When Herb Williams, former president of the Löwchen Club of America, first saw the breed at Crufts in 1984, he never dreamed he would enter a show ring with one of the little lion dogs or become active in the club. “I had Pekingese, but I wanted something a little more active,” he says. “I spoke to a Löwchen breeder, someone who absolutely loved the breed and wanted to talk, and I got more and more interested in it. I thought I would have just one little dog and that would be it, but they take you over. They’re really special little dogs.” These special little dogs joined the Non-Sporting Group in 1999, the culmination of a long, hard road back from the brink of extinction.
The Birth of the Breed
Paintings and woodcuts give evidence that the Löwchen has been in existence since the 15th century. “The earliest evidence of the breed I’ve found comes from a Jan van Eyck painting, The Birth of the Baptist, that dates to 1422,” says Virginia Denninger of Wayland, New York, a breeder who has made an extensive study of the Löwchen’s history. “You can take dogs out of those early paintings and find dogs that live today that look like that.”
Denninger remembers visiting Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum and seeing a huge painting of a table filled with luscious food. “There in the right-hand corner [of the painting], on the floor, looking up, figuring out how in the world he was going to get to that food, was a life-size Löwchen, exactly like what we have today,” she says with a laugh.
The expressive woodcuts by German artist Albrecht Durer also provide modern fanciers with a glimpse of their breed’s past. For breeder Alice Bixler of Summerfield, Florida, the most interesting aspect of the Löwchen’s history is that it is immediately recognizable right down to the lion trim in Durer’s woodcuts from the 16th century. “They really haven’t changed since then,” says Bixler. “Both the conformation and the attitude are still the same. The personality is very evident.”
Products of the Renaissance, a period when symbolism was rife, the little lion dogs represented courage. Legend has it that knights who were killed in battle were buried with the statue of a lion at their feet, but if they died of natural causes the statue of a lion dog was substitute. Löwchen, whose name comes from the German words meaning “little lion,” were also popular as footwarmers and comforters.
One widely told story suggests that the lion cut originated so that ladies of the court could place the dogs in their beds and warm their cold feet on the dogs’ warm, exposed skin. Denninger offers a more pragmatic theory: It was done as a sanitary measure to prevent matting and infestation.
Over the years, however, the Löwchen’s popularity waned: by World War II, the breed was considered rare. A Belgian woman, Madame Bennert, who had owned Löwchen since 1897, made it her mission to prevent the breed from disappearing. “After a long and disappointing search,” she wrote, “I finally found two wonderful females. One was a blue and came from Lille, arid the other was biscuit-colored and came from the area of Dieghem. After a long search, I finally found a blue male, and this was the beginning of my small dog kennel.’’
Bennert’s effort was successful, and for many years she worked closely with German breeders to increase the Löwchen’s numbers and maintain its quality. English breeders began importing the dogs in 1968; it was three Löwchen from an English kennel that first came to the United States in 1971, imported by Charles and Jane Cook.
Making a Name for Itself
“The Löwchen has never taken off and been a big breed in any country that it’s in,’’ says Williams. “One of the reasons is they don’t have enormous litters. An average litter is probably three or four dogs, so It’s never going to be a profitable dog, and I think that may save us.”
Curious and smart, but sometimes stubborn, the Löwchen is playful, fast on its feet, and enjoys the outdoors. It learns quickly and has done well in obedience. “I’ve taken my oldest one through to the CD, and it’s amazing how easily they train,” Bixler says. “They’re very eager to please.” With those qualities, this is a breed that could also excel in agility.
For all its small size, the Löwchen acts like a big dog and lives up to its name, not backing down from anything. When it gets knocked down, it just rolls over and comes up again. With charisma to spare, the Löwchen is a tough little character that is sure to make a name for itself in the Non-Sporting Group.