small country town in the Wurttemberg region of Germany. Heinrich Essig, a German dog breeder, politician and businessman, was the primary developer of the Leonberger. Essig apparently intended to develop a dog that matched the town’s crest, a lion up on his rear legs. He sold and purchased dogs for decades, but his records on developing the Leo were vague. He may have used Saint Bernards and Great Pyrenees in his breeding. Essig promoted his lion-esque breed successfully, selling them to princes, empresses, celebrities and kings. The dogs soon caught the attention of artists as well as theatrical producers. Two Essig-bred dogs toured the United States at the turn of the century in live theater productions.

Leonberger sitting
Leonberger by Shutterstock.

Distinctly male and female

Just as male lions are larger than females, male Leos weigh significantly more than females. And the differences don’t end with weight. While both males and females have a striking black mask beautifying their heads, the males boast a lion-like mane on the neck and chest.

Differences aside, both male and female Leos show a confident, calm temperament. Leonbergers are typically good-natured and dependable with children. They’re not overly sensitive to noise or overly reactive to newcomers or novel situations. In fact, they tolerate (and even enjoy) a noisy, active family household well. While Leos evidence some watchdog instincts, their deep bark performs the lion’s share deterring intruders.

With the occasional exception of same-sex dogs, most Leos get along well with the family’s animals. Early socialization inspires the Leo to appreciate new friends of any species. And early training is critical with such a large breed. Although rambunctious, especially as teenagers, Leo pups are quick to learn. They’re also quick to grow. Families can’t put off obedience lessons; at 6 months, a Leonberger of either sex already may weigh 60 to 100 pounds.

Astonishingly agile

More athletic and graceful than many giant breeds, the Leo may delight fans on the agility course. He’s rugged but light on his feet. He’s also speedier than most of his giant breed cousins. Additionally, Leonbergers are well-matched to the sport of drafting because they’re sturdy, muscular and eager to please. They also enjoy flyball, obedience and rally as well as water sports (those webbed feet come in handy!). Leos aren’t retrievers but most will retrieve in water. Eager for inclusion, Leos can join the family on a hike, swim or camping trip — if the tent is large enough!

An athlete but also a lover, a well-socialized Leo will excel in therapy work. His calm, friendly temperament, combined with a size that allows patients easy access for petting, makes him a wonderful visitor to hospitals or assisted care homes. Children will relish hugging the big necks of this composed, colossal friend.

Living large with a Leo

  • Life span: Approximately 8 to 10 years
  • Messy? Leos don’t drool, but they’re certainly not neat freaks. Their natural look is said to be slightly damp with leaves stuck on them. (Paints quite a visual, doesn’t it?)
  • Weight: Males weigh 120 to 170 pounds; females about 100 to 130 pounds
  • Coat: Water-resistant, double coat
  • Grooming: Owners must regularly brush a Leo’s coat to keep it healthy and magnificent.
  • Shedding: Yes! A Leo’s heavy shedding keeps his coat fresh, and his family’s vacuum turned to the On position.
  • Color: Coat colors are lion-yellow, golden to red and red-brown and sandy. Always with a black mask. The earliest Leos didn’t all have the tawny color now associated with the breed.
  • Breed motto: “Above our life we love a steadfast friend.”

— Christopher Marlowe

Top photo: Leonberger courtesy Vic Neumann and the Leonberger Club of America

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