Breed History

The background of the Leonberger is very murky, full of mystery and turbulent stories. Many things have been written, sometimes contradicting each other, and there is little evidence to support many of the stories. It was not until the beginning of the 20th century that litters were registered and records kept. The breed was officially recognized by the FCI in 1955. To start at the beginning, we go back to the early years of the 19th century. In Leonberg, a small rural town 20 km northwest of Stuttgart in Württemberg (Germany), Heinrich Essig was born in 1809. He turned out to be a very ambitious man, and he became a very prominent citizen, elected to the city council and possessing a strong talent for marketing and trade. His greatest passion was for all kinds of animals, and his house (Schweizerhaus) was more like a private little zoo, with all kinds of dogs, foxes, turkeys, peacocks, and so on.
This is what was written about Essig’s creation of the Leonberger: “Among his dogs was a black and white Newfoundland bitch (Landseer type). He crossed her with a long-haired Barry dog (St. Bernard), which he also owned. He crossed them for 4 generations, outcrossed again with a Pyrenean Wolfhound (Pyrenean Mountain Dog), crossed again with a St. Bernard”. However, there is no proof that this was actually done and that there were no other dogs involved. Essig began breeding in 1846, which is the date we now consider to be the birth of the Leonberger.
An article in the “Illustrierte Zeitung” of November 1865 mentions that Essig had 17 years of breeding experience. In another newspaper (Illustrierte Handwerkers Zeitung number 10 year 1870) Th. Hering writes a story about a dog breeder in Leonberg (Essig), where Essig claims to have been breeding dogs for about 20-24 years. In the same article the dogs mentioned were Leonberger or Gotthard dogs and a picture was published to show the readers what they looked like. Large, impressive dogs were very much in demand and there were years when Essig exported more than 300 dogs. The St. Bernard was very popular, but had become very rare. In fact, after a catastrophe in 1855, there was only one pair left at the St. Bernard Pass. These dogs were crossed with Newfoundland females from Stuttgart, other local dogs, and English breeders crossed them with Mastiffs to get a more powerful head.
So it is quite logical that sometimes Leonbergers have been announced as a new breed with the old St. Bernard blood. We see pictures of what appear to be Leonbergers under the names Berghund, Alpine Mastiff, St. Bernard, Leonhardiner, and so on. To add to the confusion, St. Bernards were sometimes shown with the same names. By the way, according to the records of the monastery at the St. Bernard Pass, it seems that the name St. Bernard was first used at the show in Birmingham in 1862. As a member of the city council, Essig was not only able to promote the city of Leonberg, but also to do a lot of marketing for his dogs. By donating Leonbergers to royalty and other celebrities such as Garibaldi, the Prince of Wales, King Umberto of Italy, the Czar of Russia, and Empress Elisabeth of Austria, he became very well known and could easily sell more of his dogs. At one point, Empress Elisabeth owned 7 Leonbergers.
It was normal for a successful businessman to be imitated. Since there was no written standard and therefore every dog could be called a Leonberger, many more breeders or dog dealers went into business. A well-known trader in Leonberg was Mr. Burger; Mr. Bergmann from Waldheim advertised his Caesar in newspapers and magazines, and Mr. Otto Friedrich from Zahna advertised his Berghund Moulon. As the sales of Leonbergers flourished, the official cynologists tried to ban these breeders from shows because they believed it was unethical to produce dogs just for money. Sometimes things got very confusing. For example, Mr. Essig wrote in 1882, “My nephew is going to show three dogs at the Hanover Dog Show. Whether they are judged as St. Bernards, Leonbergers or Newfoundlands is of no importance to him. A woodcut of a dog named Caesar was published in “Der Gartenlaube” in 1885. It was probably this Caesar that won a special prize as a “long-haired Alpine dog” at the Berlin dog show in 1880. At another dog show, an English judge found him to be a wonderful St. Bernard, while Dr. Kunzli, a St. Bernard expert, found him to be a beautiful Leonberger. In a sales brochure of Mr. Friedrich, in which he gives a description of all the breeds he sells, we find in chapter 6: “Der Berghund (formerly St. Bernard)”, a pompous ode to the Berghund and a nice drawing of Caesar. In chapter 8 he describes in a few sentences “The Leonberger or Boblinger Dog”. Even in the 20th century (1908) we find a reference to the Leonberger or Boblinger Dog by the Italian cynologist F. Faelli. Today we know that there must be more dogs involved than the ones Essig claims to have started the breed with. Modern genetics tells us that it is impossible to create the Leonberger from the 3 breeds as described. In old photos we see black and white dogs, black dogs, red or yellow colored dogs – all said to be Leonbergers. >As mentioned before, Essig had his own small private zoo. At the height of his career, he sold up to 300 puppies a year. Essig was helped a lot by his niece Marie, who did practically all the kennel work. Later, a relative, the nephew Christian Essig, took over the kennel. Essig died in 1887.
