The Bichon Frise is a small breed of companion dog developed in France. Known for its fluffy white coat, charming temperament, and high levels of affection, the Bichon Frise has been a favorite of the French nobility and common man for centuries. Although the Bichon Frise was not introduced into the United States until the 1950’s, it has quickly become one of the most popular and well-known companion dogs in that country. The Bichon Frise is not only popular as a companion, but has also achieved great success in the show ring, as a therapy animal, and in show business. The Bichon Frise is also known as the Bichon, Bichon a poil Frise, Tenerife, and the Bi-Fri.
There are very few breeds whose origin is as disputed as that of the Bichon Frise. There are two commonly suggested origin theories for this breed, and a third less commonly suggested theory that is probably more likely to be true. What all fanciers agree is that the Bichon Frise was first found in its modern form in the 1500’s in France, and that the breed was originally popular as a companion to the French nobility. The Bichon Frise is a member of a group of companion dogs known as Bichons, which probably comes from an archaic French word meaning either small white dog or small female dog. As the name would suggest, the Bichons are known primarily for their small size, white coloration, and fluffy fur. The Bichon family always includes the Bichon Frise, Bolognese, Havanese, Coton de Tulear, several breeds of Russian Bolonka, and the now extinct Bichon Tenerife, and most experts place the Lowchen and Maltese in the family as well.
Along with the Italian Greyhound, the Bichon family was probably the very first group of European companion dogs to be developed. Historical documentation for the Maltese goes back at least 2,500 years, and the breed was very well known to both the Ancient Greeks and the Ancient Romans, who called the breed the Melitaei Catelli and the Canis Melitaeus respectively. These early Maltese were probably originally descended from either a small Spitz-type dog from Switzerland or a long-haired primitive Mediterranean sighthound. The Maltese was spread across the Mediterranean by the Greeks, Romans, and possibly the Phoenicians. Although there is no definitive historical evidence, the Maltese is almost certainly the direct ancestor of the Bolognese and the Bichon Tenerife, although it is also quite possible that those breeds were developed by crossing the Maltese with a Poodle, Barbet, or Lagotto Romagnolo.
The most commonly held theory for the development of the Bichon Frise is that the dog was developed from the Bichon Tenerife. The now-extinct Bichon Tenerife was a native of the Canary Islands, a Spanish territory located off the Moroccan coast. Spanish traders introduced the breed to France in the early 1500’s. The breed quickly became popular with the French nobility, who called it either the Bichon or the Tenerife. Many claim that this breed is the ancestor of the modern Bichon Frise. There is historical documentation suggesting that the Bichon Tenerife was imported to France, and until the 20th Century the Bichon Frise was often called the Tenerife. However, Bichon-type dogs were well-known in France for several centuries before the Bichon Tenerife was discovered by Europeans. Additionally, the Havanese, the only confirmed direct descendant of the Bichon Tenerife, is considerably less similar to the Bichon Frise than the Bolognese. If the Bichon Frise is descended from the Bichon Tenerife, it has almost certainly been heavily crossed with other breeds.
The second most commonly held theory for this breed’s origin is that it was developed from very small Poodles and/or Barbets. Both the Poodle and the Barbet are some of the most ancient European breeds, and both were very popular in France at the time that the Bichon Frise was developed. It is also telling that both of those breeds were favored by the French nobility that later came to treasure the Bichon Frise. However, the Bichon Frise has historically been much more closely associated with the other Bichons than either the Poodle or Barbet, and is in fact more similar to the Bichons than those breeds. It is quite likely that the Bichon Frise has some Poodle and/or Barbet ancestry, but likely as a result of crosses to other Bichons.
Although rarely postulated, there is a third potential ancestry for the Bichon Frise that is in many ways much more likely. Since time immemorial, small white companion dogs have been extremely popular with the upper classes of Northern Italy. The Maltese was well known in the region during Greek and Roman times, and its descendants are thought to have been present in the region ever since. Beginning in the 1200’s, the Bolognese (as these dogs came to be called) became extremely popular in the art and written records of the Italian Renaissance. The numerous Italian noble and merchant families had contacts all across Europe and often gave their dogs as gifts to the nobility of other European countries. These dogs became highly prized from Spain to Russia. A number of these dogs are known to have been imported into France, possibly as early as the 1100’s. In the opinion of this writer, the modern Bichon Frise is almost certainly primarily descended from the Bolognese. The Bolognese more similar to the Bichon Frise than any other breed, the two dogs are native to neighboring countries, and there are numerous records detailing the popularity of the Bolognese. Perhaps most persuasively, the breed first became popular during the reign of Francis I, a famous admirer and supporter of the Italian Renaissance.
