A few breeds are able to supply a well-documented history that is difficult to challenge. Unfortunately, the history of todays Bichon Frise is not that definitive, but rather a composite of fact and fiction, legend and conjecture that often lacks specific dates and poetic descriptions by the literary giants of antiquity.
There is one fact, however, upon which all sources agree. In the past there was a small, coated dog, often white, an ancestor of which existed before Christ. From the original small dog a number of varieties evolved, brought about by the ongoing exploration and eventual isolation that forced each to reproduce his own kind or gene pool.
To get perspective, we need a brief historical review. Egypt developed as a nation about 3100 B.C. This was not a seafaring nation, however. The Minoans (Crete 3000-1400 B.C.) were sailors like most island people, and explored the whole Mediterranean world. The Phoenicians followed and by 1400 B.C. had taken over a brisk trade in the Mediterranean. They ventured past Gibraltar up the west coast of Europe and even landed in England. Not only were they sailors and traders, but they were among the first to send out explorers and colonize throughout the Mediterranean area. By about 1000 B.C. Malta had become a great trade center, and while Phoenician sailors went to the West, Phoenician caravans plodded the deserts of Arabia and northern India.
The Greeks and Romans followed. By 100 B.C., the time of Julius Caesar, a Greek trader had found his way to Ceylon, and not long after a Roman trader reached China, both via the Red Sea. Meanwhile, the Chinese found a land route to the West, which was the beginning of the rich commerce from the Far East to Europe, with Italy building a seafaring commercial empire as a result.
Now let us return to the small, coated, often white dog. One group of specialists claims the little dog of antiquity is indeed the direct ancestor of the Maltese, while acknowledging a variety of names through the ages. He is said to be a descendant of a Spitz-type dog bred for surf and marsh in south-central Europe who arrived with the migrations southward. He was eventually found throughout the Mediterranean area, with the trade center of Malta an obvious source of dispersement, and the wealthy and prominent became the owners. A Maltese-type dog representation (dated 600-300 B.C.) was unearthed in Egypt, and numerous historical references and flowery descriptions have appeared in the writings of the Greeks and Romans with Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) the most notable.
The European Toy Breed specialist, Baron Houtart, states: The ancient people of the Southern Mediterranean had a dwarf breedoriginated on the island of Malta or Melitz, near Sicily. I would call them Malita dogs rather than Maltese, so as not to confuse them with the modern Maltese dogs, which are absolutely different from the ancient ones. He feels the origins of the modern Maltese are in the crossing of the miniature Spaniel with the miniature Poodle or with the Cayenne dogs. He also claims that these are the sources from which the Barbichon which was later called the Bichon sprang, and believes the Bichon originated in Italy.
Thus, we have a second theory for the origin of the Maltese and a first for the Bichon.
Rome declined and western Europe entered the Middle Ages, but the Byzantine Empire survived and prospered and, along with the Greco-Roman culture, so apparently did the Maltese-type dog. As the trade routes affected the growth of civilization, so did it affect the destiny of our little dog. While he was perpetuated by the Byzantine Empire, and went on to Asia on the trade routes, it is also likely that the invaders that brought the decline of Rome absorbed the small white dog into their society, both retaining his identity in some instances, while in others blending with dogs already in their possession.
No one is positive what brought on the great period of exploration and discovery in the 1400s. European nations began searching for new routes to the East to avoid the long journey of traditional routes. Europes increased demand for the goods of the East were not being met by existing means, and to top it all, Italy was enjoying a trade monopoly in which other nations wanted to share.
This was also the time of the Renaissance, a period of about three hundred years between the Middle Ages and modern times, that began in Italy. While great achievements came in the arts and scholarship, the Renaissance was also an age of adventure, and men set out to explore the unknown.
During this period, several events influenced the history of the Bichon and its close relatives. In 1488 Bartolomeu Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope (Africa). In 1498 Vasco da Gama reached India. In 1492 Columbus made his first voyage to the New World, which included the discovery of Cuba. In 1493, 1498 and 1502 he made his second, third and fourth voyages. On the second trip it is known he took 1,200 people, animals, tools, seeds and the other necessities of colonization. In 1521 Magellan discovered the Philippines, via the South American route, and in 1526-30 Sebastian Cabot sailed to and explored the Rio de la Plat (Argentina). The explorations were followed by colonization.??
