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Lee Feldstein, Animal Photography
Tetsu Yamazaki, Animal Photography
The Leo is a big, gentle, sweet dog. He is loyal and trainable if he receives plenty of early socialization. Leos can be good with kids and have the energy to keep up with them, but they are messy to live with and have a heartbreakingly short lifespan.
A Leonberger played Buck the sled dog in the 1997 remake of “Call of the Wild.” In the Jack London novel, Buck was a mixed breed, a cross between a St. Bernard and a Scotch Shepherd. Diehard London fans were disappointed by the change.
The Leonberger takes his name from his lionlike appearance. He is a German breed, a giant dog who can weigh from 120 to 170 pounds. It is believed that he was developed during the Victorian era by crossing a Landseer Newfoundland with a longhaired Saint Bernard, with Pyrenean Mountain Dog and more Saint Bernard later added to the mix.
These days, the Leonberger is primarily a family companion. The Leonberger has many good qualities, but because of his great size, overabundance of fur, and potential for destruction around the home if he’s not supervised or trained, he is not the easiest dog to live with. And like most giant breeds, he is prone to many health problems and has a tragically short lifespan of only six to eight years. Be prepared to do your homework to find him and put in plenty of effort training and socializing him once you bring him home.
The Leonberger is highly active, not just in puppyhood but also as an adult. Expect to give him at least an hour of exercise daily. If you love the outdoors, he’ll make a good hiking companion. Walk him on leash so that he doesn’t go running off after a cat, dragging you behind him. Other ways to help him expend energy include agility, drafting (pulling a wagon or cart), obedience, rally, and water rescue.
While you might think of him as an outdoor dog, nothing could be farther from the truth. The Leonberger is devoted to his people and wants to be with them all the time. It’s not a good idea to leave him home alone for long periods.
The Leonberger was invented in Germany in the mid-nineteenth century, when the Victorian-era craze for dogs was beginning. The dogs were successfully marketed by their German creator, Heinrich Essig of Leonberg, and popular with celebrities and wealthy people of the time. Although Essig wasn’t detail-oriented when it came to keeping breeding records, he claimed that he used longhaired Saint Bernards, black and white (Landseer) Newfoundlands and a white Pyrenean Mountain Dog to establish the breed. Local farm and butcher dogs may also have contributed to the mix.
However they came to be, Leonbergers were wildly popular. A pair of them toured the United States performing in theaters, and Leonbergers were exhibited at the Westminster Kennel Club show.
After Essig’s death in 1889, his nephew continued to breed the dogs and came up with the tawny color and black mask that the breed is known for today. The first Leonberger clubs were formed in 1891. Less than two decades later, the breed nearly died out because of the depredations of World War I. Only 25 were found to still exist, and only five of those could be bred. Breeders worked to bring the breed back from the brink, and the breed managed to survive World War II.
The Leonberger became a member of the American Kennel Club’s Working Group in 2011. He currently ranks 33rd in AKC registrations.
The Leonberger has a reputation as a gentle giant, but he doesn’t automatically come that way. Before he reaches maturity, he goes through a long “teen” period marked by typical stubborn and sometimes destructive adolescent behavior.
Like any dog, Leo puppies are inveterate chewers, and because of their size, they can potentially do more damage than puppies of other breeds. Don’t give them the run of the house until they’ve reached trustworthy maturity. And keep your Leo puppy busy with training, play and socialization experiences. A bored Leonberger is a destructive Leonberger.
Begin training as soon as you bring your Leo puppy home, while he is still at a manageable size. Use positive reinforcement training techniques such as praise, play and food rewards, and be patient. He will respond to kind, firm, consistent training, but you’ll need to practice with him daily until he’s at least two years old to ensure that his lessons stick. Avoid leaving food out. He is an inveterate countersurfer and at 30 inches in height, few places are out of his reach. It’s also a good idea to teach him at an early age to stay off the furniture or he will soon own it.
Early, frequent socialization is essential to prevent a Leonberger from becoming overly suspicious or fearful of anything new or different. Waiting until he’s six months old is likely to result in a dog that is fearful and aggressive in unusual situations. Purchase a Leo puppy from a breeder who raises the pups in the home and ensures that they are exposed to many different household sights and sounds, as well as people, before they go off to their new homes. Once your vet gives the go-ahead, continue socializing your Leonberger by taking him to puppy kindergarten class, visits to friends and neighbors, and outings to local shops and businesses.
Start training your puppy the day you bring him home. Even at eight weeks old, he is capable of soaking up everything you can teach him. Never wait until he is six months old to begin training, or you will have a bigger, more headstrong dog to deal with. A young Leo will test you to see what he can get away with. Get him to puppy kindergarten class by the time he is 10 to 12 weeks old, so you can start building a strong working relationship, and socialize, socialize, socialize. However, be aware that many puppy training classes require certain vaccines (like kennel cough) to be up to date, and many veterinarians recommend limited exposure to other dogs and public places until puppy vaccines (including rabies, distemper and parvovirus) have been completed. In lieu of formal training, you can begin training your puppy at home and socializing him among family and friends until puppy vaccines are completed.
