Life with Leonberger
What are Leonbergers like to live with? Back in the days before the Internet put the whole world at our fingertips, the process of learning about a breed of dog was a different adventure than it is now. Nowadays, a simple Internet search will yield literally millions of hits about Leonbergers. Finding information about a Leonberger these days is so much easier than it was when I first started looking into the breed that the chances of getting inaccurate or misleading information is also much higher. So, what are Leonbergers actually like to live with? This is a very good question.
The AKC website and the Leonberger Club of America’s website both have very good basic information about Leonbergers, including a good description of their size and general temperament, and various health issues to keep in mind when considering the breed. My goal with this articleis to address in a bit more detail some of the important considerations to keep in mind if you are thinking of adding a Leonberger to your home. My goal is to make you aware of the details you might not see in an advertisement—the nitty gritty of this big, hairy, enthusiastic, and athletic breed that I love so much.
Ask any longtime Leonberger owner and you will likely hear a fair amount of not-so-glowing details sprinkled in with the wonderful aspects. This is because, while we love and adore our breed, we also know it is not for everyone. And we know it is important for people just starting their inquiries to hear a balanced representation. We hear questions like, “Are they good with children?” and “How are they with other dogs?” These are understandable questions, but Leonbergers are complex living creatures, not factory-stamped, totally-predictable machines. Also, some of the terminology used to describe a dog might vary quite a bit from person to person. So, let’s get down to the basics.
In general, Leonbergers tend to be fond of children, and they tend to get along well with other dogs, cats, etc., in general. Another example is that they are easy to train. Well, yes and no. The Leonberger comes from flock guardian ancestry, which typically tend to think for themselves and make decisions based on the situation. The Leonberger is not as independent and/or aloof as many flock guardian breeds, and they do tend to be more extroverted. Most of them are very confident and outgoing, and friendly. Most of them do learn new skills very quickly, and their lack of specialized purpose in their creation makes them quite versatile. But they may well respond to training with a bit of, “I hear what you’re saying, but what about this instead?”
Leonbergers can and do take to a variety of companion sports and activities, including water rescue, herding, nose work, barn hunt, agility, rally obedience, draft and carting, obedience, and yes, even flyball and weight pull. Care must be taken when introducing a sport to a young Leonberger, and it is a good idea to find a mentor familiar with the breed when venturing into some activities because they do take a long time to mature, physically and mentally, and it is important to let their skeletons and their brains mature without undue stress. Though they get big quickly, they remain a puppy and then a teenager for longer than you might think.
After decades of living with, training, handling, and breeding Leonbergers, I have found that the way-too-general formula of comparing dog-years to human-years does not apply to Leonbergers. That one-year-to-seven-year ratio is just not accurate with this breed. Rather, for the first two years of a Leonberger’s life, each month is roughly equivalent to a year in human development. Thus, a two-month-old Leonberger puppy is roughly equivalent in development to a two-year-old human child. A six-month-old Leonberger puppy (though some may be over 100 pounds by then) is still roughly equivalent to a 6-year-old human in terms of development and learning capacity. Mind you, this means that an 18-month-old Leonberger puppy is roughly the same as an 18-year-old human. Hormones are kicking in, but newly forming adult thought processes are still in their early stages. And with the boys, I tend to refer to them as frat boys in the 18- to 24-month range. In general, they are becoming young adults, and in other ways, they are steeped in hormones and may experience bouts of temporary stupidity.
After two years of age, each year of a Leonberger’s life is roughly equivalent to a decade of human life. Thus, a 3-year-old Leonberger is basically similar to a 30-year-old human. But this also means that a 6-year-old Leonberger is beginning to have some of the issues of a 60-year-old human, which means that if they are kept in shape and not allowed to be overweight, they are still very much athletic and energetic. And while there are certainly active and healthy 9- and 10-year-old Leonbergers, most are beginning to have issues associated with old age when they reach those double digits.
All of this means that the first two years of a Leonberger’s life should be treated as childhood. Expect similar issues that you might find in a human’s first two decades.