A group of islands figured heavily in the history of the Bichon. These were the Canary Islands, lying sixty miles off the northwest coast of Africa. The Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans and Byzantines had all invaded here. It is said the ancients named these islands Canaria from the Latin canis (dog) because they found large, fierce dogs there.
The Renaissance had reached most of Europe by 1400. France came under the influence during the late 1400s, when under Francis I they began a series of invasions of Italy. Francis I, who reigned from 1515 to 1547, was one of the first to bring Italian artists and craftsmen to the French courts, and the French began to adapt Italian ideas to their own tastes during the 1500s.
With this historical and geographical background, we can review the names of some of the small, related breeds as they have passed through history. The lists are so lengthy it is no wonder there is confusion on origins. In 1836 a Dr. Reichenbach listed the following
types of Bolonese Toys, the Silky Poodle, the Bouffet, the Burgos, the Brevibilis, the Flammens, the Pyrome, the Bichon, the Maltese and the Lion Dog.
In the 1935 French magazine Revue Cyn??g??tique et Canine, the following are listed as being under the same breed name of Bichon: the Dog of Tenerife, the Dog of Havana, the Dog of Bologna, the Dog of Baleares, the Dog of Peru, the Dog of Holland and the Little Lion Dog of Buffon.
Le Chien (published in Paris, 1959) states that the Bichon is related to the Barbet or Water Spaniel through exterior characteristics and certain morphological particularities which confirm mutual descendants. (The Barbet is described in yet another source as the dog of water and swamp . . . small dogs soft, wooly and frizzled.) In Le Chien two families are distinguished: the Maltese with the straight hair and a second family formed by grouping the other varieties under the name Bichon ?? poil fris?? (Bichon of the curly hair). Both families originated in the Mediterranean area, the Maltese definitely being the older of the two groups (a reference is made to an Egyptian artifact representing a dog with similar characteristics), while the curly-haired Bichon is considered to be essentially of Latin origin.
Votre Ami le Bichon, another Parisian publication, states that the family of Bichons includes four categories: (1) the Maltese, (2) the Bolognese, (3) the Tenerife and (4) the Havanese. The origins are remote, although we find allusions to this breed in former writings of more than two centuries before Christianity (another Egyptian reference). They were common throughout the Mediterranean, especially in Italy.
The reference to Tenerife is familiar to anyone with the barest knowledge of the Bichon Frise. The oversimplified history of the Bichon Frise has usually been The Bichon originated from the Barbet in the Mediterranean, the Italian sailors took it to Tenerife, then it came back to the Continent, went to France during the Renaissance and developed into the Bichon Frise of today.
Upon reviewing all sources, there seems little doubt that small dogs of this era were indeed transported from their eastern Mediterranean realm to the countries rimming the West, to the Balearic Islands and beyond Gibraltar to the Canary Islands and Tenerife. We know this is historically feasible. Exactly when this happened, how long they stayed, and to what degree there was interbreeding with existing dogs is uncertain, but gradually they did return to the Continent, doubtless the same way they arrived, with the sailors and traders. What influence the Tenerife Bichon (or Tenerife Terrier, as some sources call it) had upon its return to the Continent cannot be documented, but one would assume that a sojourn in the Canary Islands would have developed a rather hardy little fellow. At any rate, the name and the association with Tenerife persisted through the years, with a few early chroniclers believing the Bichon Frise originated as a specific, identifiable breed on the island of Tenerife.
The dogs that remained on the Continent continued to breed in their isolated geographical pockets. The most prominent of these was the Bolognese, a woolly, curly-coated relative of the family who became especially popular in the city of Bologna in north-central Italy, the obvious source of its name.
There is particular significance in the Bolognese, for in 1521 the French king, Francis I, began the invasions of northern Italy and was one of the first to bring the Italian Renaissance culture to France. He is specifically mentioned for introducing the little dogs to the court (along with the artisans), however, Henry III, who reigned from 1574 to 1589, was said to have been the true aficionado.
There is documentation of Bolognese being sent to both French and Belgian aristocrats as gifts from their Italian counterparts in the late 1600s, which provided an additional infusion into what gene pool might already have existed thanks to Francis I, Henry II and those who followed.
