Maltese Breed Standard: A Timeless Picture In Words

It’s time to enter the show ring, but the judge is standing at the table intently reading the Maltese breed standard. To me, that’s as impressive as a Maltese breeder who keeps the breed standard with them all the time and breeds to it faithfully. The standard is not a recipe where substitutions can be added to get the same result. We’re not trying to create a new Maltese dog. We are trying to preserve an ancient breed that has been around for over 2,500 years. We expect show judges to know our breed standard and follow it to the letter and we, as breeders, should expect the same from ourselves.

I take lots of trips down Memory Lane, watching vintage videos and searching through old magazines. Sometimes I find myself so lost in what was, I can almost touch the Maltese from generations ago. I admire how closely the Maltese of decades ago fit the breed standard so much more closely—and many of them could win today. The classic moderate head, the balance and soundness of structure and movement would all be as beautiful to see in the ring today as it was in the old days. Even coat texture and color were more honest before we started bleaching and flat ironing for the show ring.

I miss the Maltese I knew and admired from those days. You may think I’m speaking of the biggest winners (and I do remember many of those fondly), but it is the general population that has changed so much in the last few decades. Have we, as breeders, taken license to deviate from the standard to the point of ill health for our breed? Have we, as breeders, caved-in to the pet market and ignored the standard? Or have we decided the standard leaves enough room for interpretation that we can take liberties? The answer I give is the best advice I’ve been given from a breeding mentor: “Breed to the standard. Don’t try to improve it. Respect it.”

Like some other breeds, it is the head of the Maltese that has been most affected by fad, fashion, pet owner preferences, and deviation from the breed standard. The consequences of changing skull shape are complicated and can
be devastating.

The Toy breeds were built using forms of dwarfism. Ateliotic pituitary dwarfism is a deficiency in somatropin, which results in stunted growth of all somatic cells in the body. This is the form of dwarfism that miniaturizes all parts. The two other types you will recognize are achondroplasia, which shortens the legs, lengthens body and gives a larger head, and brachycephalic achondroplasia, which shortens the head by shortening the mid-face and upper jaw. If either of the last two types of dwarfism are present in the Maltese, we have some major problems. All forms have side effects and they are all serious ones. The answers for our biggest health problem, a neurological disease called MUE (by necropsy can be diagnosed as GME), have yet to be discovered; there is a research project being conducted by Dr. Renee Barber at the University of Georgia (contact: It is impossible to contemplate neurological disorders without considering the effects of skull shape.

We’re all aware of the neurological disorders Maltese face today. Head shape has an enormous effect on neurological disorders. The breed standard specifically describes the skull as slightly rounded on top, the stop moderate, the eyes set not too far apart, the muzzle is of medium length, fine and tapered but not snipy. We cannot have healthy Maltese dogs without a healthy skull shape. As important as structure, the head is the neurological control center of healthy life. It is in our breed’s best interest for us all to understand that the head described in the breed standard is not to be reinvented or changed in any way. We can play around with our interpretations of silky pure white hair or how high the arch of the tail is with its tip lying to the side over the quarter. We can breed for ultra pigment with eye halos as our preference. We can prefer the smaller side of the standard or the larger end. None of these areas of interpretation affect the health of
our breed.

There is so much to consider when we take on the responsibility of being breeders, but our first responsibility is to our breed standard. Always let the breed standard lead you forward. This is where we will find health and type.

Photo: Courtesy of The American Kennel Club

  • Pat Bullard is a retired ballet teacher, songwriter, music publisher, PR and advertising executive and private foundation manager who lives in Nashville, Tennessee and has been breeding and showing Maltese dogs since the early 1980s. Originally from South Hill, Virginia, Pat has made her home in Nashville, Tennessee since the mid 1970s. Says Pat, "My breed has always been Maltese and, like many others, my first was a pet. I purchased my first show puppy in the early 1980s when I was also a young mother with a new ballet school and a founding board member of The Nashville Ballet. Like a dream, that puppy became a top special for several years and I was hooked. My second show Maltese was a top winning Maltese bitch and she knocked my socks off when she won a group two placement at Westminster in 1989. Surprisingly, breeding was not first and foremost on my mind. Passion and patronage came first for me. Looking back, I think it was for the best I spent my early years studying, researching and learning. The very few litters I bred in the early years did produce champions and one group placing special. In 1991 a tragic car accident slowed my dog show career down to a crawl. I only finished a few Maltese during these years and focused on healing. I threw myself into the other areas of my life: gardening, writing, music publishing and PR while my children grew up. But, I don’t give up easily and the best was yet to come. My beginnings in the 1980s was a fortuitous time filled with dogs and breeders whose influences are still resonating in the Maltese breed. Among them were Glynnette Cass, Bill Cunningham, Miriam Thompson, Mary Day, Kathy DiGiacomo, Daryl Martin, Michelle Perlmutter, Carol Frances Andersen, Elyse Fisher, Barbara Bergquist, Frank Oberstar and Larry Ward. These are the people who formed my goals as a breeder. One piece of advice I still carry with me with each litter I plan came from Miriam Thompson who told me, “Always breed forward”. The other piece of advice I also ALWAYS follow comes from my “non dog show” husband, George, who continually tells me, “We don’t farm dogs”. Every litter produced at our house has to be WELL planned and full of enormous hope.

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