The perfect Leonberger doesn’t come ready-made from the breeder. Any dog, no matter how nice, can develop obnoxious levels of barking, digging, countersurfing, and other undesirable behaviors if he is bored, untrained, or unsupervised. And any dog can be a trial to live with during adolescence. The Leo, especially, goes through a stubborn phase. The “teen” years can start at nine months and continue until the dog is about two years old.
Talk to the breeder, describe exactly what you’re looking for in a dog, and ask for assistance in selecting a puppy. Breeders see the puppies daily and can make uncannily accurate recommendations once they know something about your lifestyle and personality.
The perfect Leonberger doesn’t spring fully formed from the whelping box. He’s a product of his background and breeding. Whatever you want from a Leo, look for one whose parents have nice personalities and who has been well socialized from early puppyhood.
All dogs have the potential to develop genetic health problems, just as all people have the potential to inherit a particular disease. Run, don’t walk, from any breeder who does not offer a health guarantee on puppies, who tells you that the breed is 100 percent healthy and has no known problems, or who tells you that her puppies are isolated from the main part of the household for health reasons. A reputable breeder will be honest and open about health problems in the breed and the incidence with which they occur in her lines.
Leonbergers have a number of health conditions that can be a concern, especially if you aren’t cautious about whom you buy from. They include orthopedic problems such as hip and elbow dysplasia, osteochondritis dissecans and panosteitis. Eye diseases, including cataracts, entropion, and ectropion are a concern. Other diseases that can affect Leos include cancer, including osteosarcoma (bone cancer); polyneuropathy, a neurological disease; Addison’s disease; hypothyroidism; and bloat/gastric torsion. Not all of these conditions can be tested for and some don’t appear until later in life.
Not all of these conditions are detectable in a growing puppy, and it can be hard to predict whether an animal will be free of these maladies, which is why you must find a reputable breeder who is committed to breeding the healthiest animals possible. They should be able to produce independent certification that the parents of the dog (and grandparents, etc.) have been screened for genetic defects and deemed healthy for breeding. That’s where health registries come in.
The Leonberger Club of America participates in the Canine Health Information Center, a health database. Before individual Leonbergers can be issued a CHIC number, breeders must submit hip, elbow and thyroid evaluations from the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) and eye test results from the Canine Eye Registration Foundation (CERF). PennHip certification of hips is also accepted. Optional CHIC test results that can be submitted are OFA certification of heart health, a Canine Good Citizen certificate, participation in the OFA/CHIC DNA Repository, and the results of a Leonberger Polyneuropathy (LPN1) test.
Breeders must agree to have all test results, positive or negative, published in the CHIC database. A dog need not receive good or even passing scores on the evaluations to obtain a CHIC number, so CHIC registration alone is not proof of soundness or absence of disease, but all test results are posted on the CHIC website and can be accessed by anyone who wants to check the health of a puppy’s parents. If the breeder tells you she doesn't need to do those tests because she's never had problems in her lines and her dogs have been "vet checked," then you should go find a breeder who is more rigorous about genetic testing.
Careful breeders screen their breeding dogs for genetic disease and breed only the healthiest and best-looking specimens, but sometimes Mother Nature has other ideas and a puppy develops one of these diseases despite good breeding practices. Advances in veterinary medicine mean that in most cases the dogs can still live a good life. If you’re getting a puppy, ask the breeder about the ages of the dogs in her lines and what they died of.
Remember that after you’ve taken a new puppy into your home, you have the power to protect him from one of the most common health problems: obesity. Keeping a Leo at an appropriate weight is one of the easiest ways to extend his life. Make the most of your preventive abilities to help ensure a healthier dog for life.
The Leonberger has a magnificent double coat that comes in lion yellow, golden or reddish-brown. Although it’s beautiful when he has just been bathed and groomed, its natural state is best described as damp and leafy. The Leo loves being wet and muddy, and if his coat looks clean afterward, it’s because all the dirt and debris has dropped onto your floor or furniture.
Leos shed -- there’s no getting around it -- but a thorough weekly brushing will help reduce the amount of hair floating around your house. Comb the feathering on the ears, legs and tail to remove or prevent tangles. If you can’t take the time to do this, don’t get a Leo.
Clean the ears as needed and trim the nails weekly. Brush the teeth with a vet-approved pet toothpaste for good overall health and fresh breath.
Whether you want to go with a breeder or get your dog from a shelter or rescue, here are some things to keep in mind.
Finding a good breeder is a great way to find the right puppy. A good breeder will match you with the right puppy, and will without question have done all the health certifications necessary to screen out health problems as much as is possible. He or she is more interested in placing pups in the right homes than in making big bucks.
Good breeders will welcome your questions about temperament, health clearances and what the dogs are like to live with and come right back at you with questions of their own about what you’re looking for in a dog and what kind of life you can provide for him. A good breeder can tell you about the history of the breed, explain why one puppy is considered pet quality while another is not, and discuss what health problems affect the breed and the steps she takes take to avoid those problems.
