History of the Coton de Tulear
My love of the Coton de Tulear started in 2009 when I decided to get my first dog while living in an apartment. I wanted a dog that was friendly towards people, active, but not overly active, and adaptive to my life style. The Coton breed does just that. The personality characteristics of the breed is fantastic. They are some of the most amusing, loving, loyal dogs you will ever come across. Pure Heaven Cotons is my dream of helping to spread the word about this beautiful, intelligent, lovely medium sized breed and to continue to introduce it to the American people and that is why I paired up with an , ethical, established Coton de Tulear breeder of over 25 years of experience and started Pure Heaven Cotons.
“Coton” is the French word for cotton. Like the name suggests, the most conspicuous feature of the Coton-de-Tulear is its coat, which is cottony or fluffy rather than silky. It has a long topcoat. The fluffy hair covers the thin, lightly-muscled forelegs. Colors come in predominantly white, brown and sometimes black. The proper colors or “The Standard” for the Coton allows shading which does not detract from the appearance of white. Any black spot on the body of the dog disqualifies it from the breeding program. Even the ears need to be mixed with white giving a grey appearance.
Multiple registries with differing standards describe the Coton-de-Tulear, but in general, it has very soft hair (as opposed to fur), white in color comparable to a cotton ball (hence its name in French, coton meaning cotton), a prominent black nose, large expressive eyes (usually covered by bangs) and somewhat short legs. The Coton de Tulears tail should curl over its back like some other dog breeds.
The development of the Coton de Tulear in Madagascar is bathed in speculation, folklore, eyewitness accounts and tales from those on the island and the early Coton breeders. Little to no factual documentation exists. Yet, through these tales, one can garner a better understanding, or piece the puzzle together to validate certain traits of the breed. Accepted origins of many natural breeds have come out of folklore and speculation. These tales, stories and accounts have become a necessary cornerstone in our breed’s history and development. That is why learning about the culture, geography, environment, topography and history of both the breed’s homeland and its people can only broaden an understanding of the breed’s attributes, characteristics and function both in history and as we view them today.
A Deadly Shipwreck Landing. One tale that has become widely credible among the Coton fanciers is a handed-down account of an alleged shipwreck near the coast of Madagascar. Legend tells that from a shipwreck with no known human survivors, Cotton Dogs de Reunion (with possibly other small, white dogs on board) swam their way to the coast of Madagascar, met up with possible feral dogs of the island, and over generations, evolved into a sturdy survivor that ultimately made its way to Tulear (Toliary) on the west coast. It is widely accepted that the early Cotons were living in the wild. They obviously had to hunt to survive and adapt to the rugged, harsh and diverse environments of the land. Wild boar was a mainstay on the island, thus was presumed the protein of choice. Breeders observe the breed’s love of fruits, berries, vegetables, sticks and paper, which would allude to their foraging abilities in the rainforests. Weather conditions, such as monsoons and dry spells, along with the vast beaches along the coasts, would probably contribute to their development of the coat, keen intelligence, high survival skills, vigilance, agility and stamina.
An Effective Boar Hunter. Another story is that the early Coton de Tulear has been credited to being a boar hunter because of its amazing ability to communicate and gather in packs. These dogs may have aided locals in wild boar hunts by taunting and keeping the boar at bay in pack formation until the hunter finished the job. To some breeders, the evidence is clear. To others, the Coton is viewed solely as a sweet companion breed and lapdog. Yet, breeders have noticed their Cotons exhibiting strong social pack structure, cunning coups and pack “take-downs” of toys and objects.
A Clever Problem Solver. One of the most valued legends reveals the Coton’s intelligence, cleverness and ability to solve puzzles, which validates their survivability in the harsh environments of the island. Madagascar is known for its diverse quantity and species of caimans (a reptile in the alligator family). As wild dogs living in the rainforests, wilderness and on the beaches, the Coton’s cunning ingenuity to elude these lurking predators was put to the test when they needed to cross rivers. The Coton would seek out the narrowest passage of the river and gather there in packs. One Coton would then break away and lure the alligators to the widest part of the river by using his ear-piercing, high-pitched bark, coupled with clownish body language to engage and summon as many alligators as possible away from the narrow passage. As the Coton drew them closer, the clumsy reptiles would start up the bank toward what would seem to be an easy meal. It was then that the swift Coton would sprint away, back to the narrow passage and join his pack mates, disappearing into the wilderness on the other side of the river.
