History and Origin of the Maltese Dog

Original artwork: Pet Notes, Arizona Creative Designs
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The Maltese is one of the oldest known pet dogs. Known as "Ye Ancient Doggie of Malta," the Maltese breed has a history that traces back at least 28 centuries! -- making this lively and playful companion an aristocrat of the canine world. Descended from a Spitz-like dog which was bred for hunting rodents in the marsh and wooded areas, art objects adorned with his image, pre-dating Christ, have survived to this day. Although the exact origins of the breed are still debated today, the fact remains that Darwin himself, the father of the theory of evolution, placed it at about 6,000 B.C. -- over 8,000 years ago!

The Beginnings

Although there is some evidence that the breed originated in Asia, Maltese are generally associated with the Isle of Malta, a tiny island off the coast of Italy. The dogs probably made their way to Europe through the Middle East with the migration of the nomadic tribes. The Isle of Malta (or Melitae as it was known then) was a geographic center of early trade, and explorers undoubtedly found ancestors of the tiny, white dogs left there as barter for necessities and supplies. The ancient Europeans long held the belief that the small dogs came from one of the small islands off the coast of Sicily, and called them "canis Melitae." The Maltese is one of the few known breeds to have retained its name from its origins.

As the Maltese was developed using miniature spaniel and poodle blood, and was primarily bred as a hunting dog, they were much larger in size than their present-day counterpart. When the smaller-sized Maltese began to gain ground in popularity, early breeders would often confine their breeding stock in pens too small for them to even turn around, so as to promote a smaller progeny.

As civilization rose in Europe, references are seen to the tiny, white dog. An indirect reference by Aristotle about the Maltese clearly indicates its co-existence along with other varieties of dogs indigenous to Southern Europe. Aristotle refers to the small dogs as "canis Melitae . . . of the tiny sort, being perfectly proportioned, not withstanding its very small rise." During these times, the Maltese was a favorite lap dog of fashionable men and women about town, being carried wherever their masters went. Roman women carried them in the sleeves of their garments, and took them to bed with them. (A trait passed down, no doubt, since most Maltese want to sleep with their owners!) There are many drawings in existence portraying small, long-haired dogs on pieces of Greek and Roman pottery. In addition to the writings of Aristotle, there are mentions of Maltese in the writings of Timon, callimachus, Aelian, Artimidorus, Epaminodus, Martial, Strabo, Pliny the Elder, and Saint Clement of Alexandria.

Roman Emperor Claudius owned a Maltese, and Rome's Governor of Malta, Publius, owned a Maltese named "Issa," who meant more to him than any other living thing. The story of Issa is recorded by a poet of the times named Marcus Martialis, who says:

"Issa is more frolicsome than catulia's canary.
Issa is more pure than a white dove's kiss.
Issa is more gentle than a virgin maiden.
Issa is more precious than jewels for India.
Lest the days that she see light should snatch her from him forever,
Publius has had her picture painted."

It is said that the picture of the dog is so life-like, one cannot tell the dog from the picture.

Egyptian Worship

Making their way to Egypt, the ancient Egyptians and Eastern Potentates kept Maltese for the ladies in the harems. At one time, Maltese were regarded as being possessed of curative powers: one placed his dog on his pillow to be restored to health. Because of this practice, and the dog's warm, affectionate nature and small size (which made it easy to hold in one's arms or lap), the Maltese became known as "The Comforter." The earliest known representations of Maltese dogs on artifacts found at Fayum, Egypt (600-300 B.C.), suggest that the Maltese was one of the dogs worshipped by the ancient Egyptians.

England and the Laps of Queens

Maltese were first imported into Britain during the reign of Henry VIII. They were certainly favorites in the time of Queen Elizabeth I, and were eagerly accepted by the British aristocracy. British Queens would serve the most choicest of foods from golden vessels to their Maltese pets. The cleanliness and dignified bearing of the modern-day Maltese stems from the fact that for centuries, they were the "lap dogs" of the people of culture and wealth.

Maltese dogs appear in British literature and they have been immortalized by famous British artists. Queen Elizabeth's personal physician, Dr. Johannus Caius, one of the most respected and frequently-quoted canine historian of all time, comments about the Maltese:

"There is among us another kind of high bred dog...That kind is very small indeed, and chiefly sought after for the pleasure and amusement of women. The smaller the kind, the more pleasing it is, so that they carry them in their bosoms, in their beds, and in their arms while in their carriages."

By the middle of the 19th century, the breed was well established as a pet dog in Britain, and when dog shows began, the Maltese were featured among the early exhibits. Many of the Maltese in the U.S. today trace their heritage back to English imports.

The Maltese in the U.S.

Maltese were first seen in the United States in the late 1800's, and were participants in the earliest versions of the Westminster Kennel Club shows in the 1870's. There were periods when a tan or mottled-color Maltese was highly regarded. In fact, the first Maltese registered in America was born in 1873 and was white with black ears. However, as a sign of things to come, the first Maltese exhibited in America was "solid white" (as are all of the members of the breed today). Registrations with the American Kennel Club studbook in that time frame were made on the basis of show winnings. The first registrations of Maltese show winners appeared in 1888. Where the Maltese in the U.S. were imported from is not known; however, what is known is that the Maltese lines in the U.S. today have resulted from the importation of Maltese from Great Britain, Canada, Germany, France, and Italy. From their first appearance through the 1950's, the numbers of Maltese registered with the AKC grew very slowly. However, since then, the breed's popularity has increased dramatically among breeders, fanciers, and pet owners. In the 1990's, the breed ranked in the top 15 of all breeds, with more than 12,000 Maltese registered annually! Maltese are one of the most popular breeds among spectators at dog shows, and are frequent winners of the Toy Group and have an excellent record in the "Best in Show" competition.

The Maltese Today

Through time, the Maltese has been labeled with many names -- as the "Melitae Dog," as "Ye Ancient Dogge of Malta," as the "Roman Ladies Dog," as well as being called "The Comforter," the "Spaniel Gentle," and the "Bichon" (not to be confused with the Bichon Frise, which may also have been developed partly from the Maltese). The breed has also been known as "The Shock Dog," the "Maltese Lion Dog," and more recently as the "Maltese Terrier" before it simply became shortened to the "Maltese." Its primary make-up is of Spitz or Spaniel origins (as opposed to Terrier).

From relatively obscure beginnings, the long history of the Maltese has followed a storied path -- through prominence in the early cultures of Greece, Rome, and Egypt, through its station in the Royal houses of mainland Europe and Great Britain through the Renaissance, and into the present world, where it is known as "the aristocrat of the canine world."

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