Harmony in the Multi-Leonberger Home

Leonbergers are usually such wonderful and affectionate dogs that many of us decide at some point to have more than one. As a family transitions from spoiler-in-chief to becoming the manager of a Leonberger pack, the rewards of a multiple Leo household also bring greater responsibility and more challenging demands. If you currently own multiple Leos or are thinking of adding another Leonberger to your family, you can’t help but benefit from learning about canine behavior and pack management.
 
We often call Leonbergers “watch dogs”, an understated way of saying they are a middle-of-the-road guard dogs. Leos are able to guard because they have a sense of ownership similar to our own. Working dogs such as ours can feel ownership toward people, space, food, and toys just as strongly as we do. Highly praised and valued when used in protection of family and home, this instinctive sense of ownership is called resource guarding by the dog fancy and is, unfortunately, also responsible for more than a few messes and misunderstandings. Love the trait or not, resource guarding is innate to our beloved Leonbergers and similar breeds. In helping us to feel safe when our large, furry companions are around, the guarding instinct is a wonderful asset. However, when Leos interact with one another, resource guarding is also the most frequent cause of fighting and injury. 

So, what do we do? An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure and avoiding fights is much better than breaking fights apart and trying to repair the aftermath. The majority of fanciers successfully owning and managing multiple large breed dogs use most of the following strategies, at a minimum, to ease tensions between dogs and your harmony seeking multi-Leo home can do the same:

  •  Assign each Leo a “safe zone” – a comfortable, secure place to sleep and eat such as a bedded crate or penned area where they can feel contentedly at ease.

  • Allow your Leos to “own” their safe zone, protecting it from being occupied by your other Leonbergers.

  • Feed all meals and give all high value treats such as meaty bones, pig ears, and stuffed kongs, inside their safe zones.

  • Don’t allow your adult leonbergers to “claim” public spaces from other adult leonbergers by lying in doorways or taking up hallways.

  • Never leave the pack unsupervised with highly prized items that may cause a fight.

  • Separate Leonbergers whose postures escalate (strutting, tails up, shoulder blocking, growls, snarls, etc.) until they calm down.

  • Always make sure every Leo gets their fair share of meals, toys, affection, and play.

  • Use routine bed times, feed times, and outings as much as possible.

  • Minimize the amount new additions or recent losses to the pack effect routine

  • Prevent fence fighting with neighbor’s dogs as the aggression easily transfers to packmates.

When you go from one Leo to two or more, they will naturally establish a pack order. In nature and in captivity, wolves in a pack establish a leader of each sex called the alpha pair (alpha male and alpha female). All other pack members are expected to assume subordinate positions to the alpha pair. Leo packs tend to organize themselves identically to their distant cousins and we often fail to recognize the importance of the social order. When planning to add a Leo to your household, knowing the hierarchy of your current pack and leadership potential of your current members will help you to know what type of Leo is most likely to fit in.

When choosing to go from one Leo to two, nature suggests that having a male and female Leo offers the surest prospects for pack harmony as there is a top rung reserved for each Leo. Two males, especially if at least one is neutered at sexual maturity, are also likely (though slightly less so) to get along well.  Two random females, especially if relatively close in age, offer the greatest chance for “sibling rivalry” and, occasionally, terrible fights. Unless they are fighting for a breeding opportunity, a spat between two males will have much less collateral damage and happen infrequently compared to fights between rival females.  Male Leos will spar for status on occasion and usually work the situation out quickly and amicably.  If you’ve seen your fair share of bitter arguments between human sisters and brothers, you can see how sibling rivalries in Leos are made of a similar thread.

In a wolf pack, only the female who climbs to the top spot gets to have puppies. Female Leos, spayed or not, can feel they are fighting for the gene pool and the ferocity of such a match is likely only to be rivaled by intact males fighting for breeding rights to a female – a situation most pet owners can readily avoid. Even after fifteen millennia of selective breeding, choosing to go from one female Leo to two female Leos without being very selective about the temperament of the new bitch may open the door for a decade of problems.      

Prospects for harmony do not rely solely on sex, however.  There are many Leo households where two females get along splendidly or where two males are constantly hassling one another. Fortunately for us, the basic neurological makeup of a puppy is fully formed at forty-nine days.  Knowing this, many breeders perform puppy temperament testing or, better yet, have an animal behaviorist evaluate the temperaments of puppies to aid in their placement.  Tests such as the Volhard Puppy Aptitude Test (PAT) have been shown to be very successful in determining the adult temperament of puppies and are a wonderful tool to help you and your breeder determine which puppy would be an ideal candidate for your growing pack. In order for a placement using PAT to have the greatest chance of success, prospective puppy owners must be completely honest with their breeder about the personalities and tendencies of the pets in their household. Responsible breeders know that dog behavior exists on a wide continuum and try to choose a puppy that is a good match for your household.

As you build and maintain your pack, the best advice is to be constantly observant and vigilant. Pack dynamics change over time. Whenever a puppy joins a pack, a Leo passes over the Rainbow Bridge, a Leo puppy grows up, a dominant adult slows down, or circumstances change in general, there will always be potential for rocky waters. You are the captain of your multi-Leo family. By being selective about how you add Leos to your pack, using common sense methods to understand and deal with resource guarding, and adopting strong management practices, you are likely to maximize the   enjoyment a multi-Leo family has to offer. 

 
Every family and pack is different. If you want to learn more about dog behavior, pack management, and selecting companions, the following books are wonderful resources:

  • Feeling Outnumbered? by Patricia McConnell and Karen London.  With extensive knowledge in both theory and practicality, the authors provide insightful, humorous, and workable ideas to make the best out of living with a pack of dogs.  This book is a must for any multi-Leo household looking to make the most out of their pack.

  • Culture Clash by Jean Donaldson. As close to a thriller as you are going to find in the world of dog information, Donaldson wrote this as the tour de force that has shaped modern thinking of dog behavior. A must for anyone wanting to better understand Leo behaviors.

  • The Dog’s Mind by Bruce Fogle. For a meatier read on dog psychology, Fogle obliterates the Disney Myth of dog behavior and paints a true portrait of how dog's think, learn, and feel with dry humor and great insight.

  • Mine! A Guide to Resource Guarding Dogs by Jean Donaldson. A concise, specific guide to troubleshooting resource guarding issues within your family pack.

Any time Leos don’t get along in perfect harmony, we have a natural tendency to place all the blame on ourselves. Remember, whatever behaviors your Leos are doing are likely perfectly natural, far from unique, and likely can be managed very effectively. If you need a helping hand beyond these great resources, please call your breeder, reach out to an APDT or similarly qualified dog trainer, or contact us for help. Every Leo deserves to live in a harmonious pack and you deserve to be happy with yours!

©2019 Sforzando Kennels, LLC is a family kennel in the Piedmont of North Carolina dedicated to producing beautiful, sound, and healthy Leonbergers with strong presence of body and mind.  We strive to produce Leonbergers who can thrive anywhere from the couch to the show ring and contribute as a loving and balanced family member wherever they go.