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When it comes to pure, unadulterated strength, it may not get any stronger in the dog world than the mighty Leonberger.
Blessed with a gentle disposition and incredibly eager to please, the Leonberger has long been a popular choice for European royalty as well as in his native Germany, and it's easy to see why: The dogs are intelligent, loyal, and physically impressive.
But don't for a second think all of that size and strength is wasted on such a gentle giant. Bred to be companion dogs, Leonbergers are frequently seen in search-and-rescue operations and working as therapy dogs because of their great strength and innate desire to be near, and help, humans.
Leonbergers are a sexually dimorphic breed, meaning males and females of the breed are instantly recognizable from one another. The ladies feature a more graceful, slender bodyline, with narrower hips and shoulders. Boys are considerably thicker throughout, with larger heads and paws, and coats that feature a prominent mane.
Regardless of sex, Leonbergers are impossible to miss. Standing over 2 feet high and thickly muscled, Leos routinely tip the scales at over 100 pounds, with female dogs topping out at 140 pounds and male counterparts hitting 170. Their coats are medium in length with feathering at the chest, stomach, and tail, and male dogs add that signature Leonberger mane around their necks. Underneath is a very thick undercoat, which gives them a fluffier, shaggy appearance.
Coat colors are a variety of lighter shades, from yellow and gold through light browns and red. Colors are generally solid, save for the breed's hallmark black mask on the face and ears, giving them a thoughtful, friendly appearance. Their eyes are large and almond-shaped, uniformly dark brown.
These dogs are giant softies. Warm-hearted, friendly, and loving, Leonbergers were bred to be giant family dogs.
"They are very special dogs," says Don James, Leonberger Club of America Board of Directors member and AKC delegate. "I've often told people that if it ever got to the point where I couldn't have a Leonberger I just wouldn't have a dog, because they're part of me now."
The breed has been historically socialized enough to make them excellent in families, even ones with small children. Though children under 10 or so should always be supervised because, no matter how gentle they are, Leonbergers are still a 170-pound dog and might accidentally knock over an unsuspected kiddo. (But they'll feel really bad about it!)
According to the Leonberger Club of America, their loving nature also makes them excellent therapy dogs, a role they're happy to fill at senior centers and hospitals. James says there are currently more than 100 Leonbergers working as therapy dogs in the U.S. Their thick manes are perfect for big hugs!
"These dogs have just an absolutely marvelous temperament," James says. "They were bred to be your buddy; they are people dogs. … For me, the main thing is going for a walk and knowing that your dog is going to love everybody he meets. And you can't put a price on that."
Leonbergers can be easily trained to get along well with other dogs, especially if they are socialized as pups, and cats are no problem for them either as long as they were raised with them.
Because the Leonberger was bred as a working dog who was meant to spend his days in the fields alongside his companion, he is not really a loner. These pups won't do particularly well if left alone for long. If you're going to be away from them for more than a couple hours at a time, expect your neighbors to tell you about all the howling coming from your place.
Additionally, while they will certainly make a great visual deterrent to any would-be intruders—and they're happy to sound an alert bark with their booming voices—Leonbergers are, by nature, big sweeties when meeting new people. As James says, "there is no aloofness with these dogs."
Living with a Leonberger in an apartment is essentially living with a 170-pound roommate with questionable opinions on personal space. But, as long as you give these massive, happy fellows the exercise they need, Leonbergers are adaptable pups who can adjust to living anywhere.
Leonbergers are active dogs, so they will need daily activity to keep them healthy and to help prevent obesity. They make great hiking companions and love to swim. A large, fenced-in yard is an ideal spot for a Leo to stretch his big legs. Additionally, because this is a breed that loves pulling loads, drafting competitions (where a dog pulls a cart) can be an excellent choice for keeping them busy and stimulated. James says your Leonberger might also enjoy dock diving, barn hunt, agility, and other dog sports.
Other pets are usually fine for Leonbergers to be around. They actually love being in small packs with other Leonbergers, and smaller dogs (and they're all smaller dogs, compared to the giant Leo!) and even cats are usually no problem for them to coexist with. Families with children are also good by the gentle-natured Leo, though, as with any dog, playtime with smaller children should always be a supervised affair. Leonbergers also love to be around seniors and enjoy playing couch potato, provided he gets a walk in at least once or twice a day.
