Lapping up lovable Leonbergers

Club brings together 60 of the big dogs for national show at convention center

By Erin Middlewood, Columbian special projects reporter



Jody Woodruff of Shoreline tossed a toy barbell and commanded, "Biscuit, bring it."

Biscuit is one of about 60 similarly large, golden, fluffy dogs competing in this week's Leonberger Club of America's 2013 National Specialty show at the Vancouver Convention Center. The competition began on Wednesday and will culminate in the best-in-show award on Saturday evening.

In Thursday's obedience competition, Biscuit slowly circled around the toy, knocked it with his paw and then grabbed it in his massive jaws to return to his owner.

"This is the thing about Leos," said Beth O'Connor, president of the Leonberger Club of America. "They do everything in their own time."

Although they compete in the American Kennel Club's working dog group, Leonbergers are primarily companion dogs with friendly dispositions, said O'Connor, of Orangevale, Calif.

O'Connor said it's not uncommon in obedience competitions for the dogs to lollygag.

"They're not border collies. They're not bred to work," she said. "The breed was not developed with any purpose in mind. They are a multipurpose dog."

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Leonbergers are often used for therapy or water rescue. The breed, which originated in Germany, are distinguished by their lion-like faces with dark masks. The average male weighs about 150 pounds and stands 30 inches tall at the shoulders.

The massive dogs looked at home in the Hilton Vancouver Washington, although they occasionally growled at each other. The excitement led to a few messes here and there, quickly cleaned up by the owners.

"It's difficult to find hotels that will do dog shows," O'Connor said. The national show alternates between the East and West Coast, so more of the club's 1,000 members can participate, she said.

There are an estimated 5,000 Leonbergers in the United States, O'Connor said. She owns two.

The dogs are eager to please, which makes them excellent for families with children, as evidenced by the big sloppy kiss Caspian planted on 8-year-old Colson White of Otis Orchards, near Spokane.

Colson accompanied his mother, Sara White, and his grandmother, Ann Sweet, who owns Caspian, for the dog's first big competition.

"He's never seen so many Leonbergers before," Sweet said of her grandson.

The Leonbergers' loving nature leaves a lasting mark on their owners.

O'Connor still tears up when she thinks of Gage, her first Leonberger. She cherishes a picture of Gage showing the dog's paw resting affectionately in her lap. Gage died at age 7, the typical lifespan for Leonbergers.

"Big dogs tend to live short lives," said Caroline Bliss-Isberg of Los Gatos, Calif. She serves on the board of the Leonberger Health Foundation, which has raised about $250,000 for universities studying cancer and other diseases in dogs.

Many of those at this week's competition elected to have their dogs' blood drawn for research.

Bliss-Isberg said Leonbergers have a longer lifespan and fewer breed-specific diseases than other large purebreds.

"One of the reasons is this tremendous focus on health," Bliss-Isberg said.

That's something the club is proud of, she said.

"We have a saying, 'Great dogs, great people,'" O'Connor said. Club members look forward to attending shows and competitions to reconnect with other dog owners. "It's a community of people who all share a love of these dogs. We talk about how solid their poops are. That's your dinner conversation."