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 the artistic cream of the crop in its 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. The Leonberger has proved itself as a capable farm dog, flock tender, and pulled ammunition carts during both world wars. In modern times, Leonbergers are frequently seen in search-and-rescue operations because of their great strength and their innate desire to help and protect 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 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. 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, they’re still a 170-pound dog. Their loving nature also makes them excellent therapy dogs, a role they’re happy to fill at senior centers, hospitals, or any place else that will let them roam the halls for a while.
They 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. If you live in a rural area, you’re in luck: Leonbergers have a long history as farm dogs and traditionally do well around large animals like horses and cattle. They’ve been used as successful herders and flock protectors as well.
Because the Leonberger was bred as a working dog who was meant to spend his days in the fields alongside his companion, they are not great at being independent. These pups won’t do particularly well if left alone outside, and 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 alert bark with their booming voices—they are by nature not aggressive dogs, so they have limited use as watchdogs.
Finally, their extreme people-pleasing ways also make them incredibly sensitive animals. Obedience training is an absolute must for Leonbergers because of their massive size, but owners have to be positive and patient with them. Harsh training methods or shouting is likely to make the sensitive Leonberger stressed and nervous, which can lead to acting out. Leonbergers are so sensitive to human stress tones that they even break up family arguments, trying to make peace.
You can forget about getting a Leonberger if you have an apartment. Even if you are able to tend to his huge exercise demands in some way, living with one in an apartment is still living with a 170-pound roommate with questionable opinions on personal space. Even people who live in smaller houses can potentially feel hemmed in by these massive, happy fellows who just want to love and smother you.
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, since 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.
Other pets are usually fine for Leonbergers to be around. They actually love being in small packs with other Leonbergers but, admittedly, there aren’t too many of us who can afford to have several hundred pounds of dog flopping around the house all day. However, smaller dogs (and they’re all smaller dogs, compared to the giant Leo!) and even cats are usually no problem for them. Families with children are also good by the gentle-natured Leo, though their massive size means playtime with smaller children should always be a highly supervised affair. Leonbergers love to be around seniors and enjoy playing couch potato, but less-mobile owners may not be able to accommodate a Leo's physical needs. Also, as previously mentioned, obedience training will be an absolute must for them. Keeping them well trained and socialized will be imperative because an unruly or out-of-control Leo has the potential to be an extremely destructive one.
Finally, Leonbergers have a really tough time in hot weather. So people who live in perpetually warmer climates might want to look at a different ridiculously massive dog—one who’s not sporting a fluffy, double coat meant for European winters—to fit their ridiculously massive dog needs.
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 positive side: All that shedding and brushing does keep the Leonberger’s coat from getting overly long, so trips to the groomer will be functionally nonexistent.
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. It is recommended that Leonbergers are fed in two, smaller meals, rather than giving them one large meal a day to help prevent the chances of bloat.
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. (They usually live about 9 years, according to the American Kennel Club.) Hip dysplasia has been a remarkably small problem for the breed, though you’ll want to be aware of it.
“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.”
But she 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 1830, 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.
From there, the Leonberger developed his reputation as a steadfast companion dog and hardworking farmhand, excelling as both a herding dog and as one large and strong enough to pull carts. The German army used Leos to pull ammunition carts in both world wars.
The use of the dogs in wartime nearly drove them completely to extinction: 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 and lifeguards. They are also increasingly popular once again as family pets, serving as steadfast companions to anyone with enough room to house them.
- 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 also 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 popularity of the Leo, “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.