Leonbergers - lion-sized beasts spotted on Kendal’s Castle Hill
PUBLISHED: 00:26 18 January 2014
What do you get when you cross a Newfoundland with a St Bernard? The answer is one lot of dog, unless you are this couple - they have two. Emily Rothery reports
It is like a scene from Narnia as children’s laughter fills the air and two leonine creatures emerge from the ruined stonework of the castle. The lion-sized beasts are not, however, part of a magical world but simply partaking of their daily walk on Kendal’s Castle Hill.
Bella and the aptly-named Aslan are Leonbergers, a breed of dog that stop men, women and children in their tracks. They attract a attention wherever they go - so much so, their owners have had T-shirts designed explaining their love of Leonbergers. Outings can take a long time as passers-by stop to ask questions and take the opportunity to stroke these gentle giants.
Owners Steph and Bill are clearly devoted to their dogs and keen to raise awareness of the breed which almost became extinct after the two world wars when these powerful dogs were used to pull ammunition carriages. It is believed the dogs were left to fend for themselves after World War One and that Leonbergers today are descendents of just eight dogs that survived World War Two.
Despite this near-extinction, the numbers of Leonbergers are now on the increase with around 4,000 in this country. They were first bred in the city of Leonberg in Germany in the 1800s where popular legend states that the town’s mayor, Heinrich Essig, wanted to create a breed that resembled the lion that featured on the city’s crest.
It is claimed that he created the breed from a crossing a Newfoundland with a St Bernard which resulted in a dog that had the prized qualities of both breeds. Essig was also known for his marketing genius and the breed became fashionable and a favourite with royalty and dignitaries. Notable owners included Napoleon II, Bismarck, the Prince of Wales and the Czar of Russia.
Steph and Bill did a lot of research before welcoming these larger-than-life dogs into their home in Kendal. They speak highly of Leonberger Welfare, which re-homes unwanted dogs. ‘They offered invaluable advice and eventually matched us with Bella in March 2012. Six months later Aslan joined us. The dogs bonded immediately and are very much part of our family. So much so that sometimes, in the evening after a session of play, they will lie on our sofa and we’ll have the floor,’ laughs Steph.
Befitting of their grand stature, the Leonbergers have big personalities. ‘Three year old Bella is top dog and very maternal. She looks after Aslan and puts him in his place whereas Aslan, at two, is still in the inquisitive toddler stage. He’s rumbustious, loves attention and charges everywhere. We’ve nicknamed him Tank.’
On a more serious note Steph adds: ‘Although the dogs are fun, friendly and lovable we have put a lot of time into obedience training, correct diet and care otherwise they could easily have become unmanageable.’
As Bella comes and affectionately leans her great warm body against my legs, Steph adds: ‘They are great with our children. Aaron, ten, and Aslan are great buddies. Assy likes to sleep on Aaron’s bed; they have conversations and read together. Zoë gravitates towards Bella because she is smaller. She loves to dress her up and put little crowns and bows in her hair. Leonbergers just give you so much love,’
These powerful dogs average around eight to ten stone and traditionally have also been used as workers on farms, guarding stock and pulling carts. Around the beginning of the 20th Century they were imported by the Canadian government for use as water rescue dogs and are still used in that role. It seemed natural, therefore to harness Bella to the sledge when the snow fell in the winter and to let Aslan pull the children out of the local river, by holding onto his collar, when swimming last summer.
‘Leonbergers love water. They are double coated and if they’ve been out in the rain will soon transform your floor into a swimming pool,’ says Bill, ‘Their drinking habits leave a lot to be desired, too, so a mop is always at hand.’
The family, with their sense of fun and down to earth attitude are well matched to these good-natured king-sized canines.
As a way of repaying the Welfare Association and raising the profile of Leonbergers, Steph organised the first north west meet of Leonberger owners earlier in the year. ‘Owners came from all over the country, we raised £230 and it was a fantastic day,’ she says. ‘The spectacle of around 20 large Leos splashing in and out of the River Lune near Kirkby Lonsdale was quite a sight!’