With their luxurious, thick mane, Leonbergers have a really tough time in hot weather. So people who live in perpetually warmer climates might want to look at a different dog—one who's not sporting a fluffy double coat meant for European winters. If you do live somewhere warm, always make sure your Leonberger has access to AC, water, and shade.
Leonbergers are a handful to groom. Their thick, medium-length coat and dense undercoat are in a perpetual state of shedding. Then, for added fun, they'll completely shed that undercoat twice a year, making for an extra load of fur on the floor each spring and fall.
Because of all that hair, owners will need to brush their Leo on a daily basis. And, because this dog is larger than the typical high school freshman, brushing is not a task that is going to be over in a flash—grooming these guys will become a hobby. Bathing will probably happen once a month or so as well. On the plus side: All that shedding and brushing does keep the Leonberger's coat from getting overly long, so trips to the groomer can be functionally nonexistent.
Like all dogs, Leonbergers also need their nails trimmed so they don't click-clack across the floor. Their ears should also be checked and cleaned, too.
Their extreme people-pleasing ways also make them incredibly sensitive animals. Obedience training is an absolute must and, like with all dog breeds, Leonbergers learn best with ample positive reinforcement.
"They're very intelligent and they're quick learners," James says. "If you take the time to train them, they are extremely trainable."
Because of their out-of-this-world size, Leonbergers only live to be around 7 years old. Leonbergers' biggest daily problems will be obesity and gastric dilatation and volvulus (more commonly known as bloat). The former will be a problem if you aren't giving them the exercise they need, and the latter is a common ailment among breeds with large chest cavities. Consult your veterinarian to see what preventative measures they recommend.
Long term, the breed has historically had issues with some cancers, particularly bone cancer, though it most commonly doesn't strike Leonbergers until late in life. Hip dysplasia has been a remarkably small problem for the breed, though you'll want to be aware of it and conduct all health screenings recommended by the Canine Health Information Center.
"You also don't want them to grow too fast, so making sure they're on a well-balanced puppy food is important," says Michelle Beck, DVM, CCRT, CVA-Veterinarian, with the Backlund Animal Clinic in Omaha, Neb. "Putting on too much size too early can create unnecessary stress on joints and bones that aren't fully formed yet."
Beck also notes that, like other giant breeds, there's some controversy among veterinarians about when is the right time to spay or neuter a Leonberger. The Leo's large size and potential stress on growing bones means the dog's growth plates close later than in smaller breeds.
"Removing any of the organs that control or regulate hormones in a dog's body can affect how that dog will grow, so there's a thought that waiting until a large breed dog is closer to adulthood is better," she says.
But Beck points out there's a flip side of waiting to spay or neuter your Leo: "The whole reason humane societies spay early is to control population growth and the longer you wait, the less you potentially mitigate that issue."
Dogs more or less matching the description of the Leonberger have existed in Germany since at least the 1580s. However, the first generally agreed upon existence of the dog we know as the Leo comes from—wait for it—the town of Leonberg, around 1846, according to the International Union for Leonberger Dogs.
Prominent town resident Heinrich Essig wanted a "mascot" dog for his town and, so the legend says, bred the Leonberger—likely a combination of Saint Bernard, Newfoundland, and Great Pyrenees—to resemble the lion on the town crest. The breed became a popular farm and companion dog, and soared in popularity among royalty as well.
By the end of World War I, there were 25 Leonbergers left, only five of which were suitable for breeding. World War II was even worse, reducing the Leonberger population down to eight. Every Leo alive today can trace their lineage directly back to those eight post-war dogs.
Today, while still used as herding dogs in some areas, Leonbergers also make names for themselves as search-and-rescue dogs, lifeguards, and therapy dogs. They are also increasingly popular once again as family pets, serving as steadfast companions to anyone with enough room to house them. The American Kennel Club recognized the Leonberger in 2010.
- Though not the breed of dog described in the novel, Leonbergers were used to portray the dog protagonist Buck, in the 1997 film adaptation of The Call of the Wild.
- A Leonberger starred opposite Grumpy Cat in the Lifetime TV movie Grumpy Cat's Worst Christmas Ever.
- The Leonberger has been a favorite subject for stamps from around the world.
- Legend has it the Leonberger's original creator had a knack for marketing, and in order to increase the Leo's popularity, "donated" dogs to European royalty. A few Leo owners—considered huge celebs of their time—include Italian general Garibaldi, the Prince of Wales, King Umberto of Italy, The Czar of Russia, and Empress Elisabeth of Austria.