The Havanese is the fourth member to be mentioned as part of the Bichon family, following the Maltese, Tenerife Bichon and Bolognese. As would be expected from what has gone before, they too have a history drawn from conjecture and historical possibilities rather than documented fact. There are a number of theories:
- The Havanese is descended from the Bolognese taken to Argentina by the Italians and crossed with a small South American Poodle, thereby creating a new member of the Bichon family. Both the Spaniards and Italians colonized Argentina in the late 1500s, so the Bolognese certainly had transportation, but the issue of a South American Poodle does raise a few questions.
- The Havanese is descended from the Maltese that were brought by Spaniards to the West Indies, where they were called the Havana Silk Dog.
- The Havanese was one of the Western Mediterranean (perhaps Tenerife?) small dogs whose ancestors arrived in Cuba during the days of Spanish exploration and colonization.
- The Havanese descendants were brought to Cuba by the Italians, who utilized them as gifts to curry favor.
Whatever the source, they became the pampered pets of wealthy Cubans, who bred them and gave them as gifts but never sold them. It is not clear when they found their way back to the Continent, but in doing so they became the fourth member in the so-called traditional Bichon family classification.??
The cast of characters was in place thanks to the quirks of Man and his history; the dogs of antiquity, and his travels through the centuries, the dogs from Tenerife, from northern Italy and those returned from the New World. We will never be able to prove what combinations blended to produce the breed type that evolved as the Bichon Frise. The impact of one upon the other and the introduction of other possible factors can only be a matter of conjecture.??
The other dogs listed earlier were obviously the results of colonization in those specific geographical areas and had little impact on the development of the Continental Bichon family. However, there are two breeds worthy of mention. One is often included as a Bichon family member, perhaps mistakenly. The other is more obscure and is unknown to many, but because of similar historical origins and physical characteristics it should be included in the Bichon group.
The first is the Little Lion Dog, the Petit Chien Lion or the Lowchen, for they are all one and the same dog. Once again we have a dog of Mediterranean origins, known since the fourteenth century with concentration in Spain, France and Italy. Those involved with the Lowchen today feel breed type was established very early and offer a strong case against close affiliation with the Bichon family, The Lowchen is a square breed, unlike the Bichon breeds, which call for a longer body length in proportion to height., The double coat has a semiharsh outer coat with a softer undercoat. Unlike the other Bichon members, the coat is never to be curly. There is a range of colors never found in Bichon Frise or Maltese, and infrequently in Havanese. One of the predominant coat colors is the tan-point pattern typical of terriers, while the temperament of the Lowchen also leans toward the terrier. It is felt there is an infusion of terrier blood not found, at least to this degree, in other Bichon family members.
In addition, there is evidence that a lion-type trim was frequently used on many dogs other than the Lowchen, which further confuses the issue of breed identification.
The second breed is the Coton de Tulear. Dr. Robert Jay Russell, formerly of the Anthropology Department of the University of California at Los Angeles and a world-renowned biologist, encountered the breed during a two-year field study of the lemurs of Madagascar. Intrigued, he sent home breeding stock in 1974. Subsequent research into the history and development of the Coton validated much of the information already available on the Bichon family.
A small descendant of the Barbet family arrived in the Canary Islands, as we previously learned. In the seventeenth century, trades routes around Africa to India and the Orient expanded, and the Tenerife Bichon made its way to the Isle of Reunion, east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. Here it developed as a distinct breed, acquiring its cottonlike coat, perhaps the result of a single mutation, suggests Dr. Russell. Our dog was now known as the Coton de Reunion, and like his European relatives, became a favorite of the favored. For reasons not clear, the Coton left the Isle of Reunion, where he subsequently became extinct, but reappeared at Tulear, a bustling trading port of southwest Madagascar. Once again, he was a success first with the ruling tribal monarchy, then the French colonials after 1896, and finally the independent Malagasy Republic after 1960. He was known as the Royal Dog of Madagascar and was recognized in 1970 by the F??d??ration Cynologique Internationale, the august body that oversees the dog activities of most of Europe and South America. Unfortunately, political unrest threatens the current status of the Coton in Madagascar.
