Sandton sheep, a school friend used to call them. They were everywhere, behind every security gate, in every flat and on every lap. Even if you couldn’t see them, you could hear them. They were the emblematic animal of the Joburg suburbs. If we were going to redesign the city’s coat of arms back in the late 1980s, it would have needed a stoepkakkertjie, a hadeda and a BMW 3 series cabriolet, the boxy one. Preferably in red.
For every tannie and every kugel who loved Maltese poodles, there were plenty of others who hated them, of course. I heard lots of jokes about 101 uses for a dead Maltese poodle. People would see the dog-killing scenes in A Fish Called Wanda and imagine that happening in Sandown instead of London. They helped turn Parkhurst into Barkhurst long before it became trendy to sit at Espresso with your Weimeraner under the table, its leash tangled around your legs.
So where have all the Maltese poodles gone? I hardly see them these days. (“Woolies range of winter slippers?” suggested one wag on Twitter.) In the park where I walk, there are all sorts of breeds: pointers, German pointers, Great Danes, Australian shepherds, Labradors. But no Maltese poodles. They were never a breed, of course, and though they were white and woolly, they weren’t remotely related to the real Maltese, which dates back to the Romans. They were simply a collection of pavement specials that had evolved in the South African landscape into a specific type, like Watsonia vanderspuyiae or the orange-throated Longclaw.
My grandmother had a pair of them for fifteen years. When she first got them as puppies, she wanted to name one after the man who gave them to her. Gary had installed the garden’s irrigation system. “Name the other one Wayne,” my mother suggested facetiously. So my grandmother named them James and Simon. They were her constant companions, accompanying her on all her holidays; they were veterans of the flight to Plett. They especially loved going on game drives (my grandmother would have to hide them under the seat when the game guide spotted lions. Heaven knows what other visitors who encountered her must have thought).
Like anything else, dogs are subject to fashion. Presumably Maltese poodles have gone the way of the peasant blouse and the gypsy skirt. A list of the ten most popular dog breeds in South Africa offers some clues. At the top is the Yorkshire Terrier, followed by the Labrador, Bulldog, Golden Retriever and Bull Terrier. Four of the breeds are lapdogs, the Yorkie, the Miniature Schauzer (6th), the Pomeranian (7th) and the Chihuahua (10th). (Only one breed, the Rottweiler (9th) is used as a guard dog, suggesting that security is not the primary driver of breed selection.)
Of course, Maltese poodles wouldn’t appear on that list because they’re not a recognised breed. Still, small dogs are clearly still popular. Perhaps we’ve become breed snobs, electing to go for pedigreed companions rather than our tried and trusted South African specialty. (In contrast to the US, for example, where hybrids like the Labradoodle are popular.) Perhaps there needs to be a Proudly South African Maltese poodle revival. Along with Pratley Putty and the Kreepy Krauly, it would be our gift to the world.