At about the time when I had three very small children, I decided we should add a giant breed dog to our brood. My husband sensibly put his foot down and said no, which heralded the arrival of our first Leonberger. If you’ve never encountered one before, think St Bernard, Newfoundland, and Great Dane, and bear in mind that one of our current Leos weighs in at a mere 12.5 stone! That’s 80 kg in new money which, on any version of events, is a whole lot of dog!
Adjusting to life
They say a dog changes your life and they’re not kidding. It soon became apparent that we needed to upgrade our car to a low loading van, extend the house to build a dog room, buy the dogs their own chest freezer and install a personal dog shower. Our neighbours delight in the monthly delivery of crate upon crate of raw meat and parents have grabbed their children and run when they’ve seen the large, meaty carcasses in the garden. We don’t get many visitors these days to be honest. Leonbergers are hairy too, very hairy and no words can describe the quantities of mud we get through the door in the winter. The result is that we’ve pretty much abandoned all hopes of ever having a carpet and have converted all our sofas to sad, “doesn’t matter look” leather.
They’re very gentle but …
On the whole, Leos are gentle souls who love being part of a family and are very protective of children. Unfortunately, their definition of what requires protecting against can be quite loose and our first Leo was famed for rescuing other people’s children during a lake swim. She’d misinterpreted their squeals of delight as an evil attack and so ensured they made it safely to shore although the children didn’t actually want to get out. The parents were a little bemused too and we didn’t visit that lake again. A curious and little-known fact about Leonbergers is that they have webbed feet and can and are trained for water rescue. I know that now.
As for my own small children, well, they learnt young the meaning of initiative when dealing with the uninhibited welcome of double their body weight in dog. If we’d been out, I’d see my kids crawling, belly down across the lawn towards the house … this was to prevent themselves from being knocked over by a wagging tail the size of a small branch. Alternatively, they’d stand on the garden table (the children not the dogs) until the excitement caused by our return had abated. In her later years, our first Leo was grumpy, bad tempered and intolerant – we were in short, the perfect match. But despite that, we took her everywhere with us and she became a well-known “international dog of travel” who ate with us in some of the best restaurants in Sussex as well as France!
When you’ve got one Leo, apparently it’s only a matter of time before you get a second. I know that now too and if I’d thought that 60 kg of cantankerous Purdy had made life complicated, I had no idea! Baba is big. Very, very big. But he’s also highly excitable, a bit of a coward, and completely oblivious to the fact that he weighs considerably more than I do! And that’s not easy. And when Baba says, “No”, which he does ever so occasionally (he doesn’t like getting muddy feet or going to the vets) then it pretty much means no and I have had to phone the vets and explain he’s not coming! He’s utterly intimidated by female dogs although has his own harem of miniature breeds who he walks with and wholeheartedly believes he’s a lap dog.
Who was training who
Of course, we’ve always taken them to puppy school (the dogs, not the children although actually, we took them too) but to be fair, most other dogs shrink in fear when they saw a hairy, slobbery mass four times their size bouncing towards them. And of course, owners need training too. For example, never, ever wrap a lead round your wrist or take your eye off the ball when out walking … not for one second, as I learnt to my cost. Squirrels are dangerous and provocative beasts, and there have been at least two occasions when I’ve landed face down in the mud while my Leo dealt with the offender.
Perhaps our maddest adventure to date was taking both dogs and all three children on a skiing holiday. We stayed in a tiny third floor flat, with lifts so small we had to use them in shifts. Two giant and excited dogs (this was snow after all and what they were born for) in one small ski lift is not an experience I ever want to repeat. But we survived with only a moderate amount of concussion.
Something must be going right
We’re on to our third Leonberger now, and our latest edition is smaller, very pretty, and completely miswired in the head. She’s the kind of dog only a mother could love although we do love her for all her sins, and there are many. She spends most of her life in the pond or eating her way through the furniture, fixtures, and fittings. She insults other dogs she doesn’t like, ignores anything she’s not interested in, and has the strength of an elephant when she decides to drag you through a hedge. She’s confident, opinionated, sassy but vulnerable too and plays life entirely according to her own set of rules. The sort of woman you’d love in human form but more than a challenge on the end of a lead.
We’re often out walking the footpaths of Sussex although we tend to stay off the more beaten tracks. And I’ve decided recently that I’m too old and have spent too many winters mud skiing to walk them both together anymore. But if you see us, no, they’re not a German Shepherd cross, yes, they eat a lot, and please, feel free to say hello. Although approach with caution if I’m with Miss Bee … I never know quite what she’s going to say to people!