Start your search for a good breeder at the website of the Leonberger Club of America, and locate a breeder who has agreed to abide by its member practices, which prohibit the sale of puppies to or through pet stores and call for the breeder to take back any dog during its life if the owner is unable to keep him. Choose a breeder who is not only willing but insists on being a resource in helping you train and care for your new dog.
Avoid breeders who only seem interested in how quickly they can unload a puppy on you and whether your credit card will go through. Breeders who offer puppies at one price “with papers” and at a lower price “without papers” are unethical and should be reported to the Leonberger Club of America and the American Kennel Club. You should also bear in mind that buying a puppy from websites that offer to ship your dog to you immediately can be a risky venture, as it leaves you no recourse if what you get isn’t exactly what you expected. Put at least as much effort into researching your puppy as you would into choosing a new car or expensive appliance. It will save you money in the long run.
Many reputable breeders have websites, so how can you tell who’s good and who’s not? Red flags include puppies always being available, multiple litters on the premises, having your choice of any puppy, and the ability to pay online with a credit card. Those things are convenient, but they are almost never associated with reputable breeders.
Whether you’re planning to get your new best friend from a breeder, a pet store, or another source, don’t forget that old adage “let the buyer beware”. Disreputable breeders and facilities that deal with puppy mills can be hard to distinguish from reliable operations. There’s no 100% guaranteed way to make sure you’ll never purchase a sick puppy, but researching the breed (so you know what to expect), checking out the facility (to identify unhealthy conditions or sick animals), and asking the right questions can reduce the chances of heading into a disastrous situation. And don’t forget to ask your veterinarian, who can often refer you to a reputable breeder, breed rescue organization, or other reliable source for healthy puppies.
The cost of a Leonberger puppy varies depending on the breeder’s locale, whether the pup is male or female, what titles his parents have, and whether he is best suited for the show ring or a pet home. The puppy you buy should have been raised in a clean home environment, from parents with health clearances and conformation (show) and, ideally, working titles to prove that they are good specimens of the breed. Puppies should be temperament tested, vetted, dewormed, and socialized to give them a healthy, confident start in life.
Before you decide to buy a puppy, consider whether an adult Leo might better suit your needs and lifestyle. Puppies are loads of fun, but they require a lot of time and effort before they grow up to become the dog of your dreams. An adult may already have some training and will probably be less active, destructive and demanding than a puppy.
With an adult, you know more about what you’re getting in terms of personality and health and you can find adults through breeders or shelters. If you are interested in acquiring an older dog through breeders, ask them about purchasing a retired show dog or if they know of an adult dog who needs a new home. If you want to adopt a dog, read the advice below on how to do that.
There are many great options available if you want to adopt a dog from an animal shelter or breed rescue organization. Here is how to get started.
1. Use the Web
Sites like Petfinder.com and Adopt-a-Pet.com can have you searching for a Leonberger in your area in no time flat. The site allows you to be very specific in your requests (housetraining status, for example) or very general (all the Leonbergers available on Petfinder across the country). AnimalShelter.org can help you find animal rescue groups in your area. Also some local newspapers have “pets looking for homes” sections you can review.
Social media is another great way to find a dog. Post on your Facebook page that you are looking for a specific breed so that your entire community can be your eyes and ears.
2. Reach Out to Local Experts
Start talking with all the pet pros in your area about your desire for a Leonberger. That includes vets, dog walkers, and groomers. When someone has to make the tough decision to give up a dog, that person will often ask her own trusted network for recommendations.
3. Talk to Breed Rescue
Networking can help you find a dog that may be the perfect companion for your family. Most people who love Leonbergers love all Leonbergers. That’s why breed clubs have rescue organizations devoted to taking care of homeless dogs. The Leonberger Club of America’s rescue network can help you find a dog that may be the perfect companion for your family. You can also search online for other Leonberger rescues in your area.
The great thing about breed rescue groups is that they tend to be very upfront about any health conditions the dogs may have and are a valuable resource for advice. They also often offer fostering opportunities so, with training, you could bring a Leo home with you to see what the experience is like.
4. Key Questions to Ask
You now know the things to discuss with a breeder, but there are also questions you should discuss with shelter or rescue group staff or volunteers before you bring home a pup. These include:
What is his energy level?
How is he around other animals?
How does he respond to shelter workers, visitors, and children?
What is his personality like?
What is his age?
Is he housetrained?
Has he ever bitten or hurt anyone that they know of?
Are there any known health issues?
Wherever you acquire your Leo, make sure you have a good contract with the seller, shelter or rescue group that spells out responsibilities on both sides. Petfinder offers an Adopters Bill of Rights that helps you understand what you can consider normal and appropriate when you get a dog from a shelter. In states with “puppy lemon laws,” be sure you and the person you get the dog from both understand your rights and recourses.
Puppy or adult, take your Leonberger to your veterinarian soon after adoption. Your veterinarian will be able to spot problems, and will work with you to set up a preventive regimen that will help you avoid many health issues.
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