While its exact origin may be widely debated, strong evidence indicates an established presence of this tiny canine aristocrat throughout the Mediterranean Sea area well over 2,000 years ago. Charles Darwin, the “father of evolution theory,” even suggested that the Maltese may date back as far as 6,000 years!
Ancient Greek philosophers Aristotle (~370 BC) and Pliny the Elder (~50 AD) both made references to a small breed of dog that accurately reflect the physical characteristics of our present-day Maltese. And the Roman poet Martial (~70 AD) even published verses extolling the beauty and charm of Issa, the companion pet of his friend, Publius (the Roman Governor of Malta at the time), saying:
Issa is more frolicsome than
Issa is more pure than a white
Issa is more gentle than a
Issa is more precious than jewels
Lest the days that she see light should
snatch her from him forever,
Publius has had her picture painted.
This short verse captures the very essence of the Maltese—frolicsome, pure, gentle, and precious—a set of individual characteristics that meld collectively into a most amazing and captivating spirit.
Throughout time, the Maltese has been labeled with a variety of names. The most relevant and compelling of them is “the Comforter.” At many points in its history, the Maltese, due to its tender and nurturing demeanor, has been attributed with medicinal qualities—delivering relief and solace through its interaction with people suffering from both physical ailment and emotional distress. But I don’t have to look far back into history. Whenever I experience “a particularly bad day at the office,” upon returning home I sweep the most immediately accessible Maltese up into my arms—either an adult or a pup. Each manipulates one’s psyche in a different fashion, but they both do it equally well. I then settle into a reclining position on the sofa (a most familiar pose, just ask my wife) and let the magic begin.
With an adult Maltese there is a generally well-established routine. First, we enter into the Greeting Phase—that’s where the Maltese boisterously pounces onto my chest and gives me that “I am so glad to see you!” look; immediately followed by the “Where have you been all day?” stare. After a series of requisite “welcome home licks” we transition into the second phase of treatment—diagnosis. My pet cuddles down onto my lap and begins to gauge my condition. The most amazing aspect of this phase is how quickly and accurately the Maltese can make this assessment and settle into the most appropriate behavior dependent on my mood.
Finally, we transition into the treatment phase. Sensing that I am tired or ailing, my pet remains quite still and simply blesses me with a most adoring gaze, as if to say “I know you are feeling really lousy but I am here for you and you will be better soon.” And, invariably, I lose myself in those big, black, round, sensitive eyes and let Maltese magic erase the worry and woe.
Not unlike their human counterparts, you get a most dramatically different course of treatment from a Maltese puppy given a similar situation. The pup simply launches itself into your personal space with wild abandon—licking, rolling, rubbing, and battering your face and hands with its tiny front feet and wickedly wagging tail. While a puppy’s treatment method may be much less sophisticated than that of the adult Maltese, the results are equally predictable. The secret to Maltese puppy magic is in some kind of “spirit transference” or “puppy possession”—where the energy, passion, determination, and capricious playfulness exhibited by the pup simply take up residence in your mind, pushing all the ill humor away.
Aside from its therapeutic value, another characteristic that makes the Maltese a true companion animal is what I affectionately call “You will NEVER be alone again.” This is most particularly true in a single-human household. A Maltese bonds itself very strongly to its human and thrives on a strong emotional connection as well as a close physical connection. If you sit on the sofa, the Maltese expects to sit on the sofa, too (probably in your lap). If you troupe off to bed, don’t be surprised to find that your pet beat you to your bedroom. The laundry process, dishwashing, and cooking a meal are all activities that absolutely require close canine supervision. And, unless you close the door, a trip to the bathroom will never be a private one ever again.
Additionally, the slightest jingle of car keys in your hand will summon your pet immediately into prime position under your feet as you try to sneak outside to the car. Finally, a Maltese absolutely loves to go with you for a walk—but don’t be surprised if their perception of a walk is you doing the walking as they are gently cradled in your arms, watching the landscape pass.