When you get a Leonberger, you should count on spending time training and socializing them. Even if you have a very outgoing puppy that was given a good foundation by their breeder, you will need to find a puppy kindergarten class, and then a basic obedience/manners class. You will need to introduce them to new situations, new people, new experiences, visits to the veterinarian office, and so on. This is important for every dog, but particularly so for a breed that may well end up outweighing his/her owner as a mature adult. Training is not a one-and-done thing. Training should continue throughout the dog’s lifetime. You are legally responsible for your dog’s behavior. This means that, even if your dog is well-trained and socialized, they are still big enough to accidentally cause harm to a human or another animal. So, you will need to keep that in mind when considering this wonderful but large breed.
What does all this mean if you are showing your Leonberger? Well, it means that when your teenage Leonberger bitch puppy goes into heat, you can expect her to go through some similar symptoms as a human adolescent female. She may experience PMS (pre-menstrual-syndrome), where she might suddenly become somewhat unsocial, maybe a bit irritable at times, less tolerant of her housemate dogs’ attention. And then, ah, yes, when she reaches what we so casually refer to as “standing heat,” she may suddenly become extremely flirtatious with the boys and less tolerant of other female Leonbergers. This is all normal, and does not actually contradict any of the other general descriptions of the breed. It does, however, mean that the owners may need to rewind back to their own adolescence and remember the contradictory emotions and moods that can happen in our own adolescence.
Likewise, if you have a male Leonberger, just think back to the chest-thumping and strutting that can happen in human males at that age, including brief spasms of insecurity and surges of testosterone. In other words, although your 2-year-old Leonberger male may have been a piece of cake to take places, be prepared for the possibility that, ringside at a show, he may suddenly have a brief display of stupidity when there are females in heat nearby. He may suddenly forget his manners, and you will need to step in and instruct him how to deal with it.
Here’s a little detail about the scent of a female in heat that you may not have known. That scent can travel for miles in the air. Miles. Let that settle in for a moment. It means that your boy dog can detect a bitch in heat miles away. They can certainly detect that scent within a dog show building, let alone within the confines of a dog show ring. And while some companion events do not allow bitches in heat to be on the grounds, conformation shows do allow it. They may even be in the ring with your dog for Best of Breed. Your usually chill Leonberger may behave differently in that situation. Just be aware of this, and be proactive.
For owners of intact females, there are a few considerations as well. Do not park in a ringside chair with your standing-heat female, as this can cause the atmosphere of the males in the ring to change. It is generally expected that you will not bring your in-heat female ringside until immediately before you go in the ring. Do not wander/mingle in the ringside traffic with your dog on a pet collar and a six-foot lead. Understand that the smell of hormones in the air can and will change the behavior of other Leonbergers that might have gotten along just fine in other situations. And when a Leonberger, as big as they are, loses his mind for a moment and roars or postures, it is loud and attracts attention. And as natural as it might be, we do not want this to happen at shows. Consult your breeder or trainer for ways to keep on top of this without being tense yourself.
All that said, Leonbergers are a truly wonderful breed. Yes, they shed (a lot). And yes, they take a long time to mature. And yes, they will think for themselves sometimes. And yes, they can have stubborn moments. But they have soul, and they are generally wonderful therapy dogs, and they generally prefer to be with their people over being alone. Their soulful, dark eyes will draw you in. Properly raised, trained, and socialized, they are a wonderful addition to the right household.
And at this point, I will add a personal note from my own experience. Some years ago, I had my fifth Leonberger at an AKC show in Fredericksburg, Virginia, as we were working on finishing his grand champion title. A family arrived at that show to meet some of the breeds they were considering as a companion for their special needs daughter. When they entered the building, my Leonberger boy made a beeline to their daughter in her wheelchair, and he bonded with her immediately. I was deeply touched when, years later, they told me that it was because of him that they went on to have Leonbergers. Many of that dog’s offspring became therapy and/or service dogs. If you can handle the shedding and the size, and the sometimes bumpy adolescent phase, this breed is truly a delight.
A last note: If you got your puppy during the COVID pandemic and were unable to do the proper amount of socialization due to shut-downs, just know that it’s not too late. But it is still important to get it done. If you need help finding venues for socialization, contact your breeder and your local Leonberger club.
Life with Leonberger