Accounts stated that this strategy was still practiced among the undomesticated Coton in the island’s most remote regions. Many breeders believe this to be true, as one present-day breeder shares a first-hand account of her client’s three Cotons devising a strategy to accomplish their sinister mission. The female ran to the front door and started her warning bark and body contortions. When the unsuspecting owner got up from his freshly grilled steak dinner to investigate what would turn out to be an unfounded alert, one of the males hopped onto the chair and quickly snatched the juicy steak. The other male and female swiftly ran into the kitchen to divide and devour their prized kill!
One theory is that the Grand Barbet crossed with a small spaniel, which resulted in the Petit Barbet — a dog that helped create the Bichon breeds, including the Coton de Tulear.
Due to scant documentation of the breed and the conditions surrounding Madagascar’s history, many Coton de Tulear fanciers have garnered a better understanding of their breed by going as far back as possible into antiquity. One of the earliest known classifications of modern dogs was in a treatise published in 1570 by Dr. Johannes Caius, the physician to Queen Elizabeth I, titled De Canibus Britannicus. Written in Latin, Caius listed a group of dogs, Aucupatorii, that were used in the hunting of fowl. Translated into English in 1576, the Acupatorii were comprised of the Index (Setter), Aquaticus (water dog) and the Spaniell (Spaniel). It is the Aquaticus, more commonly known as the ancient Barbet, that is of interest, for it is a diminutive descendant of the Barbet that is thought to be the primary ancestor of the Coton.
According to the compilation of material and research written by Mr. Julian Preston for the Barbet Club of Great Britain, the ancient Barbet is thought to be a key ancestral link to many of the water dogs and working breeds we have today. The Barbet’s actual origins are subject to debate, as originally the breed was thought to have evolved from corded North African herding stock, which was then brought over to Europe by the Moors during the 7th and 8th centuries. On the other side of the debate, recent canine genetic research reveals that the most ancient of dogs came from Asia. While their origin may never be ascertained, either way, assuming as evolution goes, breeding with the indigenous population obviously took place, and the outcome produced a strong, intelligent, highly adaptable working water dog with a broad genetic base that most likely spread over the lands of central Asia and Europe.
The Grand Barbet is described in Count George Louis Buffon’s book Histoire Naturelle (1750), translated into English by N.S. Hoyt in 1756. He differentiates between the Grand Barbet and the Spaniel, and introduces the Petit Barbet, which Buffon states is the result of a cross between the Barbet and a small spaniel. He also claims that the Barbet and the Spaniel originated in Spain and goes on to describe the dogs there as having long white coats due to the climate. He states that of the ones that were brought to England, their coat color had changed from white to black, and they became hunters and pets.
In 1827, Georges Cuvier expands on Caius’ Aquaticus and references Buffon in his publication, The Animal Kingdom: Arranged in Conformity With its Organization, detailing phenotype:
“The Group of Spaniels seem originally to have been located in Spain, hence the name.
Variety Aquaticus. Head large, and round, cerebral cavity larger than any other variety; frontal sinuses very much developed; ears large and pendent; body thick; tail nearly horizontal; fur long and curly all over the body; generally white, with black patches, or black with white patches…
Subvariety. The Little Barbet is bred, according to Buffon, from the great Barbet and the little Spaniel. Petit Barbet – Little barbet, or water dog.
Subvariety. The Griffon is like the preceding, but the hair is not curled; generally black, with yellow spots over the eyes and on the paws. It appears to have sprung from the barbet and the shepherd’s dog.”
He goes on to describe a variety of names indicative of its usage and location: England, “The Great Water Dog”; in Germany the “Pudelhund” (where we get Poodle); and the “Barbonne” in Italy, where today the Barbet is still classified under Spaniels.
Some Coton de Tulear breeders attest that the ancient Melitan dog, a small, white, spitz-type lapdog with fur, prick ears and a foxy face, depicted on Grecian vases and other artwork dating back to about 450 to 400 BC, were the dogs interbred with the Barbet in Italy around the fall of the Roman Empire and therefore is directly responsible for the Bichon breeds we know today, particularly the Maltese (due to the close proximity to the island of Malta). It is not the objective of this article to deduce which is correct, Buffon’s Spaniels, or the Melitan theory. Both could have contributed to the ancestral beginnings of many breeds.
The Tenerife, Bichons and the Beginnings of the Coton de Tulear
After the Coton de Reunion developed from the Bichon Tenerife, these small white dogs made their way to Madagascar and eventually became the Coton de Tulear. This photo by Adrianne Dering shows a modern Coton on the beaches of Madagascar.
