History of the Bichon Frise


The Bichon Frise is of Mediterranean ancestry. His oldest ancestor is the Barbet, or Water Spaniel, from which the name Barbichon cam, later shortened to Bichon. Also descended from the Barbet are the Caniche, or Poodle, and the Maltese. They have certain similarities because of their common ancestry, but each long ago became a separate breed.

The Barbichon group of dogs evolved into four breeds: The Bichon Bolognese, the Bichon Havanese, the Bichon Maltese and the Bichon Tenerife. From the Bichon Tenerife came today’s Bichon Frise. These lively and affectionate dogs found their way from the Mediterranean area to the Canary Islands, specifically to the Island of Tenerife. They probably traveled as the companions of Spanish sailors, who may have used them as items of barter.

By the 1300’s, Italy had become a center of trade and commerce and, with the advent of the Renaissance, began a period of exploration. Now it was the Italian sailors who returned the Bichon to the continent. In Italy, the Bichon Tenerife attracted the attention of nobility and the new middle class of merchants. The dog was often groomed in the lion style, which was then a popular trim, but he should not be confused with the Little Lion Dog (Lowchen). Late in the 1400’s, as the French became enamoured of Italian culture, France invaded Italy, and the Italian influence spread north. Italian artists and scholars went north to serve in the French courts and, no doubt, carried along favorite pets.

It was about this time that the Tenerife or Bichon made his appearance in France, during the reign of Francis I (1515-1547), the patron of the Renaissance. His popularity grew under Henry III (1574-1589). A favorite Bichon legend says that King Henry so loved his Bichon that he carried him wherever he went in a tray-like basket attached around his neck by ribbons. What the king does, others at court imitate. The pampered, perfumed, beribboned dogs gave birth to the French verb “bichonner” (to make beautiful, to pamper). Another period of popularity in France was during the year’s of-Napoleon III (1808-1873).

Many artists have included a small curly-coated lap dog or a Bichon-like figure somewhere in their portraits. Among the most famous were Titian (1490-1576) of Italy, Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), first President of the Royal Academy of England, and the Spanish artist Francisco Goya (1746-1828). These works of art help to verify the presence of the Bichon in various countries.

By the end of the 19th century, the pet of royalty had become less fashionable. In the late 1800’s, he became a street dog and could be found doing tricks in the circus or at fairs. The cuddled pet was now on his own — and he survived! His charm, his cunning mind and his sturdiness no doubt enabled him to do so.

Following World War I, a few fanciers recognized the potential of the dogs and began establishing’ their lines through controlled breeding programs. On March 5, 1933, the official standard of the breed, as written by Madam Abadie of Steren Vor Kennels, was adopted by the Societe Central Canine de France. As the breed was known by two names, Tenerife and Bichon, the President of the International Canine Federation, Mme. Nizet de Lemma’s, proposed a name based on the characteristics that the dogs presented and the name Bichon a polio Frise (Bichon with the curly coat) was adopted. The anglicized version is Bichon Frise (curly lap dog). On October 18, 1934, the Bichon was admitted to the official registry of the French Kennel Club.

The International Canine Federation recognizes the Bichon Frise “as a French-Belgian breed having the right to registration in the Book of Origins from all countries”. The breed is recognized in most of the world now, but then was recognized in only three countries: Belgium, France and Italy. It was the development of the Bichon Frise in the United States that was to bring about the recognition of the breed in other countries.

At the end of World War I, American soldiers brought a few of these dogs back with them as pets. Some may remember having seen them but no effort was made to breed or to keep records.

In 1956, Mr. and Mrs. Francois Picault immigrated to our country with six Bichons. They settled in Milwaukee, where their first litter arrived, sired by Eddy White de Steren Vor out of the bitch Etoile de Steren Vor. The Picaults were to eventually meet two Americans, Azalea Gascoigne, a breeder of Dachshunds, in Milwaukee, and a Collie breeder, Gertrude Fournier, in San Diego. It was some time before these ladies met. In the meantime, each had begun to Breed the Bichon Frise and each had made efforts to organize with other Bichon breeders. The Bichon Frise Club of America, formed in May 1964, was established as a result of their combined efforts. At this time Bichon enthusiasts began to increase in number. As members of BFCA, they worked diligently to establish the breed in this country and to gain recognition by the American Kennel Club. Smaller groups of Bichon breeders began to form local clubs under the guidance of the national club.

September 1, 1971, was a big day for the Bichons and their dedicated owners. It was on this date that the Bichon Frise was permitted to compete in American Kennel Club shows in the miscellaneous class. When competing in Miscellaneous, the dog receives ribbons according to his placement in the class but he is not awarded points toward his championship. Many breeds spend years in this class before being granted full recognition by AKC. However, at the October 10, 1972, meeting of the American Kennel Club, it was announced that the Bichon Frise had been granted recognition and would be eligible to compete for championship points on April 4, 1973. Hard work had paid off and a major goal was reached.

Now that AKC recognition of the breed had been achieved, the next step was to have the national club recognized. Although a strong organization existed already, it had yet to become officially acknowledged. One aim of a national breed club is to hold Specialty shows, limiting entry to one breed. Under AKC guidelines, a club must hold a series of “match shows”. A match show is, in effect, a practice show. All the procedures of a point show are followed. Four match shows were held, hosted by local clubs in San Diego, Atlanta, Virginia and New York, from April 7, 1973, through October 26, 1975. With the last match, all the requirements had been met. Permission was granted on November 26, 1975, for BFCA to conduct the first Specialty. The first National Bichon Frise Club of America Specialty, obedience Trial and Sweepstakes was held on May 14, 1976, and was hosted by the Bichon Frise Club of San Diego.

The next major undertaking was a revision of the Standard, that guideline by which all Bichons are judged and toward which all breeding must be aimed. Following months of preparation, the Revised Standard was presented to the membership of BFCA for approval and, subsequently, to the American Kennel Club. Its current version was approved on October 11, 1988, and can be found in this book. The new standard is a more complete word picture of the perfect Bichon. In the future, it will be accompanied by an Illustrated Standard.

Many local clubs now conduct their own specialties while some clubs hold AKC sanctioned B or A specialty matches. But it is the annual National Specialty, which is most eagerly anticipated. Bichon owners throughout North America and the world attend. The highlight of the week is the show itself and each seems more beautiful than the last. There is no sight more spectacular than a room full of perfectly groomed Bichons Frises. It is with a great deal of pride that the Bichon Frise Club of America looks back on the history of this “small, sturdy, white powder puff of a dog with the merry temperament”* – The Bichon Frise.

* from the Revised Standard for the Bichon Frise

The Bichon Frise in Art is an online exhibition assembled by Edward J. Shephard Jr.  This is an exhibition of depictions of the Bichon Frisé in various works of art spanning over 2,000 years. It includes artworks that explicitly identify the subjects as Bichons or as ancestors of the breed, as well as other works that I (in my admittedly non-expert judgment) have deemed to be possible depictions of the Bichon Frisé or its ancestors.  Please visit these works of art at :