The Maltese has inspired artists since classical times. In 1954, a dancer and an artist, Aennchen and Tony Antonelli, founded one of the most influential bloodlines in Maltese history. “They were intelligent, artistic people, attracted to the Maltese because of its beauty,” says author, judge and noted Maltese breeder Vicki Abbott.
Tony studied art at the Regni Academia Di Belli Arte in Italy, and Aennchen taught dance and choreography until a debilitating back injury ended her career in 1953. Tony returned to school for his doctorate to become an art teacher. “Tony and Aennchen did everything together,” says Abbott. “That became a very depressing time for her.” To offset her loneliness, Tony presented her with a Maltese he found in a pet shop. “Caring for that little dog got her out of her depression and literally saved her life,” recalls Abbott.
They fell in love with the breed at a time when its popularity and quality were at a low point. Abbott explains that the Maltese standard, in effect since 1906, cited a maximum weight of 3 pounds (in 1964 it was revised to “under 7 pounds, 4-6 pounds preferred”). The breed was also decimated by distemper in the 1940s. European imports used to rebuild the gene pool were large, long and low.
The Antonellis had no doggy background at all, but they were intense and focused. They attended their first dog show, Westminster, in 1954; wrote to leading breeders and began studying bloodlines and pedigrees. Their foundation stock, two dogs and a bitch, came from Villa Malta and Jon Vir. They planned the breedings together. Tony did the matings and whelping, Aennchen trained and groomed the dogs, and her passion for ballet and oriental dance inspired the names of the Aennchen ‘Dancers.’
“They had a vision of what the ideal Maltese should be, and they carefully crafted a breeding program to create that,” says Abbott, who believes that their major achievement was refining the breed’s silhouette into a balanced, elegant, slightly rectangular dog. “They were the most influential Maltese breeders of the 20th century.”
Their foundation bitch, Aennchen’s Jon Vir Royal Gopi, was bred to top sire Am. Ber. Ch. Aennchen’s Raja Yogi. She produced Ch. Aennchen’s Puja Dancer MMA, dam of seven champions, including Am. Ber. Ch. Aennchen’s Siva Dancer MMA and the BIS winner Ch. Aennchen’s Shikar Dancer MMA. “Those two stud dogs they came up with were so influential,” says Abbott. “Aennchen breeding is in the pedigree of every Westminster Group-winning Maltese: Toy Dancer, Poona Dancer, Maya Dancer and my ‘Henry’ (Ch. Sand Island Small Kraft Lite, bred and owned by Carol Frances Andersen and handled by Vicki Abbott in 1992).”
The first was a Shikar Dancer daughter, Ch. Co Ca He’s Aennchen Toy Dancer, in 1964. She was number six Toy in 1963, and the first American Maltese Association specialty winner in 1966. That year, Am. Can. Ch Aennchen’s Poona Dancer, (pictured far left), a Siva Dancer daughter, co-owned and handled by Frank Oberstar, became the second Maltese to win the Group at Westminster. Retired in 1968, Poona Dancer’s career total included 38 BIS, 131 Groups and two national specialties. Another Siva Dancer daughter, Ch. Joanne-Chen’s Maya Dancer, bred by Joanne Hesse, owned by Joe and Mamie Gregory, and handled by Peggy Hogg, became the only two-time Westminster Group winner in 1972 and 1973. Her overall record included 43 BIS, 134 Groups and one national specialty.
Aennchen dogs did phenomenal winning and consistently reproduced their quality, but Abbott emphasizes that this wasn’t the only reason for their pervasive influence on the breed. “They parted with a lot of their better dogs and helped so many people get started because they truly cared about the progress of the breed. They were proud when an Aennchen dog won, no matter who owned or showed it.” Tony and Aennchen were also instrumental in the formation of the American Maltese Association in 1961, and Tony served as the AMA AKC delegate for many years.
In 1973, the Group-winning Ch. Aennchen’s Savar Dancer was the last Maltese that Aennchen handled before the debilitating effects of cancer made this impossible. She passed away in 1975. Abbott inherited Aennchen’s breeding records and notebooks and shared this excerpt: “Experience tells us that a knowledgeable breeder can stamp the characteristics of what he desires in a dog fairly accurately in three generations, certainly in five. Using an extreme measure of time that could be five years, and, if everything doesn’t go well, make that 10 years. What it takes is called commitment.” The Antonellis truly had that commitment.