A BRIEF HAVANESE HISTORY
Although it is new to the AKC, the Havanese is quite an old breed in "dog years". Its history is fascinating and important to defining type, as it is unique in many respects. The Havanese is the National dog of Cuba and its only native breed. The flag of Spain was first raised over Cuba by Christopher Columbus in November of 1492. In the ten years following, colonization was begun on the island by Spain, who owned it for the better part of the next four hundred years.
The first settlers came from two distinct classes- farmers primarily from the island of Tenerife, and the "segundos", or second sons of the Spanish aristocracy.
Ship's logs of the early sixteenth century reveal that dogs were brought along on these early colonists' voyages, and logic tells us they were most likely the dog of Tenerife, common ancestor to all the Bichon family. Because of the draconian trade restrictions imposed on its colonies by Spain, Tenerife remained one of the only ports open to Cuba for trade, and it would appear these little dogs, who soon found their way into the homes of the resident Spanish aristocracy, developed without much outside influence.
They did, however, develop in response to the climate of this tropical island. The Havanese of today is still a remarkably heat-tolerant little dog, due in no small part to the unique coat. Once called the Havana Silk Dog, or the Spanish Silk Poodle, the coat is like raw silk floss, profuse, but extremely light and soft, and insulating against the tropical rays in much the same way that yards of silk sari protect the women of India. In its native country, the coat was never clipped for this reason, and the hair never tied into a topknot, as the Cubans believe it protects the eyes from the harsh sun.
In spite of the trade restrictions, Colonial Cuba developed and prospered. By the 18th Century, it was the cultural center of the New World, with an elegance that surpassed anything the British had managed in its colonies! The aristocracy of Europe found the city of Havana to be a great vacation spot, with its operas, theatres and palaces. On their return to Europe, they brought back the little Dog of Havana, which found favor in the courts of Spain, France and England.
In both Spain and in the French court of Louis XVI, they were shorn in the manner of poodles, and were much admired for their diminutive size. The English, on the other hand, appeared to leave them au natural, and called them the white Cuban, although they were as often found in parti-colors and shades of fawn.
By the mid-eighteenth century, they were downright trendy in Europe. Queen Victoria owned two and Charles Dickens had one, beloved by his seven children and named Tim. They were exhibited in the early European dog shows and type was well-established. The upper classes in Europe often had their portraits painted with their prized pets held on their lap.
The high-jumping Havanese excellent acrobatic skills, high intelligence, good nature and tolerance of people’s noises, made them prized by the small travelling circuses of the era and can often be found in painted posters of the carnivals of the day. The large ruffled collars were worn while the Havanese walked on only hind legs, performing crowd-pleasing feats. These were the progenitors of the gene pool saved behind the “iron curtain”.
In Cuba, meanwhile, times were changing. The aristocracy of the sugar barons was dying out and a new class was emerging, the bourgeoisie, and the little dog of Havana, adaptable as always, became a family dog extraordinaire; playmate of children, watchdog, and herder of the family poultry flock. It is a position he has held there for the past hundred and fifty years.
With the advent of the Cuban revolution, the class who owned Havanese was first to leave. Cuba’s dictator was a man who hated dogs, and ordered all shot on sight. A handful of lucky, beloved Havanese found their way to this country, and by the end of the 1970’s a gene pool was being rebuilt. All the Havanese in the world today, save those from the "iron curtain" countries stem from those 11 little immigrants. It was careful management of the limited Havanese that ultimately saved them from extinction. Remarkably, through all their travels, trials, and time Havanese type has remained virtually unchanged from that of the dogs painted in the eighteenth century. To preserve the breed now and for the future is the challenge we face. By maintaining the integrity of the breed, while avoiding line-breeding or “breeding to size”, “color”, or other arbitrary vanity, we can strengthen the lineage and ensure future generations may enjoy the loving, intelligent, playfulness that is the Havanese.