It is also quite possible that the Bichon Frise was developed by crossing a number of different breeds. At the time, dogs were not kept as pure as they are today, and any small fluffy white dogs probably would have been bred together. Although the full truth will probably never be known, the modern Bichon Frise was probably developed by crossing the Bolognese, Maltese, Bichon Tenerife, Poodle, Barbet, and possibly the Lagotto Romagnolo.
However the Bichon Frise was developed, it came to prominence in France in the 1500’s. The breed first became popular during the reign of Francis I (1515 – 1547). The Bichon Frise reached the peak of its popularity with the French nobility during the reign of Henry III (1574 – 1589). Henry III was so fond of his Bichon Frises that he allegedly carried them with him wherever he went in a basket tied with ribbons. Other nobles began to emulate the King and the French verb, “Bichoner,” was developed which means, “to make beautiful,” or, “to pamper.” Bichon-type dogs were very frequently painted by famous masters, although many of those dogs were probably actually Bolognese. After the reign of Henry III, the Bichon Frise fell somewhat out of favor but it remained popular with the European nobility. A sizable number of Bichon Frises were exported to Russia where they were crossed with Bolognese to develop several small breeds known collectively as Bolonkas. The Bichon Frise again rose to prominence during the reign of Napoleon III (1808 – 1873) when it was once again among the most popular dogs with the French nobility. It became popular to bring these tiny dogs onboard ships to entertain and provide companionship to crews on long voyages. Many of these dogs were exported to Madagascar where they became extremely popular. These dogs eventually gave rise to the Coton de Tulear.
After Napoleon III’s reign came to a close, the Bichon again fell out of favor with the French aristocracy. By that time, the breed had acquired a very large number of fanciers who were not of noble birth. The French economy had advanced to the point where most people could afford to keep a small companion dog, and the Bichon Frise was perhaps the most popular choice. The highly intelligent and trainable breed became a favorite of French performing artists, and was regularly seen performing alongside street performers, organ grinder, and in circuses. The Bichon Frise also became perhaps the world’s first seeing-eye dog, and was used by visually handicapped Frenchmen to guide them through city streets. Because the Bichon Frise was by then primarily kept by commoners, it was not initially popular at French dog shows, nor was it standardized at the same time as other French breeds.
In the years after World War I, the Belgian comic-strip creator Herge began to publish Tintin comics and books. Tintin was often accompanied by his small white dog Milou. Even though Milou was not a Bichon Frise, he increased the popularity of the breed across France. Breeders and fanciers of Bichon Frises got together to standardize their breed and begin to keep breeding records. In 1933, the first written standard was published by Madame Abadie, operator of Steren Vor Kennels. This standard was adopted by the French Kennel Club the next year. Because the breed was known by two names, the Bichon and the Tenerife, the president of the Federation Cynologique Internationale (FCI), Madame Nizet de Lemma, proposed the name Bichon a poil Frise as an official FCI name, which loosely translates to “Small white dog with a fluffy coat.” During this time, Madame Abadie and three other breeders were most influential in the continuing development of the breed.
There are rumors that the first Bichon Frises to arrive in the United States were brought back with soldiers who had fought in World War I. However, these dogs were not bred, and it is unclear how many actually arrived. The breed did not become established in the Western Hemisphere until 1956, when Mr. and Mrs. Picault immigrated to Milwaukee with their six Bichon Frises. The Picaults whelped the first American Bichon Frise litter shortly after moving to the United States. In 1959 and 1960, Azalea Gascoigne of Milwaukee and Gertrude Fournier of San Diego also imported Bichon Frises to the United States and began to breed these dogs. In 1964, these four fanciers joined together to form the Bichon Frise Club of America (BFCA). The BFCA worked diligently to increase the American Bichon Frise population, and to inspire other breeders to join their efforts. The small and charming Bichon Frise proved an ideal fit for the rapidly urbanizing population of the United States, and breed numbers grew rapidly. The goal of the BFCA was always to gain full recognition for their breed with the American Kennel Club (AKC). In 1971, the AKC added the breed to its Miscellaneous Class, at that point the first step towards full recognition. Although most breeds spend many years in the Miscellaneous Class, the BFCA and the Bichon Frise so quickly impressed the AKC that the breed was granted formal recognition in 1972. In 1975, the Bichon Frise Club of America held its first national breed specialty show. In 1981, the United Kennel Club (UKC) also granted full recognition to the Bichon Frise.