In a multi-human household, Maltese will establish a pack-order among the human family members that it allows to share its domicile. If the Alpha human is available, then refer to the previous paragraph regarding a single-human household. If the Alpha human is away from home, then the Maltese expeditiously “promotes” the Beta human into the place of the Alpha human with similar results. I call this the “love the one you’re with” phenomena. The Maltese craves companionship so strongly that it will lavish attention and devotion equally as well onto the Beta human as it routinely does to the Alpha human—that is, until the Alpha human re-enters the domain.
There exists one knock on the Maltese with regard to it being a great companion animal. It appears that animal behaviorists offer the observation that this breed’s intelligence and ease of training are quite low on the overall scale relative to other breeds. I think that if you pose this comment as a question to any Maltese directly, they would offer that in being perfect in every way, why should they ever consider tolerating any sort of behavior modification. Besides, they reason, it is rather simple and much more proper to just train the human, instead.
Case-in-point, several years ago I was grooming “Bunny,” a petite female that we were actively showing at the time. I had set up a small grooming table next to the sofa in the den and was busy brushing out her long beautiful coat. As she had been outside playing, her hair had a few tangles and every time I discovered one with the brush she would conveniently reposition her body making it practically impossible for me to access that area of her coat. At a single moment in time, I had a firm grip on her side coat as she was pulling against me. In a dreadful instant, she pulled herself free and fell from the grooming table onto a hard ceramic tile floor—landing on her left shoulder. Before I could even move, she was already wailing.
Of course, I immediately got down on my knees next to her on the floor and she came willingly up into my arms. A quick trip to the vet revealed no broken bones—but she did have a serious amount of bruising on her shoulder. Bunny absolutely refused to put any weight on her front left leg that evening and there was no improvement the next morning. In fact, several days passed and I would return from work each evening guilt-ridden, only to have my pain reinforced by watching Bunny hobble on three legs to the front door to meet me—her left front leg suspended “uselessly” off the floor.
After a full week had passed with no appreciable improvement in Bunny, my anxiety level was “off the chart.” Because she was rehabilitating, we had stopped allowing Bunny to run on the back porch with our other Maltese. Finally, simply because she felt that Bunny needed fresh air, my wife (Angie) allowed Bunny to join her canine companions out on the back porch—closely monitoring the situation from inside the house.
When I came home from work that day, a “hobbled” Bunny was replaced by my wife meeting me at the front door. With a smile on her face and a twinkle in her eye, Angie asked me to follow her to the back of the house where I spied Bunny… and her “useless” guilt-wrenching front leg… leaping and running and chasing the other dogs with absolutely no apparent discomfort. It was a miracle! I was so relieved and so happy I was frozen in place—whispering thanks for answered prayers.
Casually, Angie opened the back patio door and all the dogs came storming into the house. Of course, I was intent on greeting one of them in particular—Bunny. As she came through the back door—running and jumping—she looked up, spied me standing just a few feet away, stopped dead-still in her tracks, raised her “injured” left paw up off the floor, and hobbled pitifully over to me so that I could carefully lift her up off of the ground into my arms—which I did.
There is no way of knowing exactly how long that little bitch had been “playing me.” But any time I see a reference by an animal behaviorist as to the limited intelligence level of this breed I simply smile, recall the lasting image of Bunny with her “injured leg” raised into the air, and realize that I know a secret about the Maltese that the experts may never figure out. That is, until and unless, they adopt the consummate canine companion—a Maltese.
(A version of this article appeared in the August 2012 edition of SHOWSIGHT.)
Are you looking for a Maltese puppy?
The best way to ensure a long and happy relationship with a purebred dog is to purchase one from a responsible breeder. Not sure where to begin finding a breeder? Contact the National Parent Club’s Breeder Referral person, which you can find on the AKC Breeder Referral Contacts page.
Want to help rescue and re-home a Maltese dog?
Did you know nearly every recognized AKC purebred has a dedicated rescue group? Find your new best friend on the AKC Rescue Network Listing.
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