History of the Rare Breed Coton de Tuléar®

by Kris Forke

The history of the Coton de Tuléar 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.

Map of Madagascar- history of the Coton de Tuléar

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 Tuléar 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 Tuléar. The Bichon Frise was later brought to France where they became extremely popular in the courts of French nobility.

In the 15th century sailors and possibly pirates brought the Bichon Tenerife to the islands of Mauritius and Reunion in the Indian Ocean via the Mozambique Channel. It is thought while on the island of Reunion the Bichon Tenerife either mated with local dogs or underwent a gene mutation which brought about a longer straighter cotton coat. These little dogs were called Coton de la Reunion. Madagascar was considered to be a bridge of connection between the continents of Asia and Africa and was a popular refueling stop for maritime trade. Having the Coton de la Reunion show up in Madagascar in the 16th century is not surprising. The Coton de Tuléar is thought to be descended from the Cotons on Reunion island. How the Cotons ended up in Madagascar is a mystery containing many legendary tales.

legends of Coton de Tuléar

One legend involves a ship wreck during a violent storm near the bay of Tulear on the Southwest side of Madagascar. It is said all the humans perished. But the little robust Cotons survived and were able to swim ashore after fighting off hungry sharks. Their light cotton coats perhaps making them more buoyant. Perhaps this is the most feasible explanation for the Cotons arrival on Madagascar since they were eventually named after the bay of Tulear.

Another legend also involves a shipwreck on the southeast side of Madagascar whereby the Cotons spread throughout the island after swimming ashore. Yet another possibility is Spanish and French sailors or pirates brought the Bichon Tenerife to Madagascar. In any case it is believed the Cotons mated with local dogs to create the modern day Coton de Tuléar. It is possible the little white dog mated with small dogs of color creating the color dilution gene unique to Cotons. Coton puppies born with color usually fade to white as they mature into adulthood.

The original Cotons on Madagascar were feral surviving by hunting and scavenging. One of their favorite meals was small wild boar native to Madagascar. They were able to adapt to the natural diverse and rugged conditions on the island. They lived in the rain forests and scrub of southern Madagascar near the sea and the port of Tulear. They had to survive arid conditions on the island as well as the Monsoons. The Cotons led a much different life than their pampered Bichon cousins in Europe. This brought about a strong constitution for survival, a keen intelligence, vigilance, adaptability, alertness. They also learned to live in packs increasing their odds of survival. It is possible the tropical climate of Madagascar influenced the coat developing into a light and airy cotton which was a natural air conditioning.

There is a wonderful legend illustrating the intelligence and spunk of the Coton de Tuléar. Crocodiles are native to Madagascar infesting rivers and streams. When Cotons needed to cross a river crocs presented a danger to be avoided. It is said the Cotons would find the narrowest crossing. There most of the pack would wait while the loudest Cotons found a wide area nearby. After reaching the wide area the loud Cotons began to bark causing a fuss. The noise attracted the crocodiles and lizards to that area, away from the other Cotons . The clever Cotons would run back to their friends waiting on the narrow bank where they could all safely cross while the crocs were busy with the lizards.

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.

Malagasy Coton de Tuléar stamp 1991

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.

Coton de Tuléar stamp

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.

Breed Recognition

As popularity of the Coton de Tuléar in Europe increased, in 1970 Monsieur Louis Petit, President of the Canine Society of Madagascar, submitted a request to the FCI (Fèdèration Cynologique Internationale) for breed recognition of the Coton de Tuléar. The original standard was developed and submitted but later revised in 1987, 1995 and 1999. The last revision is the current standard used today. Breeders kept no official documentation or pedigrees on the Cotons in Madagascar. The Cotons exported to Europe were given the initial TI (Titular Initiale) by their names indicating they were the original Cotons and no further information is known about their ancestry. Once the Malagasy were able to deport the Cotons with "purebred" papers, demand escalated which eventually depleted the Malagasy supply.

The Coton de Tuléar was an instant hit in Europe. Breeders began refining the breed to the standard by improving dental bites, pigment, structure, coat quality and color. Initially the Coton was diverse in size, color and structure. It was up to the breeders to develop a "type" that fit within the standard. It took generations of selective breeding to the standard in order to achieve the beautiful Coton we see today. The breeders achieved success in setting the Coton type and improving it's coat. In 1992 Monsieur Petit was invited to judge the Cotons in a dog show in France and was very astounded at the improvement of the Coton coats. No longer were they a straggly white. He found a much fuller, longer and fluffy Coton coat.

rare Coton de Tuléar stamp 1974

The French led the way when the CCCE (Chihuahua and Exotic Dogs) club recognized the Coton de Tuléar and began revising the standard. Europeans preferred a smaller white Coton and incorporated that into a new standard loosely based on Monsieur Petit's original standard. As Coton breeding expanded in the late 1970's the smaller white Cotons in Madagascar became more scarce. Because of that a slightly larger Coton with some color began arriving in Europe. The added color contributed to improving the Coton pigment which makes the face so cute and alert.

