Cubans hold that their little dogs were first brought to shore by sea captains who raised them aboard ship and used them as presents to the women of the household, gaining entry to wealthy Hispanic homes otherwise closed to outsiders. Eventually the captain would be able to arrange lucrative trading with the men of that port. The captains of different vessels traded dogs with each other so that they could return to each port with a variety of coat colors to delight the families. They must have done this extensively, because modern Havanese carry every color and nearly every variant of markings seen in dogs! There are many creamy whites, often with pale champagne markings on the ears and back, many solid blacks or blacks trimmed with white on face, chest, or toes, some silvers, sables, fauns, apricots, golds, champagne, and blues, tangerine, or pure white. All of these coats are accompanied by a black nose; but there are also chocolate coats on Havanese with brown noses. That just covered the basically solid, one-color coats, but there are also particolor combinations of color-in-patches on purest white coats (like a long-haired pinto horse would look), particolor coats with the tricolor pattern overlay of silver or faun (similar to some Border Collies), and regular tan-pointed patterns on a solid coat (as seen in the short-fur version on a black Doberman). If all this wasn’t enough, many of the deeper colors fade with age to lovely silvers or creams, sometimes leaving black tipping on ears or elsewhere.
In old Cuba these delightful dogs, Bichon Habaneros, lived exclusively in the mansions of the highest social class. This breed was never raised commercially or sold, but dogs were given occasionally as precious gifts to a friend or someone who had performed a valuable service. Like the Victorian-age wealthy Hispanic women who owned them, these dogs were not seen in the streets or public places; they lived in the rooms or interior courtyards of their tropical homes and occasionally rode in carriage. These dogs were also called the “Havana Silk Dog” because of their profuse soft coats. Only 3 families were known to leave Cuba with their dogs during the turmoil around 1960. These few exiles worked alone in Costa Rica and the USA for over a decade to preserve this breed.
After raising Irish Wolfhounds and Soft-Coated Irish Wheaten Terriers for many years, Dorothy and Bert Goodale of Colorado began looking in the early 1970’s for a small breed to raise which would have the calm temperament and intelligence they cherished in the larger breeds. After a few years of investigation, elusive references to the “Havanese” had their attention, but no one knew how they might obtain some. They chanced across an advertisement which resulted in the purchase of 6 pedigreed Havanese. With this start, the Goodales advertised in Miami’s Spanish-language papers. After months without any response, an elderly Cuban man who needed to move from Costa Rica to Texas arranged, through an intermediary, to entrust his youngest five Havanese to the Goodales. This second group had the same look and gentle temperament as the first! All these dogs, as adults, averaged around 10 pounds and stood about 9-10 inches tall at the front shoulder. Using the 1963 F.C.I. Breed standard (the only Standard available) and her years of breeding knowledge, Dorothy carefully began a breeding program to prevent the possible extinction of this breed.
Since many fleeing people expected to return in a few months, much-loved dogs may have been left in the care of a friend, a trusted maid or gardener; but not until 1991 were we sure these dogs still existed in Cuba! Then the new Havanese Bichon Club of Cuba contacted us in 1992; these people are working to determine the “purebred” status of indigenous dogs as a start to preserving this breed and its unique contribution to the Cuban cultural heritage.