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The Lowdown on the Lion-like Leonberger

Despite its massive size, the Leonberger is a sweet and companionable family dog with a protective and loving temperament. Hans Surfer/Getty Images

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If you've never heard of a dog breed called the Leonberger, you're probably not alone. Exactly what is this Leonberger, you might be asking? Originally bred to resemble a lion using a mix of the Newfoundland, long-haired Saint Bernard and Great Pyrenees, this immense creature typically weighs in at between 120 and 170 pounds (54 and 77 kilograms) and stands 2 to 2.5 feet (0.6 to 0.7 meters) at the shoulder. It's known for its medium-to-long waterproof coat, lush triangular ears, bushy tail and dark-brown eyes framed by a black facemask, with the male even sporting a lion-like mane around his neck and chest.

"Leonbergers are lion lookalikes, with reddish-brown bodies and black masks," says Nicole Ellis, a certified professional dog trainer and pet expert with Rover.com, in an email interview. "Leonbergers are so jumbo-sized and lion-esque that they sometimes look like they're straight out of Narnia. Even though they're big (and love to eat, which means they can get quite heavy), they're agile, graceful and surprisingly light on their feet. Leos were never bred as specialized dogs, so they're well-rounded in just about everything — intelligent, gentle and sensitive family dogs.

"They do need a good amount of space, exercise and grooming," adds Ellis. "They're giant, lovable companions who have the most fun when they're hanging with their families. As a bonus, their deep, low bark and big size make them intimidating watch dogs."

Perhaps the only problem with this breed? You might have trouble finding one. "While Leonbergers are quite common in their country of origin (Germany), there are only a small number in the U.S. these days," says Steffi Trott, owner and head trainer at SpiritDog Training in Albuquerque, New Mexico, by email.

No worries, though. "The Leonberger does seem to be gaining in popularity in the U.S. since being accepted into the American Kennel Club (AKC)," says Sara Ochoa, a small animal and exotic veterinarian in Texas and veterinary consultant for doglab.com, by email. She currently has two Leonberger patients at her clinic.

How Was This Relatively New Breed Created?

"There's no written record of the origins of the Leonberger," says Ellis, "but it's said that Leos were first bred in the German city of Leonberg, near Stuttgart, in the mid-1800s." As the story goes, noted politician and professional animal trader Heinrich Essig was hoping to create a dog that resembled the lion on the town's crest by crossing the Newfoundland with a Saint Bernard and a Great Pyrenees (although many surmise the Leonberger must have been made using a wider range of dogs to achieve its unusual looks).

The result? A new large and aristocratic-looking breed named after Essig's beloved hometown and owned by royalty and celebrities such as Italian General Giuseppe Garibaldi, the Prince of Wales, King Umberto of Italy and the czar of Russia.

The Leo went on to gain in popularity, with the first clubs for the breed created in 1891. When World War I rolled around, however, the dog almost went extinct. Only 25 Leonbergers remained, and only five of them were suitable for breeding. That's when a couple of devotees of the breed — Karl Stadelmann and Otto Josenhans — began a club committed to saving the dog. The breeding program was later taken over by the German government during the war, and then reestablished afterward by the Deutscher Club für Leonberger Hunde (or German Club for Leonberger Dogs).

Various Leonberger dogs were exported into the U.S. in the early 1970s, the Leonberger Club of America was formed in 1985 and the breed was finally recognized by the AKC in 2010. Today, most Leonberger's remain in Europe — especially their country of origin — but they also are popular in Canada as water search and rescue dogs. They even have webbed feet, which makes them great swimmers ideal for water missions.

Do They Really Make Good Pets?

Although huge and powerful, this breed's gentle demeanor is more like that of a big ol' teddy bear rather than the lion it was bred to mimic. In fact, the Leo has one of the most loving personalities around, which makes the affable canine especially good with children. "They make great pets," says Jeff Carbridge, a trainer/expert with DogOwner.co.uk, by email. "As long as you train and socialize them well from the beginning, as well as give them a lot of mental and physical exercise, they will make a wonderful addition to any family."

You might want to keep in mind, however, that Leonbergers don't automatically come this way. According to VetStreet — which delivers online pet advice from veterinarians, trainers and other experts — the dog goes through a long adolescent period marked by sometimes stubborn and destructive behavior before reaching maturity. Ingrained chewers, Leo puppies can potentially do more damage than other breeds because of their size. So, they shouldn't be given the run of the house until they've reached trustworthy maturity.

They also should be kept busy with training, play and socialization experiences, because a bored Leonberger is a destructive Leonberger.

Another caveat: because Leos are known as a sensitive breed, they tend to become visibly distressed when their family members express anger or sadness. "They are highly sensitive to the point where arguments that involve yelling and tension may cause them to intervene in a nonaggressive manner," says Carbridge. "They really stay in tune with their owner's emotions, and they detect changes in mood very quickly."

When all is said and done, though, these gentle giants have an excellent bedside manner. They are wonderful with children and the elderly, showing an amazing amount of tenderness for a dog their size (although they should be watched around younger children, because they might accidently harm them while playing due to their gigantic stature).

"While they look impressive, Leonbergers are extremely family-friendly and even love other dogs and pets," says Lazhar Ichir, founder of Breeding Business, a popular platform that educates dog breeders and breed fanciers worldwide, by email. "However, because they are a giant breed with a dramatic presence, owners must ensure socialization to avoid accidents. Being pushed gently by a Leonberger is very different from the same done by a Pomeranian or border collie."