Many of the physical characteristics of the Coton are similar to the Bichon Frise. How fascinating it is to consider the influence wielded by our little dog from Tenerife. His journeys to the south resulted in a breed that has survived to modern times, while his return to the Continent undoubtedly influenced the character of the European Bichon family and ultimately the Bichon of today.
At this juncture we return in our history to one of the most enduring and picturesque of the stories regarding our little white dogs. The kings and their ladies loved their dogs so very much they carried them with them everywhere in traylike baskets attached around their necks by ribbons. This was probably true, as it is compatible with descriptions of court life at this time. Louis XIV (reigned 1643-1715) eliminated the centuries-old custom of allowing hunting dogs into the palace, which reinstated the small dog as the court pet of choice, since they were easily carried about. It is here we are told that the dogs were so elaborately cared for by their owners that the verb bichonner (to curl) remains as evidence. An accurate derivation of the verb is not known. A majority of references feel that the name Barbichon evolved from the French word barbiche, meaning beard, which was ultimately shortened to Bichon.
Many of the art works of this period include a small dog that could be an ancestor of any member of the Bichon family group described earlier: the millefleurs tapestry, The Lady and the Unicorn, woven at the end of the fifteenth century; works by Albrecht Durer (1471-1528), especially his woodcuts; Nelly OBrien, by Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792); the portrait of the Duchess of Alba, by Francisco Goya (1746-1828). These are but a few of many works claimed by the various Bichon family members as depicting their particular and individual breeds. The dogs of the kings and courtiers and the dogs in art were certainly forerunners of the Bichon family; however, to identify them as immediate ancestors of a specific breed that exists today, with a few possible exceptions, is probably unrealistic.
The popularity of the small dogs diminished with the onset of the French Revolution in 1789, but is said to have revived during the time of Napoleon III (nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte), who in 1852 established the Second Empire and declared himself emperor.
This was during the productive years of the artist Henriette Ronner-Knip, who was born in Amsterdam in 1821 and died in 1909. She is especially noted for her paintings of cats. However, the pets she depicts tend to be in luxurious surroundings that reflected the wealth of her international following, with patrons coming from New Orleans and from Paris, Rotterdam and other major cities of Europe.
A painting by Henriette Ronner-Knip entitled A Bichon was purchased in Belgium by Canadian art connoisseur Nigel Aubrey-Jones. It was later acquired by the Richard Green Gallery in London and in February 1988 by Lois Morrow of California, at whose home it now resides.
This painting shows us a Bichon so close in breed type to the Bichon Frise of today as to be quite astonishing. While the painting was signed, it was not dated. Best professional estimates place it close to one hundred years old. Those Bichon fanciers fortunate enough to have seen the painting, either at the Richard Green Gallery in London or at Mrs. Morrows home, have been touched by this extraordinary and definitive link with the past.
Following the defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War, Napoleon III was overthrown and the Third Republic established in 1871. French prosperity grew along with their colonial empire in Africa and Asia. It is not entirely clear why the Bichon lost favor, but by the turn of the century he had become the dog of the street the little sheep dog. The dog of the aristocrats became the circus dog, the dog of many tricks at the fair and as legend has it the dog of the organ grinder of Barbery, always described as lively, intelligent, and commanding affection with whomever they associate.
Following World War I, it appears that a few isolated dog fanciers in both France and Belgium regained interest in the Bichon ?? Poil Fris?? or Tenerife Bichon (it was called by both names), and early attempts at breeding programs began with what dogs were available following the circus dog era and a war that devastated the country. By 1933 enough progress had been made to merit a Breed Standard.
The official Standard of the Breed was adopted on March 15, 1933. It was written by Madame Bouctovagniez, president of the Toy Club of France, in conjunction with the Friends of the Belgian Breeds. However, Mme. Denise Nizet de Leemans as head of the Breed Standards Committee of the F??d??ration Canine Internationale was the person who decided on the name Bichon Frise.
J. C. F. (Fred) Peddie, noted breeder and judge from Ontario, Canada, tells the wonderful story of a dinner party in 1972 given in honor of Mme. Nizet de Leemans, who was eighty-two at this time. As a breed of French background that was gaining popularity in the United States, the Bichon Frise was discussed. She told the guests that in 1933, when having a meeting with the founding club representatives of the forming breeds, there was an extremely heated discussion as to what this new breed should be called. Finally, in desperation, she had asked, What does it look like? and was told it was a fluffy, little white dog. Well, then, Mme. Nizet de Leemans said, it shall be called Bichon Frise (fluffy little dog). And so it was. And so it is.