It was in the early 1880’s that some breeding rules were written by Kull (a painter from Stuttgart) and a Mr. Boppel from Cannstatt. He was a judge and also a breeder of St. Bernards. It was after the death of Essig and Burger in Leonberg that the first Leonberger Clubs were founded. The International Club President was Albert Kull and he created the first standard for the Leonberger. In 1901 the “Nationaler Leonberger Klub, Apolda (Thüringen)” was also founded. These two clubs were still active in 1904 when they were mentioned in Count van Bylandt’s “Dog Encyclopedia”. If we look at the portraits from this time, we can see that the type has improved as a result of the breeding rules and the written standard (or it may just be a bunch of well-chosen pictures.) The type is more uniform and the almost white dogs have disappeared. Leonbergers were no longer a bunch of different dogs, but an official breed and again quite popular. They did very well at shows and had their own specialized judges. They were not unknown in Holland, France, Austria and Bohemia. Also in 1901 there was the “Internationaler Klub fur Rottweiler und Leonberger, Stuttgart”, followed by the “Leonberger-Klub Heidelberg” in 1907/1908. We suspect that the Heidelberg Club existed until perhaps after the First World War (1914-1918). The First World War proved to be a real catastrophe for the Leonberger. All written records were destroyed, not only from the Apolda Club, but also from the International Club. After the war, we owe it to Stadelmann and Josenhans that we have our Leonbergers today. Stadelmann started from scratch with his breeding records.
The two men tracked down Leonbergers, sometimes with unknown and sometimes partially known ancestors. They found approximately 30 dogs and with about 6 males and 6 females, they began breeding in 1922/1923. Following a lot of hard work, Leonberger number 342 was registered in 1927. They founded the “Leonberger Hunde Club Leonberg” in 1922 but the Club was renamed by the Reich in 1933 as “Fachschaft fur Leonberger Hunde” and kept that name until after WW II (1940-1945). During this war, breeding continued and even after the war there were some litters. In 1945, there were 22 puppies registered and in1947, 27 were registered. After the war the rivalry began. The “Fachschaft fur Leonberger Hunde” was renamed to “Verein fur Leonberger Hunde” and in 1947 the “Club fur Leonberger Hunde” was founded. Both clubs considered the other as an enemy, which was a pity. People on both sides had brought the Leonberger through the hard times of the war. In the fifties the “Verein” did not exist any more. The “Club for Leonberger Dogs” added “German” to the front of its name in 1948 and is still going strong today. After World War II, the committee led by Hans Weigelschmidt as president and Albert Kienzle as secretary worked very hard to rebuild the breed. One of the first things they did was to revise the German standard. The rather long (but well annotated) standard of 1895 was shortened. The height of the dogs was reduced to a minimum of 76 cm. for males and 70 cm. for females. (Previously it had been at least 80 cm. for males and 70 cm. for females). In the 60’s the standard was revised again and the heights were now changed to 72 cm. minimum and 80 cm. maximum for males and 65 cm. minimum with 74 cm. maximum for females. Unfortunately, this revised standard was never submitted to the FCI, so we had German judges judging according to their standard and the international judges using the FCI standard with the old heights. This caused some problems between France and Germany, because France had always defended the 1895 standard. After Weigelschmidt’s death, Dr. Herbstreith took over as president, and later Otto Lehman became secretary. In 1964 Robert Beutelspacher was in charge of breeding records, and in 1968 he introduced the first European breed book. He became president of the DCLH in 1974, but in the meantime had discovered that there were actually 2 standards. One of the first things Robert Beutelspacher did as president was to bring the German standard to the FCI so that at least every judge would be working with the same standard. After Robert Beutelspacher death in 1991 Gerhard Zerle became President of the DCLH.