The early history of the Leonberger is clouded and tumultuous,
revolving around the enthusiasms and exploits of Heinrich
Essig (1809-1889). Essig was a successful politician with
a genius for marketing and public relations. He was an alderman
and a prominent citizen in Leonberg, a town on the outskirts
of Stuttgart in southern Germany. (Leonberg is just 50 kilometers
from Rottweil; another famous town that gave its name to the
dog breed that originated there.)
Essig made a successful
living as a professional animal trader who surrounded himself
with a variety of rare and exotic animals. In dogs, he preferred
large and imposing breeds, which he bred, bought and sold
internationally. In our time, we would probably consider him
an irresponsible puppy-mill owner. He bought and sold dogs
for a span of fifty years, trading sometimes 200 to 300 dogs
a year at the height of his career.
Like other entrepreneurial
individuals, Essig's strong suit was vision and marketing
communications, not attention to detail! So, unfortunately,
he kept no detailed logs or records of his breedings, nor
did he believe it necessary to write a standard for the breed
he created. What we know of the development of the Leonberger
comes from word-of-mouth reports, copies of advertisements
written by Essig and others, references in a handful of nineteenth
and turn-of-the-century dog breed encyclopedias, and some
very lively articles and correspondence found in nineteenth-century
animal periodicals like Hunde-sport und Jagd, Der Hundefreund,
and Der Hund, a German nationwide dog magazine still being
published today. Leonbergers were also a popular topic in
home and garden magazines of the period.
Given Essig's personality
and political position, it is likely, but not clearly documented,
that he deliberately combined his desire to promote his town
with his desire to promote his business. Our best records
indicate that in 1846 he declared the "creation" of the Leonberger
as a legitimate breed of dog.
The town crest of Leonberg
contains a lion rearing up on its hindquarters.
Although it is not known
for sure if the town name refers to a lion, there is a definite
association through the crest. The Leonberger, as we know
it today, is lion-like in appearance. However, Essig's early
versions certainly weren't. According to Essig, he crossbred
a black-and-white female Landseer with a long-haired Saint
Bernard that he had acquired from the Saint Bernard monastery
in Switzerland. The puppies were, of course, black and white.
He reportedly then crossbred these dogs for four generations,
outcrossing with a yellow-and-white Saint Bernard and later
a white Pyrenean Mountain Dog that he had in his kennels.
He was striving at this early stage for an all-white dog,
because they were very fashionable at the time.
It was only many generations
and outcrossings later that the golden color and black mask
became typical. Early records indicate that in 1865, Essig
showed a dog at the Octoberfest in Munich that was described
as a fine dog, resembling a lion, yellow and brown, with black
tips. It is important to note here that the Leonberger we
know today could not have come from the matings that Essig
initially described. As has been pointed out by Letellier
and Luquet in France and Nijboer in Holland, the AY allele
does not exist in the three breeds that were supposed to be
the originating breeds. Also, from a genetic standpoint, the
Leonberger head is morphologically much different from that
of the Saint Bernard or Newfoundland.
It is highly likely that
local farm and butcher dogs with relatively fixed genetic
characteristics, but not identified as a breed found their
way into the developing breed lines. Very large dogs with
appropriate coloration and with heads shaped similarly to
the Leonberger, as we know it, were known in the region and
are described in 17th- and 18th-century literature. Also,
intriguing documentation suggests that dogs from Leonberg
were used at the Hospice of Saint Bernard in 1830, well before
the origination of the Leonberger, to breed with the only
Saint Bernard to have survived an outbreak of distemper.
Whether Essig actually created
a new breed by careful selection following genetically sound
principles is rather doubtful. What we do know for certain
is that Essig bred, acquired, and sold some very imposing,
beautiful dogs. We also know that his marketing genius resulted
in such widespread popularization of the breed that the Leonberger,
as a breed, survived cries of outrage from breeders of Saint
Bernards and Newfoundlands, from judges, and from the editors
of dog magazines.
