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The Maltese

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114 – The Annual,2015-16

By Amy Fernandez

Despite 150 years of predictable, unvarying routine, dog shows never get boring. The volatility of breed popularity certainly contributes to the sport’s endless surprises. Some breeds rise to the top and remain securely ensconced there for decades. Then, without warning, they plummet into the abyss of anonymity. Equally often, fringe breeds rocket out of nowhere and suddenly dominate the game for no logical reason. This powerful undercurrent of purebred evolution says so much about the nature of this sport. The weird trajectory of Maltese success provides an unparalleled example.

Theoretically, the Maltese has existed since Classical times. However, any direct link between those celebrated dogs of Malta and the modern incarnation of the breed is extremely questionable. More accurately, those references encompassed a cornucopia of related strains that evolved throughout the islands dotting the Adriatic and northern Mediterranean. Eventually, this genetic hodgepodge coalesced into distinct types comprising the Bichon breeds. Although their precise origin continues to incite historical speculation, their steady popularity is undisputed. Possibly the best-known description from that period comes from the oft-quoted Strabo, “There is a town of Sicily called Melita, from whence are transported many fine little dogs called Melitei canes. They were accounted the jewels of women …they are not bigger than common ferrets or weasels. Yet they are not small in understanding nor mutable in their love to men for which cause they are also nourished tenderly for pleasure: whereupon came the proverb ‘melitea Catella’ for one nourished for pleasure, and ‘Canis Digno Throno’ because princes hold them in their hands sitting upon their estates.” Perhaps that wasn’t the Maltese in a genetic sense, but in concept, Strabo was spot on.

Of course, ancient Rome was a hotbed of purebred development which ended abruptly with its fall. Inexplicably, the Maltese was one of the few canine survivors, taking up where it left off as the premier pet of medieval royalty. Documentation about purebred development is rare during those centuries, but ongoing artistic and literary nods confirm that the Maltese knocked around in various guises for centuries thereafter. It’s incomprehensible continuation hinged on one incontrovertible fact: it ranks among those classic canine types that never go out of style. Summarizing that perennial appeal in his 1576 English Dogges, Dr. Johannes Caius said, “They are called Meliti on the island of Malta. They are very small indeed and chiefly sought after for the pleasure and amusement of women who carried them in their arms and bosoms and their beds.”

This ongoing artistic/literary endorsement doesn’t imply any concurrent efforts to establish and refine type. That little detail didn’t come into focus until the Maltese debuted as a purebred in the 1860s. For decades thereafter, every aspect of the breed qualified as total chaos aside from the crucial defining trait that had inspired a millennium of rhapsodic descriptions. By 1933, the legendary Hollywood trainer, Henry East, had worked with every canine make and model when he portrayed the Maltese as “a constant source of entertainment… playful, scheming, inventive, and amusing. They are very affectionate and like to be cuddled. The interior of any house is ample playground for the Maltese. Their keen observance and adaptability to training requires very little patience. He has no desire to roam and can be taught to guard and act as an alarm.”

As always, its intrinsic charm and charisma successfully forestalled any imminent dance with extinction. Some notable dogs emerged. Lady Clio of Arr, from one of the era’s few viable American breeding programs, earned one of the breed’s rare Westminster group placements in 1930. The Maltese wasn’t destined to visit that territory again for 20 years.

Essentially, it hovered on the fringes of the sport for several reasons. Primitive presentation handicapped every breed at that time. Exhibitors used their ingenuity to grow and protect coat. But even their best efforts couldn’t approach the slick, flashy ideal that rapidly characterized the modern show dog in less complicated breeds. The Maltese wasn’t destined to benefit from that advantage until major breakthroughs in grooming technology.

The ruling brain trust of the kennel world also did their best to undermine its progress by saddling it with a mishmash of ambiguous classifications, ensuring that it steadily lost type and support for decades. Over here, early shows labeled it as the Maltese Lion Dog, Maltese Skye and many similarly weird monikers that confirmed its ambiguous status. It entered the AKC studbook and Non-Sporting Group as the Maltese Terrier in 1888, finally losing its Terrier designation in 1918, and eventually entering the newly created Toy Group in 1924. By then, this administrative correction had imperceptible impact on its downward trajectory.

That situation characterized most of its history as a purebred and things were destined to get way worse before they got better. The Maltese had limped along in various states of disrepair for a thousand years, but it’s safe to call that particular era a genuine low point in its history. Its tenuous gene pool was nearly obliterated in a World War II distemper epidemic that devastated many breeds prior to the introduction of reliable vaccines. Generic Bichon stock subsequently introduced to replenish breeding programs was a lifesaver. Unfortunately, very few of the results conformed to the standard’s wildly unrealistic three pound weight limit which remained in effect until a viable national club emerged in 1961.