The Bichon Tenerife is known to have come out of the diminutive version of the Barbet, assumedly the Petit Barbet, either through natural selection, selective breeding with dogs of unknown origin (feral or other dogs indigenous to busy trading ports) or a combination thereof. The Tenerife was brought over to the island of Tenerife by the Spanish, hence the name. Tenerife is part of the Canary Islands, also known as the “Isle of Dogs.” The Coton de Tulear is an ultimate descendant of the Bichon Tenerife and is considered a Bichon breed.
Different types of “Bichons” had developed in different geographical locations. Depending on the region, each Bichon would garner a different name and a different gene pool: the Bichon Maltese from Malta, the Bichon Bolognese from Italy, the Bichon Havanese from Cuba and the Bichon Tenerife from Tenerife. Therefore, even though the Coton, the Havanese, the Maltese, the Bolognese, the Bichon Frisé and the Lowchen make up the Bichon group, genetically they are very different from each other, and the Coton, like the others, is not be considered a “cross” or “mix” between them.
It is believed that the Tenerife also possessed “terrier type” qualities in its gene pool, such as ratting, as well as having the ability to travel well over the high seas (not surprising, given the Barbet gene pool). Because of these qualities, they soon became a favorite on the trade ships. During this time of heavy maritime activity of trading, selling, piracy and discovering new lands, ships may have also possessed different breeds from other areas of the world suited for travel and earning their keep.
The Bichon Tenerife was thought to have been brought over to the islands of Mauritius and Bourbon (later known as Reunion) in the 15th century, where it is believed that through a mutation or further indigenous breeding, or a combination of both, a dog with a longer, somewhat straighter, cottony coat emerged. These dogs became known as the Coton de Reunion and began to take on a look with characteristics different from other dogs. They were innately attracted to humans, bonding quickly with them.
The island of Reunion is located southeast of Madagascar, fairly close to the mainland. Over time, Madagascar emerged as a connection point between Asia and Africa, with many ports being discovered and utilized. Madagascar was soon coveted by the Portuguese, French and English in their quest to “civilize” and govern the island. Because Reunion is so close to the east coast of Madagascar, it is only fitting to assume that the Coton de Reunion quickly made its way into Madagascar.
This white male in Madagascar is the benchmark dog for which the first FCI standard was written.
There was rumor that the Coton de Tulear may have suffered slaughter during the years of French colonization (1895), fighting for France in WWII and civil war (1947-1948) — in retaliation and to prevent the French from owning the dogs that were bred and held by Madagascar’s highest of nobility, the Merina, yet nothing in writing validates that claim. The instant boom of independence (1960), tourism and the use of the breed as a commodity for barter also raised speculation of the Coton’s endangerment. The scarcity of finding excellent examples of the breed at the time that the FCI granted purebred status (1971) may have been one tip-off to its validity.
In 1966, Mr. Louis Petit formed the Société Canine de Madagascar, better known as the Malagasy Kennel Club. On May 15, 1968, the Coton de Tulear was pronounced the official breed of Madagascar and was registered with the club. Monsieur Petit, along with Raymonde Triquet and André LeBlonde, met on the island to study the breed and write the description of the ideal Coton for the Fédéracion Cynologique Internationale. After much searching, it was agreed that one Coton, whose name is unknown, was the best example and from whose type, temperament and characteristics were taken for the first standard.
Getting FCI Recognition
Recognition for the breed was submitted to FCI in 1970 and granted in 1971. Shortly after, in the same year, the French Société Canine Centrale (SCC) also recognized the breed. While many studbooks on many breeds have been closed with the SCC, the studbook for the Coton has remained open. There needed to be a system if a Coton were to apply for registration without a pedigree behind it. The SCC instituted the TI (Titre Initiale), similar to the system that Monsieur Petit described as the beginnings of the pedigree process for a newly recognized purebred breed:
“As for all newly recognized breeds, the parents, after having been seen by a specialist judge of the breed, are registered in the “Registre Initial” (RI). No ancestors are noted on the certificate, only the recognized dog’s name. The progeny of these first registered parents could be registered only if they pass the same judge’s examination at an adult age as their parents had done. In this case, on their registration, their parents are noted. This is the procedure until the dogs have four generations completed. After the fourth generation the puppies are automatically registered in the “Livre des origins de la Republic Malagasy” (LORM).”
From The Handbook for the Madagascar Kennel Club. Translated from French by Ania Sherer.
