Four hundred years of isolation in Cuba led to the development of a charming little dog favored by the privileged families of this colonial island nation. Known originally as the Havana Silk Dog, the Havanese is one of several small, companionable breeds in the Bichon family that found its way from the Mediterranean Sea to the four corners of the known world.

Blessed with the spirited personality characteristic of the Caribbean people, the Havanese was developed in and around the Cuban city of La Habana. According to the Havanese Club of America Spain’s colonization of the island in 1492 brought European dogs to the New World. “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 [home to Cuba’s original immigrant farmers], common ancestor to all the Bichon family.”

Seagoing vessels departing from Mediterranean ports often carried “Bichon Maltese” to present as gifts. The Bichon Frisé, Bolognese, Löwchen and Coton de Tulear likely originate from these dogs. In Cuba, they developed to become the breed known today as the Havanese.

Colonial Cuba became a destination for Europe’s aristocracy and, according to the AKC parent club, visitors occasionally returned to the continent with small dogs in hand. In the courts of Spain and France, they were “shorn in the manner of Poodles,” whereas in England they appear to have been kept au naturel.

In Britain, the Havanese was called “the white Cuban,” although the HCA indicates that both parti-colors and shades of fawn were not uncommon. Queen Victoria is said to have owned two, and Charles Dickens had one, “beloved of his seven children and named Tim.” Havana Silk Dogs were exhibited at 18th-century dog shows throughout Europe.

As the economy of Cuba moved away from sugar plantations and into the hands of a wealthy middle class, Havana’s little dog assumed the role of a stylish and affable family companion.

“With the advent of the Cuban revolution, the class of Cubans who owned Havanese was the first to leave,” as noted by the HCA. “A handful of them found their way to this country, and by the end of the ‘70s a gene pool was being rebuilt. All the Havanese in the world today, save those from the ‘iron curtain’ countries and those remaining in Cuba, stem from those 11 little immigrants.”

“An Illustrated Guide: The Havanese,” produced by the AKC with the cooperation of the HCA, credits ex-patriots with saving the breed. “Three families are known to have fled Cuba to foreign shores with their Havanese – the Perez and Fantasio families, who were the first Havanese breeders in the United States; and Señor Barba, a Cuban gentleman who was the first Havanese breeder in Costa Rica.”

The Fédération Cynologique Internationale (FCI) recognized the “Bichon Havanais” in its Companion and Toy Dog Group in 1963. In the U.S., recognition into the Companion Dogs Group was granted by the United Kennel Club, in 1991, and by the American Kennel Club in 1999 as a member of the Toy Group.

In 2012, registrations for the immensely charming Havanese place it 28th of the 175 AKC-recognized breeds.

Judge Frank Sabella awards Best of Breed at the Westminster Kennel Club dog show in 2000 to Ch. Starkette Cookies and Cream, handled by Joseph Vergnetti. All photos courtesy of Bo Bengtson.

A Straight, Rising Topline
The AKC breed standard for the Havanese describes several unique characteristics of temperament, coat, structure and gait that separate the breed from its Bichon cousins. Perhaps none is more unusual than the “straight topline that rises slightly from the withers to the croup.” No other purebred has quite the same silhouette.

The Havanese is moderately boned and presents a rectangular outline. As noted by the standard’s Size, Proportion and Substance section, “The height is slightly less than the length from the point of shoulder to point of buttocks.” Ideal height at the withers is between 9 and 10-1/2 inches for both sexes. One-half inch under and 1 inch over is acceptable, but adults measuring outside of this allowable range are to be disqualified, “except that the minimum height shall not apply to dogs or bitches under 12 months of age.”

“Correct size is an important consideration of breed type in the Havanese,” according to the illustrated guide.

The forequarters of the Havanese are straight, but with a “short” upper arm and moderate layback of shoulder, and the croup is “slightly higher than the withers,” as noted by the standard’s section on neck, topline and body. The illustrated guide emphasizes that the topline is “straight with very little rise over the croup.” Confusing? Perhaps, but the breed’s naturally “high-set” tail that “arches forward up over the back” suggests a rather flattened croup that provides that “straight” topline.

