The remarkable and little-known story of these coveted lap dogs reads like a canine soap opera. The Havanese is part of the family of the barbichon (later shortened to “bichon”) and it comes from the west Mediterranean region, developed throughout the Italian´s and Spanish´s coasts.
During colonial times, Spanish merchants took them to Cuba as priced gifts. The story goes that, during the Spanish Empire, Bichons traveled to Cuba with sea captains who used them as presents for the women of the Cuban households. By gaining entry into wealthy Hispanic homes, which were otherwise closed to outsiders, the captains were able to establish lucrative trading relationships with the rich Cuban families.
Once in Cuba, the Havanese lived exclusively in the mansions of the highest social class of people. Havanese were never raised commercially or sold, but were sometimes given as precious gifts to a friend. Like the Victorian-age wealthy Hispanic women who owned them, the dogs were not seen in the streets or public areas. They lived in the rooms and the interior courtyards of their tropical homes and occasionally rode in carriages through the Malecón with their owners.
This little dog started being called “Habanero”, “Blanquito de la Habana” (Little white dog from Habana) or the Havana Silky Dog. Afterwards, some of them were taken back to Europe, where they became both the dogs of the elite, as well as performers in circuses, due do their ability to learn and their natural clownishness.
During the 19th Century, as part of a growing commercial interchange with Europe, and Cuba´s popularity, European immigrants –French, Belgian, Germans- start arriving in the Island with their dogs, the popular Poodle.
This is an important moment in the breed´s development. When the Blanquito de la Habana and the Poodle crossed, a new breed was born: the Bichón Habanero (Havanese) as we know them: a dog with coat of different colors and a size a bit bigger than the original Blanquito.
Carrier of the best of both breeds, the Havanese starts to consolidate with the traits that distinguish them, making them unique.
The Havanese found its way to Europe where it became very popular and was recognized by the European Kennel Club. Queen Anne is said to have admired a troupe of performing dogs that danced to music in almost human fashion.
But, as happened to many other dog breeds, the Havanese popularity as pets waned and their stronghold remain in the circus, where they performed throughout Europe as trick dogs. Eventually, the breed declined in numbers to such an extent that it was almost extinct not only in Europe, but also in its native Cuba. However, some families did keep them as their beloved companions. The success of the Cuban Revolution could have marked the end of this breed, regarded in Cuba as the pets of the wealthy.
However, from what it´s known, three families left the Island during the political turmoil of the 1950´s and 1960´s with their Havanese. These families worked alone in Florida and Costa Rica for over a decade to preserve the breed. In the beginning of the 70´s, after raising Irish Wolfhounds and Soft Coated Wheaten Terriers for many years, Dorothy and Bert Goodale –an American couple from Colorado- began looking for a small breed to raise, with the calm temperament and intelligence they cherished in the larger breeds they loved.
Mrs. Goodale saw a picture of a Havanese in a magazine and sets herself to find these dogs. After a few years of investigation, however, they only had elusive references to the Havanese, but no one knew where they could obtain them. In 1973, by sheer coincidence, Mrs. Goodale saw an ad in a magazine which resulted in the purchase of six pedigreed Havanese: a mother, four daughters, and an unrelated young male.
Absolutely enchanted by the outgoing, intelligent, and affectionate nature of the breed, the endeavored to locate more of the little exiles. Mrs. Goodale place ads in Latin papers in Miami, offering to purchase Havanese. After several months, she had received only one response. A Florida man wrote to say that a friend of his, Mr. Ezequiel Barba, who lived in Costa Rica, had five Havanese, and that he was willing to sell them because he had to move to Texas to live with his daughter. The Goodales made all the arrangements to purchase the five dogs. These group had the same characteristics as her firs ones and, using the 1963 FCI Breed Standard, Mrs. Goodale began a breeding program to prevent the extinction of the breed.
In 1996, the first Havanese makes its debut in a show organized by the American Kennel Club and, in 2000, with their springy and happy gait, they make their Westminster debut in the Toy Category. Best of Breed went to none other than Starkette Cookies'n Cream. What a perfect way to make an entrance!
But, what happened with the Havanese in their native Cuba? Notwithstanding the fact that the FCI had approved a breed standard in 1963, it is not until 1987, when the Federación Cinológica de Cuba (Cuban Kennel Club) is created, that a true interest for the national breed is reborn.
In 1991, the Club Cubano del Bichón Habanero (Havanese Club of Cuba) is created and, since its inception, its members have worked tirelessly to rescue the breed. With a foundation stock of 15 dogs, the Club is closely supervising their breeding program.
Today, many of their offspring have graced show rings around the world, where they have obtained their championships.
Even though the Havanese is still considered an exotic breed and they are not that easy to find, this little dog has begun to gain great popularity in the United States, Canada and Europe. You just need to watch them walk happily in Westminster in New York, Crufts in England or in any other ring in the world and you want to find out more about them. Then you start investigating, you read, watch their cute faces and the amazing colors in pictures and you start to fall in love. You meet your first Havanese, you hold them, they make you smile, and your life will never be the same.
Bibliography: Encyclopedia of Dog Breeds; the Complete Dog Book (AKC); Your Purebred Puppy, a Buyer´s guide, Michele Welton; Bichon Havanese, Zoila Portuondo-Guerra y “Havanese, the Complete and Reliable handbook”, de Dorothy Goodale, amongst others..
Note: Some of the addresses mentioned in the LINKS have great accounts of the breed's history. Don´t forget to check them out!