by   David Hancock

We have every reason to be grateful to those individuals who developed a breed in their own name, like Dobermann, Korthals, Gordon, Plummer and Russell. But we also have cause to thank the inspired breeders who created a breed bearing not their name but the place they lived in. In such a way we have the Sealyham Terrier, the Clumber Spaniel and the Entlebucher and Appenzeller Mountain Dogs. But towns too have lent their names to distinct breeds of dog, as the Rottweiler, Boston and Manchester Terriers indicate. Just as praiseworthy however is the name of Heinrich Essig, once Mayor of the town of Leonberg, in south-west of Germany. It is said that he wished to create a really big dog that resembled the heraldic lions on his town's coat of arms. His foundation stock allegedly came from the St Bernard-Newfoundland crosses discarded by the monks of St Bernard whilst attempting to rejuvenate their own breed. Essig is said to have brought in Pyrenean Mountain Dog blood, and other breeds of similar stature, perhaps like the Bernese Mountain Dog. This gave him an imposing dog, 32" at the shoulder, with a thick, usually fawn, coat and an imperious manner.   

By the end of the 19th century, these dogs became favoured as property guards - the Tsar of Russia, the Prince of Wales, the King of the Belgians and the composer Wagner becoming owners. Not surprisingly World War 1 led to a dramatic decline in their numbers, with only five left, then, sadly World War 2 left only eight survivors. So twice in one century dedicated breeders had to work extremely hard to retain this distinctive breed and put it on a course ensuring type was maintained despite a desperate breeding programme being embarked on. I first became aware of the breed by seeing two of Cunnaeus's depictions of the breed, one on a mountainside, then studying them at World Dog Shows. I have to admit at finding difficulty at times distinguishing Leonbergers, as the breed is now officially named, from their look-a-like 'mountain dog' cousins, the Estrela Mountain Dog from Portugal. The Cunnaeus paintings certainly capture the grandiose statuesqueness of the Leonberger. I was hugely impressed by one exhibit a few years back, Fran Williams's Tariq, for me, exemplifying the words of its Breed Standard most effectively.

Late 19th and early 20th century photographs of the breed in France show the breed without the heavy black mask and less bulk, but with two world wars to withstand and then recover from, the breed has been quite well preserved in its first phenotype. The KC standard on colour states 'always with a black mask', and, 'a small white patch or stripe on the chest and white hair on the toes tolerated'. That bothers me! Why rule out an outstanding dog that might be mask-less or have a sizeable white patch on the chest? At shows I sometimes see exhibits with an 'overdone mask' extending over the back and down the flanks; this doesn't look like the genuine Leonberger to me and could, if permitted or fancied, alter the breed's typicality of coat. With only 323 registered in the UK in 2016, the breed is not yet plentiful enough for sound dogs that are slightly mis-marked to be ignored in the top placings. The soundest dogs must always win.

Under the words on temperament it calls for a dog that is 'playful'; grown-up puppies can degrade a breed, especially one designed as a protection dog. I somehow doubt that Heinrich Essig was seeking an adult Leonberger that was playful. There is nothing 'heraldic' about a playful dog, such a dog is usually immature and lacks a protective instinct. Good protection dogs are suspicious of strangers and, in an emergency, assertive. I don't think this Breed Standard has got the breed's temperament right. Either Essig was seeking a different dog or we are now breeding one. The Breed Standard, under 'characteristics' states that the breed should be 'distinguished by his friendliness'; is this the same dog desired as a protection dog by the Tsar of Russia and the King of the Belgians? No one wants a big dog to be aggressive or not have a stable temperament, but no breed specially developed as a protection dog should be a big softee! The breed is described in the introduction to its Breed Standard as 'a good guarding breed' but it won't be if the words on temperament and under 'characteristics' are bred for.  

But even more important is the question of size. Big breeds in the show ring are so often the prey of size-boasters or bulk-seekers. The Leonberger at the moment is neither exaggerated nor ponderous, so many of the more sizeable breeds have gradually become over-boned and too bulky to retain their breed identity. Writing in 'The Book of the Dog' of 1948, edited by Brian Vesey-Fitzgerald and published by Nicholson and Watson, Arthur Croxton Smith gave this view: "Breeders seem to have concentrated more and more upon getting immense size, and great bulk usually brings the evil of unsoundness in its train. I have seen plenty of perfectly sound mastiffs, such as could move well and were really active, but latterly the proportion of unsound ones has been alarmingly heavy, for it is extremely difficult for breeders to get soundness in alliance with bulk." No breed can lead a healthy life if its whole design is at the mercy of human whim. Any breed no longer bred for a function, even if that function has lapsed, has a doubtful future. Leonberger breeders be aware!

If youthen look at the health of say the Mastiff breed, as summarised in an authoritative book such as 'Medical and Genetic Aspects of Purebred Dogs' by Clark and Stainer (1994), youcan see some of the problems in the breed. It states: "Many bitches experience uterine inertia after whelping one or two puppies, probably resulting from the breed's characteristic lethargy...Obesity is the curse of the Mastiff breed...many owners continue to overfeed their dogs in the mistaken belief that the heavy feeding increases the dog's size." Other huge breeds seem to be going down the Mastiff route. Lethargy and obesity from overfeeding, are these not the consequences of breeding for great size without accompanying soundness or quality? I groan when I read a judge's critique praising 'great bone'; are we breeding cart horses or powerfully-built physically-sound dogs? The seeking of massive bone in any breed of dog is not a rational act. Did our distant ancestors, who actually worked their dogs, ever value a dog purely for its bulk? The big dog of Leonberg is an imposing breed, developed because of its symmetry and controlled power - not its size; it is dishonest to boast of a breed's historic origin and then breed an animal that simply does not resemble its own mould. Leonberger breeders beware!