The Leonberger is unique among other giant breeds in that they were first and foremost developed as a companion breed, adds Trott. "This means they have a generally lower level of drive than the other dogs of the working group, as well as being very gentle and friendly with everyone they come across," she says. "The Leonberger does not have its own 'agenda' like many other breeds. Do not mess with their family though; they will fiercely protect those that they love."

Are They Easy to Train?

According to VetStreet, training should begin as soon as you bring your Leo puppy home. Even at 8 weeks old, the Leo is capable of soaking up everything you can teach him. If you wait until he is 6 months old to begin training, you'll have a bigger, more headstrong dog who will test you to see what he can get away with. Take 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.

In lieu of formal training, you can begin socializing your puppy among family and friends, as well as training him at home using positive reinforcement, such as praise, play and food rewards, and, most of all, patience. A Leo will respond to kind, firm, consistent training, according to VetStreet, but you'll need to practice with him daily until he's at least 2 years old to make sure the lessons stick.

"They love to please their owners, and are responsive to patient, consistent and positive training," says Ellis. "Being a large dog, training is so very important. While some things are manageable with a tiny dog, jumping on someone and pulling are much more serious with a dog this size."

How About their Health?

The Leo breed is susceptible to numerous concerning health conditions (especially if you aren't cautious about where you buy them from). According to VetStreet, these can include allergies; orthopedic problems (such as hip and elbow dysplasia); eye diseases (like cataracts, entropion and ectropion); cancer (including osteosarcoma, or bone cancer); the neurological disease polyneuropathy; Addison's disease; hypothyroidism; and bloat/gastric torsion.

Not all of these conditions are detectable in a growing puppy. Predicting whether an animal will be free of these maladies can be difficult, which is all the more reason to find a reputable breeder committed to producing the healthiest animals possible. A good breeder should be able to provide independent certification that the parents of the dog (and grandparents, etc.) have been screened for genetic defects and deemed healthy for breeding, which is where health registries become valuable.

As a giant breed, Leos unfortunately don't have the longest life span among all dog breeds. "The average life span is around 7 years of age," says Ellis, "with 20 percent living past the age of 10."

How Do You Care for a Leonberger?

Leos have a thick, double coat that comes in many different colors, such as yellow, sand, brown and red, usually tipped with black. Double coated dogs have a thick undercoat of short, wooly hairs under a top coat of longer hairs called guard hairs. Even the texture of the Leonberger coat can have variety. Thanks to their mane-like appearance, owners of the dog are likely to find a lot of hair around their homes, which means frequent brushing is a must unless you want your house overrun with hairballs.

"The Leo's double coat requires at least a twice-a-week brushing, with daily brushing to keep shedding to a minimum," says Ellis. "Like all double-coated dogs, the Leo sheds a bit year-round and more intensely twice a year, which is called 'blowing the coat.'"

"While these dogs are easygoing and low-maintenance in all other areas, their grooming requirements are not for the faint of heart," Trott explains. "You'll find hair everywhere with a Leonberger, no matter how often you brush him. If you do not keep up with his brushing routine, the fur can easily mat and will need to be shaved off — something to avoid at all costs."

In addition to a regular brushing routine, the Leo's nails should be trimmed weekly; the ears should be cleaned and checked for any dirt to prevent infections; and their teeth brushed with a vet-approved pet toothpaste for good overall health and fresh breath.

What About Exercise?

The Leo is not only highly active in puppyhood, but also as an adult, according to VetStreet, which suggests at least an hour of exercise daily. In addition, this breed makes a great hiking companion for owners who love the outdoors; just make sure you walk them on a leash, so they don't go running off after a cat, dragging you behind them in the process.

"They were bred for drafting (pulling carts), so yes, they need lots of exercise, but they are also content to hang around the house and cuddle after being fulfilled," says Russell Hartstein, CEO of Fun Paw Care, by email. "Adult Leonbergers seem very peaceful and calm," adds Davor Bobek, co-founder of World Dog Finder, by email. "But to prevent them from becoming destructive, they should have at least one type of physical exercise a day. They enjoy hiking, are great biking companions and love water, so swimming is also a great option."

While it is important to make their lives enriching, this does not mean that you have to play fetch every day for two hours, says Trott. "As a large breed, you actually want to be quite careful and not subject them to high-impact exercise," she explains. "A Leonberger is no running companion; instead, slow walks are a much better option."

Where Can You Find a Leonberger?

Our experts suggested several different avenues for finding a Leo you can call your own.

Bobek suggests using the World Dog Finder website, where you can find Leonberger puppies, breeders and dogs, as well as general information about dog breeds and living with a dog, while Ellis recommends starting your search with specific rescues, as well as giant breed dog rescues. "Just because one is in a rescue that doesn't mean anything is wrong," she says. "Perhaps someone's housing or work situation changed, or they didn't have the time a dog required; you could find your best friend there."

According to Ichir, the best way to find a purebred, health-checked Leo puppy is to contact your local Leonberger breed club. "They will have a list of breeders available for you, and you can get in touch with them to see which one you like the most," he says. "Another option is to head to a conformation show [a show where a judge evaluates individual dogs for how well they conform to the established breed type] and meet with breeders in person, but these show lines will cost substantially more."

While Trott says you can find a Leo in the U.S. via an AKC-registered breeder, she warns against purchasing the breed (or any breed, for that matter) through ads on Craigslist or similar outlets. "While your pedigreed puppy will cost a little more (around $1,500 to $2,000 for a Leonberger)," she says, "he will come from proven and health-tested parents and have a great temperament."

Finally, Carbridge touts the "Find a Puppy" function on the AKC website. "This will give you a list of approved and registered breeders," he says. "You can also find breed groups online if you want to meet and socialize with some of these massive dogs."

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