The history of the Coton de Tulear can be described as mysterious, intriguing, exotic and romantic. Their adventuresome past certainly has led them around the world charming all those they meet. Although they are new to the modern dog world they're considered an ancient breed with origins possibly in Central Asia. This little white dog possibly made it's way from central Asia on trade caravans ending up in the Mediterranean Sea area. There is mention of small white dogs in the time of Aristotle who graced the elegant courts.
These white dogs were popular companions with Roman aristocracy who called them "table dogs". This little white dog was known as the "Meletei". This name may have come from the Sicilian town of Melita. This fluffy white dog was also found on the island of Malta where they became known as the modern day Maltese. As the Roman Empire fell the Meletei was mated with another popular breed, the Barbet. The ancient Barbet was a curly haired medium sized dog thought to be the ancestor of breeds including the Poodle, Portuguese Water dog and other water loving breeds. Breeding the Meletei and Barbet together gave rise to the "Barbichon" family of dogs which included the Bichon Maltais, Bichon Havanais, Bichon Bolognese and the Bichon Teneriffe. The modern day breeds in the Bichon family are Maltese, Bichon Frise, Bolognese, Havanese, Coton de Tulear and the Lowchien.
Barbichons traveled the Mediterranean aboard trade ships. At various ports the little white dogs disembarked possibly mating with other local dogs. This created a slightly different characteristic with each breed. All seemed to attract the attention of nobility and aristocracy who pampered the little dogs. Days at sea were not exciting for sailors or the women traveling with them. The little white dogs were wonderful entertaining companions and also helped control the rodent population on the vessels. The Barbichon was brought to the Tenerife in the Canary islands by Spanish sailors and was later referred to as the Bichon Tenerife, now extinct.They are the ancestor to the Bichon Frise and Coton de Tulear. The Bichon Frise was later brought to France where they became extremely popular in the courts of French nobility.
How Cotons became known
Some time during the 17th century these cute wild dogs with the cotton-like coats attracted the attention of the native Merina tribe whereby they became the favorite pets of the tribal monarchy. The little Cotons were often given as gifts to please and impress the Merina nobility. They became known as the "Royal Dog of Madagascar". A proud name they retain today and were honored in 1974 by having a stamp made proclaiming them the "Royal Dog of Madagascar". These cute little feral dogs became domesticated more and more as their popularity rose.
The French began colonizing the island as the spice routes to India and the middle east were developed. By the late 17th century the French were established on the southeast side of the island at Fort Dauphin. In the 17th century France claimed the island and many the French aristocracy arrived to lead an idyllic life in paradise.
In 1658 there was recorded evidence of little white dogs in the book "History of the great Isle of Madagascar" written by the regional Governor Etienne de Flacourt. He wrote, "there are a quantity of dogs, which are small, have a long nose and short legs like foxes. There are those who are white. They are caused by dogs who have come from France who remained. They have short ears." The French living on Madagascar inevitably fell in love with the charming personality of the Cotons as well as finding them beautiful, intelligent and loyal. It became unlawful for commoners to have Cotons as they were considered a privilege amongst the nobility.
It is possible the French were the first to begin selectively breeding the Coton. They would breed the Cotons for their own enjoyment and companionship. It is totally possible when returning to France they took their little white companions with them to enjoy and share. We do know they were a very popular status symbol. There are those who believe selective breeding of the Coton really began as late as World War II. French soldiers were trapped on Madagascar afraid of being caught or killed by the Germans. These soldiers had little to occupy their time. It's is said these soldiers participated in selectively breeding the "Cotons" to other existing breeds such as the Maltese, Papillon, Bedlington Terrier and other native dogs. Thus they ended up with a white dog with long straight hair and a wonderful temperament.
By the 1960's tourism between France and Madagascar increased as Madagascar had attained their independence from the French. The little dogs arrived in France at Orly airport with airline personnel, tourists and diplomats who fell in love with the little dogs while vacationing on Madagascar. The European price for a Coton more than paid for the trip. This exposed the little Cotons to a whole new world. People became enchanted with their sweet but spunky personalities and lovely cotton coats.