Ch. Los Perritos Fox of Camscott is pictured winning Best of Breed at Westminster in 2001 under judge W. Everett Dean. Photo by John Ashbey

A Unique Springy Gait
The Havanese is neither coarse nor fragile, but its unique construction – coupled with its playful personality – creates the breed’s “uniquely springy” movement.

According to the AKC breed standard’s section on gait, the Havanese’s action results from “the short upper arm combined with the rear drive.” The front legs “reach forward freely matching the moderate extension in the rear.” This freedom of movement allows the pads of the feet to become visible both coming and going. This “flash of pad” in the front, while unusual, is regarded as correct for the breed.

The Havanese is a sturdy dog, despite its small size and unique construction. Its way-of-going reflects the breed’s robust makeup and displays no abnormalities of movement such as paddling in the front or moving too close in the rear. The breed should be presented at a natural speed on a loose lead in order to properly assess the characteristic gait.

On the move, a high carriage of both head and tail, and a rising topline that “holds under movement,” emphasize the characteristic springiness of the delightful and durable Havanese.

In 2002, Gilbert Kahn found his Westminster Best of Breed winner in Ch. Forsgate’s Margarita Rose. Photo by John Ashbey.

Light in Texture, Silky to the Touch
“The breed is deceptive in that it should have a sturdy body beneath the luxurious coat,” notes the illustrated guide. The Havanese’s solid construction is enhanced by one of the more lovely coats found in all of dogdom.

According to the AKC breed standard, both the undercoat and topcoat are “light in texture” and “silky to the touch,” with the outer coat carrying “slightly more weight.” Naturally abundant, the hair is long and wavy, standing off the body “slightly,” providing a soft, draping appearance, as well as insulating the dog from the elements.

The tropical climate of Cuba has influenced the evolution of the Havanese’s double coat. As noted by the AKC parent club, “The Havanese of today is still a remarkably heat-tolerant little dog, due in no small part to the unique coat.”

The breed’s double coat afforded protection from the often brutal Caribbean sunshine. The parent club describes its texture as “like raw silk floss, but extremely light and soft, and insulating against the tropical rays in much the same way that yards of silk sari protect women of India.” Such a wonderful analogy!

The Havanese is profusely coated. Single, flat, frizzy or curly coats “should be faulted,” according to the standard’s section on coat. A coarse wiry coat and a short, smooth coat with or without furnishings are to be disqualified.

“Havanese should be shown as naturally as is consistent with good grooming,” according to the standard’s section on presentation. They may be shown either brushed or in tassle-like cords that completely cover the adult dog. The coat should be clean and well conditioned, and, in a mature dog, its length “may cause it to fall to either side down the back, but it should not be deliberately parted.

In its native Cuba, the Havanese was “never clipped,” according to the HCA. The hair on the head was necessary to protect the eyes from the sun and was never tied up in a topknot.

“Head furnishings are long and untrimmed, and may fall forward over the eyes or to both sides of the head,” the standard notes. Two small braids are allowed, that start “above the inside corner of each eye and extend at least to the outside corner, forming the appearance of eyebrows.” Plain elastic bands may be used, however no other hair accessories are permitted.

According to the standard, “Trimming of the coat on the feet, between the pads and on the anal and genital areas “should not be noticeable on presentation.” Otherwise, trimming and sculpting of any kind is to be “so severely penalized as to preclude placement.

Despite its membership in the Bichon family, where white hair and black pigment are dominant, the Havanese is a cousin of color. All colors and patterns are given equal merit by the breed standard, and the skin may be of “any color.” Incomplete or a total lack of pigmentation of the eye rims, nose or lips disqualify.

The colorful and confident Havanese, beloved by sailors, aristocrats and exiles, remains a lively Latin playmate with a natural beauty and an affinity for la vida loca.