The Maltese seemed destined to remained an insider’s secret. Then, in the early ‘50s it emerged from its underground cult status. Objectively, this happened within the context of the bull market that swept through postwar America’s purebred dog world. Many marginal breeds were revitalized. Even so, this was an improbable candidate for stardom. As a Toy specialist, Anna Katherine Nicholas had a ringside seat for this unscripted drama. She wrote, “It could truthfully be stated that the United States discovered the Maltese, and its rise to fame in American show rings came about during the 1950s. It was then that fanciers and judges really started taking notice.” A different kind of energy began permeating the breed. Maltese registrations increased by 23 percent from 1951-52, more than twice the overall 11 percent increase in AKC registrations that year. Occasionally, a breed catches that wave of synergy. The resulting collective momentum heralds one of those rare eras defined by a goldmine of quality.

Among others, Arr dogs seeded Hale Farms, the pivotal breeding program in Beverly, Massachussetts founded by Miss Eleanor Bancroft. Hale Farms produced several notable champions, but its main contribution was the foundation stock for Villa Malta Kennel. Established in the ‘30s by Dr. Vincenzo and Mary Calvaresi in nearby Bedford, Massachussetts, it was based on a combination of Hale Farm and stock imported after WWII from the Electra kennel of Italy. It was the first bloodline to stamp the breed with its hallmark traits of head type and proper single coat without undercoat, waves, or shading.

Villa Malta ultimately finished over 100 champions. Its first big winner came in 1940. Ch. Vivia of Villa Malta was the dam of multiple champions and the beginning of a long, uninterrupted line of top winners and producers like Ch. Musi of Villa Malta, the sire of 13 champions and Ch. Rocco of Villa Malta, the sire of 41 champions.

Villa Malta reset the dial for Maltese quality. However, that long haul selective breeding endeavor wasn’t going to resolve the breed’s immediate crisis of dwindling support. Type was a work in progress, but it had one card to play… dazzling showmanship. Villa Malta consistently presented large entries at major shows, but nothing had a bigger impact than its celebrated team. This was noted by breeder/judge Dr. Robert Berndt in his 1975 book Your Maltese. He wrote, “Dr. Calvaresi left his mark on Maltese history not only because of his breeding program, but also because of his great showmanship. He focused national attention on the breed in the 1940s and ‘50s.” Maybe these were non-regular class wins, but they successfully vaulted the breed to the level of mainstream competition and all the acclaim that went with it. This sensational spectacle drew unprecedented mobs of ringside fans. News reports from major shows like Westminster and the Chicago International frequently featured the Villa Malta team alongside the BIS winner. That impact resounded through America when Westminster introduced nationally televised coverage.

This formula of intensive national publicity and quality dogs lured fanciers that were destined to revolutionize the Maltese as a purebred contender. For example, Mrs. Henry Kaiser and her handler, Wendell Sammet, famed for their Ale Kai Poodles, became notable exhibitors. An equally important recruit was Virginia Leitch, the breeder/judge and author of the first comprehensive book on Maltese. Her Jon Vir breeding program in Riverdale, Maryland combined Villa Malta stock with English imports from Harlingen.

Like most devoted fans, Aennchen and Tony Antonelli acquired their first Maltese as a pet. Tony hoped the little dog would cheer up his wife as she recovered from a debilitating back injury that ended her dancing career. This impulsive pet shop purchase did much more than that. Westminster 1954 introduced the Antonellis to the sport. Their consequent search for foundation stock resulted in two dogs and a bitch from Villa Malta and Jon Vir.

Within two years, they were back at Westminster winning Best of Winners with their foundation bitch, Ch. Aennchen’s Puja Dancer. Her progeny included two of the breed’s most important stud dogs, Siva Dancer and Shikar Dancer. The Antonellis bred three top Ten toys beginning with a Shikar Dancer daughter, Ch. Co Ca He’s Aennchen Toy Dancer, who in 1964, became the first Maltese to break into the Toy Top Ten and win a Westminster group. That achievement was soon overshadowed in the breed’s stratospheric domination of the game.

Maybe it was beginners luck, but these novice fanciers ultimately forged a bloodline that imparted the structural soundness, proportion and balance responsible for that unmistakable, elegant Maltese outline. None of that would have mattered much without the insight and generosity to share their riches. Like their mentor, Dr. Calvaresi, Aennchen stock became the source of important bloodlines throughout the country. By the time these two key kennels retired, the Maltese scene was a way different ballgame. Over the next two decades records were set and smashed almost constantly.

