Revival of the Havanese Breed: Overcoming Exile

If you are unfamiliar with the spunky, sturdy breed known as the Havanese, you might make the mistake of thinking it is some sort of Poodle. Or, you might think it is related to the Bichon Frise. If you guessed any of these well-known breeds, you’d be on the right track, because all of them — including the Havanese — are descendants of the same ancient canine that was indigenous to the lands and islands of the Mediterranean Sea. Alternately referred to as the Little Silk Dog, Caniche, or Melita, this small, white-coated breed had its roots in history as early as the first century B.C.

We have come to identify the basic breed in its evolving forms and functions as the Bichon. Today, Bichons are recognized as several separate and distinctive breeds, based upon their place of origin. The popular Maltese originate on the island of Malta; the Bichon Frise was established on the Canary Island of Tenerife; and the rarer Bolognese and Lowchen were the companions of Italian nobility. The Havanese, however, as its name implies, was the darling of the upper class in Cuba.

Havanese standing outdoors.
AKC Library & Archives

Making a Big Leap

The Havanese’s geographical leap from the Old World to the New World is a consequence of the great historical periods of exploration, migration, and trade. While accurate chronicles of the breed’s journey across the Atlantic Ocean simply don’t exist, reasonable speculation offers a few plausible theories, summed up by breed historian Jeannette Stark.

One theory, according to Stark, proposes that the breed arrived in Cuba by way of Argentina. Italian seafarers supposedly brought the Bichon Bolognese to Spanish Settlements, where the dog was bred to the now-extinct South American Toy Poodle. The Havanese Silk Dog was one of the Havanese’s earliest names acquired in its new home country. These offspring formed the basis for the Havanese breed and were then taken to Cuba.

Another theory, says Stark, suggests that Spanish sea merchants brought the breed to the West Indies after making regular stops at the Canary Islands, where they would have encountered the Bichon Frise or, on their travels westward, at the island of Malta, where they would have picked up the Maltese.

While the true story is unknown, the unimpeachable fact remains that the Havanese was uniquely developed in Cuba. Known on the island as the Habeneros, these personable, multicolored little dogs were originally presented as gifts to the wealthy wives and daughters of the great sugar plantation owners. Clever sea mer­chants reasoned that the pets would serve as irresistible entrees to the families whose goods they wished to procure for European markets. Many an aristocratic senorita obtained her first Havanese in just this way.

From that point on, the breed enjoyed remarkable status as a valued member of the family. No one outside elite society could obtain a Havanese. The dogs were bred only for the purpose of prolonging their bond with their human family. They were never sold commercially, only given as gifts between upper-crust friends. In public, the dogs were only seen in the company of their mistresses, usually perched on their laps or seated next to them in fashionable carriages.

The easy life of the Havanese changed when the national economy changed. At the turn of this century, slavery was replaced by mechanization, which adversely affected the profits of the sugar plantation owners. Many sold their holdings, taking their families and valuables, including their dogs, to Europe. At first viewed with fad-like interest by Europeans, the dogs later fell from popularity. While some dogs were forced to live on the street, their lively per­sonality, strong instincts, and physical daring provided them with yet another fabled existence — as a featured circus act. With the cataclysmic upheavals of two world wars, howev­er, no Havanese was known to have survived in Europe.

In the following decades, the Havanese almost experienced the same fate in its native Cuba. The advent of communism brought an abrupt end to upper-class privilege, which meant that upper-class pets suffered as well. Of those who managed to escape into self-imposed exile, only the Perez and Fantasio families, and Senor Barba, were able to take, their Havanese with them. The Perezes and Fanfasios settled in Florida, while Barba moved to Costa Rica. Through their effort alone, the breed was preserved.

Havanese puppiesHavanese puppies
AKC Library & Archives

Taking Up the Cause

In the last quarter of this century, American dog fanciers have begun to take up the Havanese cause. The first to ‘ recognize the merits of this indomitable breed was Dorothy Goodale. In the mid-1970s, she was able to obtain six pedigreed Havanese: an adult bitch, four of her female puppies, and a male of another line. Shortly thereafter, Goodale was also able to purchase more stock from one of the Cuban exiles. Five additional Havanese of other blood­ lines came to Goodale, and her breeding program began with a 1963 FCI breed standard for the Bichon Havanais, as the breed was also known, as her benchmark. Today, approximately 4,000 Havanese are registered in the United States. Goodale, one of the founding members of the Havanese Club of America (HCA), was responsible for reintroducing the Havanese to European fanciers.

Despite arduous sea journeys, tumultuous social history, and occasional economic hard times, the Havanese has shown remarkable endurance and resilience. In its favor, from the breed’s earliest days to most recent events, have been several key factors. Unlike many toy breeds, the Havanese is a model of sturdy strength. While its size and weight keep the breed well within toy standards, its substance and balance provide the dog with unusual stamina. Without a tendency toward heaviness, the natural move­ment of the breed allows for a characteristic spring in its step and a surprising capacity to jump and spin.

Added to its physical prowess are its instinctive talents for herding and scent discrimination. Historically, the Havanese were known to herd its family’s chickens, geese, ducks, and turkeys — and even, the occasional cow; Breed fanciers have also observed that, if a Havanese is raised near a body of water or exposed to it at a young age, it often exhibited excellent swimming and diving skills.

The most appealing aspect of the breed — the jewel in the Havanese’s crown — is its winning temperament. Happy, loving, intelligent, social, and accommodating, these dogs perform to their highest capability when rewarded with constant human companionship. An ideal family companion, they blend well with dog-oriented children, offering themselves as constant playmates. They are equally content to sit, snuggle, and watch while in the company of family members. Gender plays no part in the breed’s mellow temperament, as both dogs and bitches display equal portions of brains, beauty, and heart.

Putting together all the innate talents, skills, and instincts of this breed, it is easy to understand how adaptable the Havanese has been. Whether the original little, white, silky-coated dog evolved from a highly scent-conscious hound, a keenly alert shepherd, a clearly focused hunter, or some combination of all of these, the modern-day Havanese makes an outstanding worker and companion. Its enthusiastic bounce comes across in the show ring evident in sound structure, unique movement, and unforgettable expression. Its willingness to please its human companions, along with its quick-witted apti­tude, also makes the breed an excellent candidate for success in the obedience ring.

Full of vigor, the Havanese likes to keep busy, also qualifying as a potentially consistent agility performer. With the introduction of canine musical freestyle to the list of performance activities available to faniciers, the Havanese can even make full use of its repertoire of circus tricks. Many Havanese have earned their Canine Good Citizen certificates, while admirably as therapy dogs. A few lucky stars have also made their debut in show business, both on television and in the theater.

Long regarded as having an almost human expression, the Havanese creates an instant bond with just one glance. Whether male or female, puppy or adult, the Havanese can be expected to steal your heart. And in the show ring, this breed may just steal first place.

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Revival of the Havanese Breed: Overcoming Exile

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