The Coton truly thrived in France where they have become one of the great breeds. People are attracted to the exotic legends of the Coton's romantic past. Plus their cute personalities are quick to charm their way into anyone's heart. By the 1980's most of the Cotons had been exported. The Malagasy realized they had failed to take the measures necessary to protect the Coton in their true homeland. The Malagasy felt the best quality dogs had left the country. In the late 1980's the Malagasy government began regulating the yearly number of "documented" Cotons who could leave the island. Each family could leave the island with a maximum of two Cotons per year. A total maximum yearly deportation of 200 Cotons. Once the maximum total was reached, no more Cotons could leave that year. The only way to legitimately obtain a Malagasy Coton was from the generosity of a Malagasy family. It was not an easy task for a family, therefore many didn't take the time to do the paperwork to obtain an official pedigree. You were considered very lucky to obtain a Coton from a giving Malagasy family.

However, regulating the Coton did nothing for the exportation of "non-pedigreed " Cotons and this had a detrimental affect on the breed. Madagascar is a very poor country, the cost of a Coton de Tuléar was equivalent to a 2-3 year annual salary for a Malagasy family. Thus the black market for Cotons was extremely attractive. This all led to the virtual disappearance of the Coton de Tuléar in their homeland of Madagascar. The demand in Europe was so high some had taken any small white dog out of Madagascar and called it a Coton. Or mated other breeds with the Coton producing a black market of mixed breeds. Some people were breeding any small white dog, passing it off as a Coton while collecting a Coton price for the dog. The French did want to help the plight of the Coton in their native land. In hopes of helping to replenish the Malagasy Coton stock, the French supplied them with 2 Cotons to be used for breeding. But because of the economic conditions on the island those attempts failed and no one seems to know what happened to those 2 French Cotons.

First Cotons

Coton de Tuléar James- foundation Coton

James was one of the original foundation stock males who appears in many of our pedigrees. James was abandoned in Madagascar and claimed by Monsieur and Madame Moreau of the French kennel Aiguevives. Helene Moreau was captivated by this male quickly falling in love with his sweet personality and handsome looks. He was the first Coton de Tuléar show champion in 1982 and went on to be the premier stud of the Moreau's. James was the Father of other famous studs including Hutchinson who became a premier stud of Woodland Cottage, Roi de Coeur d' Aigeuvives and Vanderling de la Draille des Cailloux. Okasaki Pong, another original foundation stock male, was traded on a beach in Madagascar for a bottle of whiskey. Okasaki sired litters in many of the original Coton kennels in Europe.

Some of the original French kennels are for the most part gone now but live on in our Coton pedigrees. Here are a few or the original Coton breeders: Des Tourtelles de Clessy, de Guitelione, de la Perle de l'Ocean Indien, Domaine de Manakarra, Valaury's Cottage, de la Fosse aux Renards, Diabolo Swing. From France the Coton spread through Europe with breeders in Scandinavia, Finland, Belgium, Holland, Germany and Switzerland.

Cotons in America

lemurs on Madagascar

In 1974 Dr Jay Russell was studying the lemurs in Madagascar and was the first to export Cotons to the USA. He and his Father lew were the first to breed the Coton de Tuléar in the United States under the kennel name of Oakshade. Their first litter was in 1976. Jiijy of Billy was the first Coton born in the US. Jay Russell is the founder of the CTCA and has written a Coton standard differing from the European FCI standard. Much of the CTCA breeding stock orginates with Cotons brought over from Madagascar.

The "European" Coton adhering to the FCI standard arrived in the US in 1977 with Jacques Sade who purchased his Cotons in France. His kennel was Plattekill which produced Cottonkist Macaroon, the first US Coton champion and premier US stud. In 1986 Monsieur Sade sold Macaroon to Kennette Tabor of kennel Cottonkist. It's not surprising the Coton found its way to French speaking Quebec Canada. Breeders had heard of this marvelous white dog from trips abroad and from family members. One of the major assets of the Coton is it's adaptability even in northern climates. Cotons love snow thus the Canadians knew they would thrive there. Monsieur Melville Landry imported the first French Coton to Quebec in 1989.

It has taken some time for North America to familiarize themselves with this magnificent breed. Increasing demand in North America began in the mid 1990's and continues to gain popularity in the 2000's. In 1995 there were 16 Coton breeders in the U.S. The Coton has come a long way in the 20+ years here in the US. Currently they seem to be very popular on both coasts but middle America is discovering the Coton more and more.

The history of the Coton de Tuléar is mysteriously enchanting. Unfortunately few facts are known but the legends and folklore associated with this cute white dog are compelling and intriguing. This all fosters the romance and allure these little creatures bring to our own lives. Once you are loved by a Coton you know their adventuresome past led them right to your heart.