Domestic dogs descended over millennia in various parts of the world from wolves, and the relationship of some purebreds with their ancient ancestors is easy to recognize even today. What’s less obvious is the pedigree that connects the wildest of canines to the little white dogs that have inhabited various islands around the world for centuries. Of these coated breeds, the oldest known – and arguably one of the most glamorous creatures on Earth – is “Ye ancient dogge of Malta.”

According to the American Kennel Club’s history of the breed, the Maltese has existed on its island home for more than 28 centuries. Although the precise origin of the breed is unknown, recorded references to dogs from Malta were made before the Christian era.

In Country Life Book of Dogs, published in 1963 by Country Life Limited in London, author S.M. Lampson writes, “The Maltese is undoubtedly the oldest of all Toy varieties of dog. The dogs of Malta or Canis Melitaei attracted the attention of Strabo (born 64 B.C.), who wrote they ‘are not bigger than common ferrets or weasels; yet they are not small in common understanding nor unstable in their love.’”

The Maltese’s small size, pretty appearance and uncommon refinement made the breed ideally suited to life as companion to royal ladies the world over. Seafaring traders took the little dogs with them on their journeys abroad, perhaps offering them as a token of good will or in exchange for goods and services. Voyagers leaving Malta with little white dogs in tow eventually established colonies in far away places such as the Canary Islands and Madagascar.

The ancient Greeks and Romans so adored their little dogs that poems were written to celebrate their purity and gentleness. During the reign of Elizabeth I, the Maltese was mentioned in one of the earliest English language reference books on the dog. Physician and pioneering naturalist Dr. Johannes Caius mentioned the breed in De Canibus Britannicus (of Englishe Dogges, the Diversities, the Names, the Natures, and the Properties), originally published in Latin in 1536. Under the heading “Spaniel Gentle or Comforters,” Cauis writes, “There is another sort of gentle dogges in our Englishe style…the dogges of this sort does Callimachus call Mellitaeis of the island Melita.’”

European royal houses opened their doors to the elegant Maltese during the 13th century when the breed’s likeness began to appear on ceramic art objects. The breed was welcomed into royal courts for the next several hundred years. Queen Victoria owned a Maltese whose likeness was captured by Sir Edwin Landseer in a portrait titled, “The Lion Dog from Malta—Last of his Tribe.”

In 1862, dog shows began to offer classes for the breed in England, and a Maltese Lion Dog is listed in the 1877 catalog of the Westminster Kennel Club dog show. The Maltese’s unmistakable refinement granted it entrée into the homes of wealthy Americans, and in 1888 the breed was accepted into the AKC Toy Group.

The Maltese remains a loyal companion of unmistakable elegance. Faithful and spirited, with an overabundance of charm, the breed ranked 25th in 2012 of the 175 AKC-recognized breeds.

The Maltese is a stylish companion with silky white hair, black pigmentation and an affectionate – yet fearless – disposition. Photo by Dan Sayers.

Silky White from Head to Foot

“The Maltese is a Toy dog covered from head to foot with a mantle of long, silky, white hair,” according to the General Appearance section of the AKC breed standard. The breed’s single drop coat is unquestionably its most conspicuous physical feature and unlike that of any breed of similar conformation.

Long hair grows on all parts of the Maltese, “from head to foot.” On the sides of the body, it “hangs long, flat and silky” and descends “almost, if not quite, to the ground.” It is this floor-length, pearly white gown that causes observers of the breed to gasp with delight.

On the head, the hair “may be tied up in a topknot or it may be left hanging,” as directed by the standard. Most exhibitors today use a pair of black bows to do the job, accenting the breed’s absolutely black pigmentation and enhancing its “gentle yet alert” expression.

The breed’s drop ears are heavily coated, and the hair hangs close to the head. The legs are “nicely feathered” with the “scraggly hairs” trimmed to neaten the appearance of the feet. A curved tail with a tip that lies “to the side over the quarter” is naturally and luxuriously plumed with long hair.

The Maltese coat is “pure white” in color, although “light tan or lemon on the ears is permissible, but not desirable.” In Lampson’s book, mention is made of the breed’s more colorful past. “Although one expects a Maltese to be a white dog, and would be surprised if it were otherwise, any self-colour is acceptable according to the English standard of points.” Of course, only white dogs are acceptable in the breed throughout the world today.

Diminutive, Without Fear

The Maltese is a dog of gentle manners with an affectionate and eager nature. According to the American Maltese Association, “It would be really difficult to find a more charming breed than the Maltese. Their intelligence and outgoing personality make them a joy to own, and their beauty attracts many admirers. Although the Maltese is a Toy dog, this small breed is full of delightful personality with a zest for life.”

According to the AKC breed standard, “For all his diminutive size, the Maltese seems to be without fear,” with a maximum weight of 7 pounds (4 to 6 pounds preferred). As noted by Lampson, “Beneath his profusion of white and silky coat, he is a soundly built little dog well capable of enjoying exercise and fun.”

A gentle-mannered companion, the sweet and intelligent Maltese is trusting and affectionate, but nonetheless in possession of a bit of Terrier character. The ancient and elegant Toy didn’t get the nickname, “Lion Dog from Malta” for no good reason!

Jaunty, Flowing and Sprightly in Action

The AKC breed standard describes the movement of the Maltese as “jaunty, smooth, flowing” with a “sprightly” action. Underneath all that hair is a dog capable of considerable speed for its size.

The breed’s straight forelegs and moderately angled hind legs appear to move rapidly when viewed from the side. “In the stride, the forelegs reach straight and free from the shoulders, with elbows close,” according to the standard’s section on gait. Hind legs move in a straight line, and “cow hocks or any suggestion of hind leg toeing in or out” is considered a fault.

Vigorous is a word used to describe both the action as well as the temperament of the Maltese. From head to foot, the little dog exemplifies a kind of vitality that has allowed it to move effortlessly from its ancient island homeland into the homes of the rich and not so famous.