U’Rick, a black and white male Coton from Madagascar, born on January 2, 1971, was the first Coton registered as a correct representative of his breed. His RI was issued on November, 23, 1972. From 1972 to 1974, little to no FCI pedigrees were registered. The SCC was more successful. From 1973, starting with one provisional, registrations for the Coton grew exponentially in the SCC’s purebred dog register (called Livre des origines français, or LOF). Latest sources from the SCC state that in 2012, 2,064 Cotons were granted LOF registrations in France alone.
Breed Troubles in Madagascar
As demand increased, it became difficult for the Société Centrale de Madagascar to effectively process exportation. There was basically little to no documentation from the Malagasy breeders, and the condition of the island was such that there was no way to effectively monitor practices. It was feared that more Cotons were leaving undocumented than those that were. Also, around that time, the Malagasy government had its hands full in protecting the unique flora and fauna of the island. Scientists and hobbyists were making pilgrimages to the island to study various unique life forms. With the island’s culture still being predominantly poor in comparison to most other countries, more attention turned toward the vulnerability of the island’s environmental treasures, so less attention was being paid to the treasured Royal Dog.
It wasn’t until 1988 that the Malagasy government actually approved a bill that specified conditions of Coton exportation. Numbers could not exceed 120 per year, females 30 percent, males 70 percent, along with stringent restrictions to verification of health, pedigree, etc. This bill may have been too little, too late, as on June 4, 1989, at a dog show at the Hilton Hotel in Madagascar, only four out of eight Malagasy Cotons were actually deemed Cotons, two getting an excellent rating and two a very good rating. In 1990, André Le Blonde drafted a report with what he saw in Tananarive and Reunion. He experienced bitter disappointment in the quality of the Coton in Madagascar, yet witnessed a better, sturdier Coton on Reunion Island. The same observation held true for a French breeder who had the opportunity to venture to Madagascar for the same purpose in the late ‘90s. Even today, there are very few Cotons left in Madagascar, and it seems that the better specimens are being bred on Reunion Island.
Due to poverty, environment and government issues plaguing Madagascar, the Madagascar Kennel Club and the Malagasy government could no longer manage the standard for the breed. Thus, the FCI turned the ownership of the standard over to France in 1997, hence the Coton de Tulear’s country of origin being stated as France. Since it’s official beginnings of exportation initially to France, to Belgium and then to Italy, by 1990, documented Cotons would spread to many FCI member countries: Finland, Argentina, Denmark, Sweden, Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Spain and the Netherlands, even Puerto Rico. They also appeared in the UK and Canada in the 1980s. Cotons from FCI and SCC stock also started to appear in the United States in the early ‘80s, even though Madagascar stock had made its way to the United States in the early ‘70s.
The earliest known breeder for the Coton de Tulear using FCI French stock in the United States was Jacques Sade’s Plattekill kennel in New York in 1987. Many more kennels followed in the early 1990s with stock from Belgium, France, Sweden and Italy. Because the United States is not an FCI member country, American-born or -bred Cotons could not obtain FCI pedigrees and were not able to exhibit in European shows.
Breed clubs, such as United States of America Coton de Tulear Club, Inc. (now the parent breed club to the AKC) and ACTA emerged in the early ‘90s and registered purebreds, kept studbook, issued breed club championships and, later, documented rankings as the Coton show community grew. The US-born and -bred Coton enjoyed a prolific showing in rare breed venues, such as American Rare Breed Association (ARBA), FORBES, SKC, CRS, Canine Kennel Club, Rarities, etc. Oftentimes, a few top European champions would come over to the states to live with a breeder to garner a US championship and to offer services to further proliferate the breed here in the States.
The first Coton de Tulear to achieve a championship of record in the United States was Cottonkist Macaroon in 1994, bred by Jacques Sade, and owned by Kennette and Richard Tabor of Cottonkist kennels. He was also ARBA’s first A1 champion of his breed. Macaroon’s direct progeny were also quite successful, and to this day his lines are seen in many US breeding programs. Every year, another American Coton won top billing for the breed until 1999, when a European-bred Coton took No. 1 of all breeds in the ARBA show systems.
The AKC accepted the Coton de Tulear in the Miscellaneous group in 2012. The breed will join the Non-Sporting Group this year. The breed will be accepted into the AKC studbook beginning June 2, 2014, and will be eligible to compete in the Non-Sporting Group starting July 2, 2014. The United States of America Coton de Tulear Club is the official parent club (usactc.org) of the Coton de Tulear.
Author Mitchell Tuckness