by Dave Warner
If you are just driving or walking around the downtown area, there’s a common sight missing that’s been a mainstay of the area for several years. You know, that big dog that carried the umbrella in his mouth when it was raining? The one that ate carrots every morning down at the laundromat? The 170-pound monster that pulled people in sleds on Main Street sidewalks…Buck.
If you have missed him, it’s because he has died, and according to his owner Daniel Ruffo “Buck was everybody’s dog, I was just the lucky one who he went back home with!”
Ruffo said that two or three times a day they run into people who don’t know the fate of Buck. He said “As you get older, the kids go away and the dog is the first thing you see in the morning and the last thing you see at night. They’re totally dependent on you as a three-year-old kid.”
Ruffo said that he has always liked ‘giant’ breed dogs, which are dogs over 100 pounds. “When I was a kid, we got a St. Bernard, our first giant was a Newfoundland and then we had two Leonbergers*, which stuck with us.”
“Giants are like giant people, they have a much shorter life-cycle,” said Ruffo. “You kind of know that going in.”
Giants typically live 5-9 years and they don’t mature totally until about 24 months old.
“When they’re a year old, they typically weight over 100 pounds. They usually add 10 pounds a month for the first year. When you first get them, they are 8-9 pounds, but they grow fast,” he said.
Buck used to go to work every day with Ruffo to the Laundromat. When he was a small puppy, Ruffo carried him to work. “We used to have people come in every Monday morning to see how much he had grown during the course of the week,” he said.
They originally got Buck from a breeder in Ohio. “They’re considered a rare breed, so you make sure you’ve got a qualified breeder and they send you a questionnaire to fill out, which is pretty involved, to see if you are qualified to own that type of dog. They want the square footage of your house, pictures of the back yard, your qualifications, what kind of pets you’ve had in the past, etc. Then, they determine if you are OK to take the dog,” said Ruffo.
At that point, you go on a waiting list, which could last as much as a year before you get called that there is a dog available.
“That’s what happened to us. We waited almost a year before we got Buck, but when we got him, he was just 7 1/2 weeks old. He was just a baby.”
Leonbergers were bred to be family companions who stayed with the family all the time. “They’re extremely powerful animals because of their size. Even though they are big, they win agility contests all the time. They have webbed feet, so they’re fantastic swimmers,” he said.
Ruffo stated that the dogs are used as lifeguards off the coast of Italy, Germany, France, and Australia. He said that even the US Coast Guard uses them to jump out of helicopters in certain situations to assist people. “They are extremely powerful swimmers and they don’t do the dog paddle, but move like us, one leg over the other.”
Farmers used to use them to pull small milk wagons and logs out of the woods. “It’s hard for people to imagine just how strong they are,” said Ruffo.
Buck at his peak was 175 pounds and almost 33 inches at his shoulders. The story is that Leonbergers were bred by crossing a female Landseer Newfoundland with a “barry” male from the Great St. Bernard Hospice and Monastery (which would later create the Saint Bernard breed).
Later, a Pyrenean Mountain Dog was added, resulting in very large dogs with long white coats. The first dogs registered as Leonbergers were born in 1846. The popular legend is that it was bred to resemble the coat-of-arms animal of Leonberg, the lion.
“A lot of times, with the kids they’d say ‘he looks like a lion’ and we’d laugh,” he said.
Ruffo said they can be difficult to train because they always want to be the boss. “It’s like a big kid pushing around little kids. He says ‘you’re not my boss’ and you respond ‘yes I am’. And that goes on for two years.”
Buck was very gentle with the kids who came into the Laundromat. “Buck would be panting and the kids & toddlers would grab his tongue and yank on it. He didn’t care.”
A lot of times, Leonbergers are used for therapy dogs in hospitals. “When we had Lazarus we’d do things with St. Judes Hospital. We were going to bring Buck, but it was such a long drive,” stated Ruffo.
Ruffo went on to say that both Leonbergers he had used to love to carry things. “We had the retractable leash, so he’d either hold the leash in his mouth or on a rainy day, he’dd carry my umbrella. I’d get wet, but he wanted to carry my umbrella, so hey, I let him carry it. He’d be as proud as he could be. People would stop and take pictures of him and he loved it – he was a ham.”
He said that he’s never had anyone intimidated by Buck, despite his size because of the ‘happy’ facial features that the breed has. “No matter where we went, people would look at him and just come up to him without any fear.”
One of the things that Leonbergers are known for, is their inability to be left alone. “You can’t just go to work and leave them and then come back at the end of the day. They want to be with the family all the time. It’s way beyond what a normal dog would be like,” said Ruffo.
“This can cause problems sometimes because he’d want to get on my wife’s lap and you couldn’t see her anymore. She’d say ‘what do you want me to do with this thing?'”
Buck had just turned eight years old in April and he passed away the next month.
Ruffo is considering another Leonberger “because I really enjoy them. They’re great animals and fun to be around. Kids love them. Little kids come up and hug them and kiss them and lay down on top of them.”
People are stopping him on the street and telling him that he has to get another one. But, according to Ruffo, his wife only kind of tolerates his love for the Leonbergers. He’s trying to talk her into letting him have another one and he said, “Believe me, it’s not easy. I’ve told her it’s in my DNA, but I still have to come up with as many excuses as I can. I’ve been down this road before.”
According to Ruffo, Buck was very special to a lot of people in town. “I never considered myself the owner of Buck, just his guardian.”
* According to the American Kennel Club “Leonberger’s are known for their aristocratic grace and elegance. A male can stand over 31 inches at the shoulder and weigh as much as a full-grown human. Females run smaller but are still a whole lot of dog. Breed hallmarks include a medium-long waterproof coat, lush triangular ears, a bushy tail, and a black facemask that frames kindly dark-brown eyes. A dramatic feature of the male’s coat is the lion-like mane around the neck and chest. A well-built Leo moves with an easy, elastic gait. A Leo is friendly but nobody’s fool. As watchdogs and all-around workers, they exhibit intelligence and sound judgment. Leos require lots of brushing, ample room for romping, and unlimited love.”