By far, Aennchen’s biggest winner was Ch. Aennchen’s Poona Dancer, America’s Top Toy and #3 overall for 1967. Owner/handled by Frank Oberstar, her 38 BIS and 131 groups set a longstanding breed record. The second Maltese to win a Westminster group in 1966, she also won the 1967 and ‘68 AMA specialties.

Hot on the heels of Poona Dancer came Ch. Pendleton’s Jewel, bred by Ann Pendleton and owner/handled by Dottie White. She was America’s Top Toy in 1969-70 and #3 overall in 1970. She took Group Second at Westminster that year and won three consecutive AMA specialties from 1969-71.

Jewel was immediately followed by Ch. Joanne-Chen’s Maya Dancer who also descended from Shikar Dancer. She was bred by Joanne Hesse, owned by Joe and Mamie Gregory, and handled by Peggy Hogg. Her cumulative record was 34 BIS, 134 groups, the 1972 AMA specialty, back-to-back Westminster groups in 1972 and ‘73, Top Toy 1971-72 and number two overall for 1972.

Ch. Joanne-Chen’s Mino Maya Dancer, owned by Blanche Ternowicz and handled by Daryl Martin, was the Top Toy in 1980, a two-time AMA National winner in 1980-81, and broke Poona Dancer’s record with a career total of 34 Bests in Show and 150 Group Ones.

That record lasted until Ch. Sand Island Small Kraft Lite came on the scene. Bred and owned by Carol Frances Anderson and handled by Vicki Abbott, he was Top Toy and #5 overall for 1990-91. He was a two time AMA National winner and the 1992 Westminster group winner. He had a career total of 42 Bests In Show.

Two years later Ch. Shanlyn Rais’n a Raucous, bred by Lynda Podgurski, and owned by Joseph Joly III, Vicki Abbott, and David and Sharon Newcomb was handled by Vicki Abbott to 1994’s Top Toy and AMA National winner.

In 1997, Ch. Ta-Jon’s Tickle Me Silly, bred by Tammy and John Simon, and handled by Tammy for owners Sam and Marion Lawrence reigned as top Toy for 1997-98 and became the first Maltese to hit the elusive 100 Best In Show milestone.

These and others put the Maltese at the top of all breed competition. They also completely revised the breed’s look during those decades. Vicki Fierheller admits that the origin of the breed’s twin topknots remains a mystery. Noting that they weren’t officially mentioned until the 1964 standard revision, “The long head-hair may be tied up in a topknot or it may be left hanging.”

Prior to that, exhibitors improvised with various parts, clips, bows, and braids to keep head coat off the dog’s face. Fierheller says, “Pictures show some early English/European Maltese with their hair done in two braids,” which she speculates was source of the currently accepted presentation. “Grooming was not very sophisticated back in the ‘30s or ‘40s. Coats were never to the floor. Grooming became important in the ‘50s. With the longer coats came more head hair. Wynn Suck, who handled Ann Pendleton’s Maltese back then, was one of the first to show them with the head hair tied up in two sections,” she said.

“Older style topknots were widely spaced (above and outside the outer corners of the eyes) with a simple piece of wool or ribbon (homemade I might add ) as an adornment,” she says.

Vicki continues, “Nowadays, topknots are quite intricate, teased, poofed and set above the inner corners of the eyes with very fancy bows (no one makes their own anymore). The topknots and bows are usually touching at the center of the head, which certainly gives the head a very different look from the older-style topknots. Puppies used to be shown with two topknots as well, but these days, they are shown with one, then switched to two topknots when they are about a year old.”

She adds that this isn’t the only aspect of Maltese grooming that’s changed drastically saying, “Gone is the basic brush, comb, bath, and trimming of the feet. It has become a real art. We sure didn’t have such a selection of products back then. One can make the woolliest coat look like silk.”

Flat ironing has also become essential presentation. Vicki says, “to make the coat look and hang like silk. Even the most correct coat will be enhanced by ironing. It’s almost impossible to achieve the length and fullness expected in the specials ring without wrapping the coat. I’m not sure when it really started but by the mid-1960s Ch.Aennchen’s Poona Dancer was wrapped.” Her success inarguably inspired legions of new fanciers, but maybe that was a double-edged sword. She says, “The extensive grooming may be one reason why there aren’t as many new people getting into the breed today.”

The Maltese hasn’t dominated the game for awhile. It currently ranks 29th in registrations, down from 20th in 2009 but the contribution of those watershed dogs that emerged during those decades remains permanently embedded in its quality.

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Posted by on Jan 10 2015. Filed under Current Articles, Editorial, Featured. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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