Essig was free to travel
and promote his animals, because his niece, Marie, who was
known as the "soul" of the kennel, actually trained and maintained
the animals. At the same time that he was being attacked,
Essig's ardent loyalists paid great sums for his dogs and
defended him publicly. Essig's Leonbergers caught the attention
of popular German artists who used the dogs as models and
this also increased their popularity. Through Essig's marketing
skill, his dogs found their way into the castles of royalty,
such as the Empress Elizabeth of Austria, the Prince of Wales,
Emperor Napoleon II, Garibaldi, the King of Belgium, Bismarck,
King Umberto of Italy, and the Czar of Russia. They were exported
as far away as the United States, England, Newfoundland, and
Japan to the wealthy who desired large fashionable dogs.
Essig died in 1889 without
ever having defined a standard for the breed or a defensible
description of his breeding program. It is a tribute to the
qualities of the Leonberger that in spite of these obvious
deficiencies, and in the face of ever-harsher critics, there
were enough enthusiastic owners to form, beginning in 1891,
and the first Leonberger clubs. Four years later, the first
significant club, the International Leonberger Club founded
in 1895 in Stuutgart.
The Club President, Albert
Kull, was an artist with an eye for detail. He wrote the first
standard for the Leonberger. This standard formed the foundation
for all subsequent standards. Kull's work did much to reestablish
the credibility of the breed, and the Leonberger began to
flourish with three more serious clubs being founded.
World War I almost rendered
the breed extinct. If it were not for the determination and
dedication of two men, Herr Stadelmann and Herr Otto Josenhans,
the breed would surely have become a mere footnote in the
history of German dogs. After the War, Stadelmann and Josenhans
scoured Germany searching for Leonbergers. They found 25.
Of these, only five were suitable for breeding. Because of
inflation and food shortages, it was unlikely that individuals
could have personally and individually supported breeding
programs, so a group of seven people joined together in 1922
to form the Leonberger Hunde Club in Leonberg and a breeding
cooperative known as the Leonberger Hundezucht Genossenschaft.
Within four years, they had selectively bred 350 Leonbergers.
The organized breeding program of the Genossenschaft brought
about a revival of the breed, brought honor to the town, and
provided foundation stock to establish several kennels. Most
notably, these men established the official Breed Registry,
which continues uninterrupted today.
Stadelmann's work progressed
until the early 1930s, when the authoritarian control of the
Third Reich began to influence the dog world. A Reich-governed
club, the Fachschaft für Leonberger, was established in Sandhausen
when the Reich assumed control of all breed registries. Surprisingly,
breeding, although very reduced, continued throughout the
war. Both dogs and accurate records survived the destruction.
In 1945, 22 puppies were registered and in 1946, 17.
At the end of the war it
again took a group of devoted enthusiasts to reestablish an
organized breeding program. Two rival clubs were established
in 1946 and 1947. The club founded by Albert Kienzle, Hans
Weigelschmidt, and Otto Lehmann became in 1948 the present-day
Deutsche Club für Leonberger Hunde. In the early '50s, the
Breeding Committee Chairman, Werner Lutz, and the third president
of the DCLH, Robert Beutelspacher, wrote the first modern-day
standard and breeding regulations, which had a profound impact
on the development of the Leonberger, as we know it today.
In 1975, the German Club brought all the Leonberger breed
clubs from the major European nations together and founded
the International Union of Leonberger Clubs. Now, clubs from
17 nations correspond frequently and meet annually on the
last weekend in September in Leonberg to work cooperatively
to protect the health and quality of Leonbergers and to insure
homogeneity of the breed throughout the world. Today, the
Union is led by the President of the Deutsche Club für Leonberger
Hunde, Gerhard Zerle. A number of Leonberger owners and breeders
are currently researching the possibility of Australia becoming
part of the Leonberger Union.
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