The background of the Leonberger is a very clouded one, full of mysteries and turbulent tales. Many things have been written, sometimes accounts contradicted others, and little proof has been given for many of the stories. It was not until the early part of the 20th century that litters were registered and records were kept. The breed was officially recognized by 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 Wurttemberg (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 town council and possessing a strong talent for marketing and trading.
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 account was written of Essig’s creation of the Leonberger : “Amongst his dogs there was a black and white Newfoundland female (Landseer type). He crossed her with a longhaired Barry-dog (St. Bernard) he owned also. He crossed them for 4 generations, out crossed again with a Pyrenean Wolfhound (Pyrenean Mountain Dog) crossed again with a St. Bernard”. There is, however, no proof that this is in fact what was done and that there were no other dogs involved.
Essig started breeding in 1846, which is the date we now attribute to be the birth of the Leonberger.
In an article in the “Illustrierte Zeitung”, dated November 1865, there is mention that Essig had 17 years of breeding experience. In another paper (Illustrierte Handwerkers Zeitung Nummer 10 Jahrgang 1870) Th. Hering writes a story of a dog breeder in Leonberg (Essig) where Essig claimed that he had been breeding dogs for about 20-24 years. In the same article, the dogs mentioned are Leonberger or Gotthard dog and a picture was published to show to readers what they looked like.
Large impressive dogs were very much in demand and there were years that Essig exported more than 300 dogs. The St. Bernard was very much in favor, but had become very rare. In fact, after a catastrophe in 1855, there was only one couple 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 obtain a more powerful head.
So, it is quite logic that sometimes Leonbergers were 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. However, to add more confusion, sometimes St. Bernards were presented with these same names. By the way, according to records by the Monastery at the St.Bernard pass it seems that the name St. Bernard was used for the first time at the Show in Birmingham in 1862. As member of the town-council Essig was not only able to promote the town of Leonberg but could also do a lot of marketing for his dogs. By donating Leonbergers to royalty and other celebrities like Garibaldi, the Prince of Wales, King Umberto of Italy, The Czar of Russia, and Empress Elisabeth of Austria, he became very well known and he could easily sell more of his dogs. At one time, Empress Elisabeth possessed 7 Leonbergers.
It was quite normal that a successful businessman was imitated. Since a written standard did not exist, and therefore one could call every dog a Leonberger, many more breeders or dog merchants went into business. A wellknown trader in Leonberg was Mr. Burger; Mr. Bergmann from Waldheim, promoted his Caesar in papers and magazines, and Mr. Otto Friedrich, from Zahna, publicized his Berghund Moulon.
As sales of Leonbergers flourished, the official cynologists tried to ban these breeders from shows because they believed it was unethical to produce dogs only for the money.
Sometimes things were very confusing. For example, Mr. Essig wrote in 1882 “My nephew will show three dogs in the Hanover dog show. If they are judged as St. Bernard, Leonberger or Newfoundland is of no importance to him.”
|A woodcut of a dog named Caesar was published in “Der Gartenlaube”, 1885. It was probably this Caesar that got a prize of honor at the 1880 Berlin Dog Show as “long-haired Alp Dog”. At another dog show, an English judge found him a marvelous St. Bernard, while Dr. Kunzli, a St. Bernard-expert, thought him to be a beautiful Leonberger.|
In a sales brochure from Mr. Friedrich in which he gives a description of all the breeds he sells we find under chapter 6: “Der Berghund (former St. Bernard)”, a pompously ode on the Berghund and a nice drawing of Caesar. In chapter 8 he describes in a few sentences “Der Leonberger or Boblinger Hund”.
Even in the 20th century (1908) we find a reference to the Leonberger or Boblinger Hund by the Italian cynologist F. Faelli.
Today we know that there must be more dogs involved than the ones with which Essig claims he started the breed. Modern genetics tells us that 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 said before Essig had his little private zoo. At the height of his career he was selling up to 300 puppies a year.
Essig was helped a lot by his niece Marie, who practically did all the kennelwork.
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. Bernard.
It was after Essig and Burger in Leonberg died that the first Leonberger Clubs were founded.
The Leonberger Klub Berlin began in 1891 and Klub fur Leonberger, Heilbronn in1895. These two clubs probably did not exist for very long, because in 1895 the “Internationaler Klub fur Leonberger Hunde Stuttgart” was founded
The International Club President was Albert Kull and he created the first standard for the Leonberger. In 1901 the “Nationaler Leonberger Klub, Apolda (Thuringen)” was also founded. These two clubs were still active in 1904 when they were mentioned in Count van Bylandt “Dogs Encyclopedia”. If we look at the portraits from this era, we see that the type has improved as a result of the breeding rules and the written standard (or it may be just a bunch of well-selected pictures.) The type is more uniform and the almost white dogs are gone. Leonbergers were no longer a bunch of different dogs but an official breed and again quite popular. They did very well on 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 in 1907/1908 by the “Leonberger-Klub Heidelberg”. Our guess is that the Heidelberg Club existed until perhaps after World War I. (1914-1918). WW I turned out to be a real catastrophe for the Leonberger. All written records
were destroyed, not only from the Apolda club, but also from the International Klub.
Following the war, it is due to Stadelmann and Josenhans that we have our Leonbergers today. Stadelmann started from zero 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 in
“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, rivalry struck. The “Fachschaft fur Leonberger Hunde” was renamed to “Verein fur Leonberger Hunde” and in 1947 the “Club fur Leonberger Hunde” was established. Both clubs considered the other an enemy, which was a pity.
People on both sides had brought the Leonberger through the tough times of the war. In the fifties, the “Verein” no longer existed. The “Club fur Leonberger Hunde” added “Deutscher” to the front of its name in 1948 and is still going strong today.
After WW II the committee leaded 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 commented) standard of 1895 was shortened. The height of the dogs was brought down to at least 76 cm. for males and to 70 cm. for females. (It previously has been at least 80 cm for males and 70 cm. for females). In the 60s the standard was again revised 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 taken to the FCI, so we had German judges that were judging according their standard, and the international judges who were using the FCI standard with the old heights. This caused some trouble between France and Germany, because France had always defended the standard of 1895.
After Weigelschmidt’s death Dr. Herbstreith took over as President, and Otto Lehman became later secretary. In 1964 Robert Beutelspacher was in charge of the breeding records, and in 1968 introduced the first European breed-book. He became president Of the DCLH in 1974, but in the meantime had discovered that there were in fact 2 standards. One of the first things Robert Beutelspacher did, as President was to take the German standard to the FCI so at least every judge would be working with the same standard. After Robert Beutelspacher death in 1991 Gerhard Zerle became President of the DCLH.