The Bichon Frise was entered in the Livre des Origines Fran?$B!x(Baises on October 18, 1934. However, despite this official recognition, there continued to be confusion regarding the name, many still using he names Bichon Poil Fris or Tenerife Bichon as late as the 1950s and early 1960s.
Early descriptions of the Bichon family members were as numerous and varied as the authors that wrote them. They were not Breed Standards as we know them today, but rather rough characterizations as interpreted by the writers. It is surprising there is not more accuracy, since the Bichon Frise Standard had been available since 1933. But it is interesting nonetheless, to read these descriptions and contemplate the influence each Bichon family member may have had upon the other.
Dogs of the World (Popular Dogs Publishing Co., Ltd., London) offers the following:
Bolognese: Height under twelve inches, weight under eleven pounds, coat very long and think and bushy; the whole body covered with a shaggy mass of curls. The hair is short only on the muzzle. Tail tufted. Color, pure white, a few small fawn flecks or stains are permissible.
Havanese: Height eleven to twelve and one half inches. Coat furry in silky waves intermingled with large locks. Color white or beige or solid chestnut brown. Spots on the ears or patches of gray, beige or black permissible.
Maltese: Head not too narrow but of terrier shape, not too long, but not apple-headed. Nose black, eyes dark brown with black rims . . . coat of good length, the longer the better, of silky texture, and not in any way wooly, and straight. Any self color is permissible but pure white is desirable. Slight lemon markings should be penalized. Weight four pounds to nine pounds approved, the smaller the better.
Tenerife dog: Height under twelve inches and weight under eleven pounds. Coat in wooly curls neither flat nor twisted and from three to five inches in length. Color white, but slight beige or gray makings, especially on the ears, is permissible . . .
In The Complete Dog Breeders Manual (published in England in 1954), the Bichon Poil Fris is described as a Belgian lap-dog related to the Bolognese, the Tenerife Dog and the Toy Poodle, and the height is given as eleven inches and weight as twelve pounds. The color is white with a long and curly coat, silky in texture, usually clipped. (Note this differentiation between the Bichon Poil Fris and the Tenerife Dog.)
According to Le Chien (Paris, 1959), The Bichon Poil Fris has a skull a little larger than that of the Maltese, his hair makes him look rounder than he really is. His nose is black, his lips small and well pigmented: his eyes as dark as possible, round and not almond like those of his cousin the poodle. The tail is not cropped and must turn back in an elegant curve not falling to the side, the point and plume falling back toward the middle of the back. The Bichon Frise is wooly in appearance, curly and long, never stringy and always white in color.
Breeders in the early years did not have a vast selection of foundation stock, so it was inevitable that pedigrees would reveal an incredible amount of inbreeding. The Milton line of M. and Mme. A. Bellotte of Belgium offers a good example of this.
There are a number of Continental breeders whose kennel names have become familiar to Bichon breeders around the world, in addition to the Milton line already mentioned: de Warnabry (Mme. Suzanne Mazaes-Nicholas of France), des Closmyons (Mm. E. Laisne of France), des Frimoussettes (Mme. Jeannine Miligari of France), de la Lande de Belleville (Madame Darlot of France), de la Buthiere (Mme. C. Defarge of France), de la Roche Posay (M. Guiter Stoll of France),de Steren Vor (Madame Abadie of France), des Bourbiel (Mademoiselle Mayieu of France), de Villa-Sainval (Madame Baras-Berben of Belgium, former wife of Albert Baras), de las Persaliere (Mme. Albert Baras of Belgium), de Chaponay (Madame Vaansteenkiste-Deleu of Belgium), du roi des Lutines (Mademoiselle Naudet), de Dierstein (Madame Nemeiller of Germany), Goldfischbrunnen (Schaphusen Forthmann of Germany).
Our little white dog our Bichon Frise was about to enter an extraordinary phase of his history; he was destined to reach a pinnacle of recognition and fame far beyond the wildest imagination of these early Continental breeders.
(End of Chapter 1)