From the 1960’s until the 1990’s, the Bichon Frise rapidly grew in popularity in the United States. During this time, the Bichon Frise was among the most popular and fashionable small companion dogs in the United States. By the end of the 1990’s, the breed had become one of the 25 most popular breeds in terms of AKC registrations. However, this popularity came with a price. Many inexperienced Bichon Frise breeders bred dogs that were of inferior quality to those whelped by experienced breeders. Even worse, the small size, low exercise requirements, and high monetary value of pure bred Bichon Frises made the breed one of the most popular breeds with commercial dog breeders, who run operations commonly called puppy mills. Commercial dog breeders care only about the potential profits that they can make, not about the quality of their puppies. Many dogs from such operations exhibit poor and unpredictable temperaments, bad health, and very low levels of conformation to official breed standards. As a result the overall quality of Bichon Frises suffered significantly, although many reputable breeders continued to produce outstanding animals. Many of these puppy mill Bichons proved to be difficult for owners to handle and many ended up in animal shelters and rescue groups.
The popularity of the Bichon Frise began to fall significantly around the turn of the millennium. Part of this was surely due to the damage the breed suffered as a result of its popularity. However, it is probably more due to the fact that breed popularity is cyclical, especially that of smaller breeds. With the exceptions of the Poodle, Yorkshire Terrier, Chihuahua, and possibly the Shih Tzu, most companion breeds go through very large fluctuations in popularity in the United States as trends and fashions change. Over the last decade, a new group of breeds such as the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Havanese, and French Bulldog have made dramatic gains in popularity, and have probably reduced the demand for Bichon Frises. However, the Bichon Frise remains a very popular breed in the United States and in 2011 ranked 39th out of 173 total breeds in terms of AKC registrations.
The Bichon Frise has been primarily bred as a companion dog throughout its history, and the vast majority of breed members are companion animals. Historically, the breed has also been used extensively in the entertainment industry, and many of these dogs are still found in circuses, alongside street performers, and on the large and small screens. In recent years, the Bichon Frise has also made a name for itself as a high level in a number of canine sports such as competitive obedience and agility. The Bichon Frise is also very popular as a therapy dog and service animal for the handicapped.
The Bichon Frise is very similar in appearance to a number of other small, white companion breeds, although this breed is so popular that it is easily recognizable. The Bichon Frise is definitely a small breed, although it is definitely not toy-sized or tiny. The average Bichon Frise stands between 9 and 12 inches, although AKC standards prefer that they stay between 9 ½ and 11½ inches. Weight is heavily influenced by gender, height, and condition, but most breed members weigh between 7 – 12 pounds, although it is far from uncommon for an obese Bichon Frise to weigh between 15 and 20 pounds. The Bichon Frise is a breed that is significantly longer from chest to rump than it is tall from floor to ceiling, usually about 25% longer. The Bichon Frise is definitely not a stocky breed, but this dog is considerably more sturdily constructed than most similar breeds. Although most of the dog’s body is obscured by hair, underneath is a compact and surprisingly muscular breed. The tail of the Bichon Frise is relatively long and carried in a gentle curl over the back.
The head and face of the Bichon Frise are almost entirely obscured by the breed’s hair, often leaving few features other than the nose and eyes easily visible. The Bichon Frise’s head is actually very proportional to the size of its body, although the long hair on many examples makes it appear quite large. The skull is very gently rounded and blends in quite smoothly with the muzzle. The muzzle itself should be approximately 3/5 the length of the skull and neither too thick nor too narrow. It is said that the muzzle should appear well-refined without being snipey. The lips of the Bichon Frise should always be black and never pendulous. The breed’s nose is prominent and always black in color. The ears of Bichon Frise are of average size and droop down. The ears on closely cut dogs hang close to the cheeks but those on longer coated dogs are often held further out. The eyes of the Bichon Frise are round and set in such a way that they face forward. The eyes of this breed may either be black or dark brown, and the skin immediately around them should be the same color. The overall expression of most Bichon Frises is gentle and happy, and blank or staring expressions are considered a serious fault.
If the Bichon Frise were to have a single defining feature, it would probably be the breed’s coat. The Bichon Frise has been famous for centuries for its fluffy, white fur. According to the AKC standard, “The texture of the coat is of utmost importance. The undercoat is soft and dense, the outer coat of a coarser and curlier texture. The combination of the two gives a soft but substantial feel to the touch which is similar to plush or velvet and when patted springs back. When bathed and brushed, it stands off the body, creating an overall powder puff appearance. A wiry coat is not desirable. A limp, silky coat, a coat that lies down, or a lack of undercoat are very serious faults…. The coat is trimmed to reveal the natural outline of the body. It is rounded off from any direction and never cut so short as to create an overly trimmed or squared off appearance. The furnishings of the head, beard, moustache, ears and tail are left longer. The longer head hair is trimmed to create an overall rounded impression. The topline is trimmed to appear level. The coat is long enough to maintain the powder puff look which is characteristic of the breed.” This is the proper show coat for a Bichon Frise. Most owners of Bichon Frises choose to keep their dogs in a short and uniform puppy cut that is significantly easier to maintain. The Bichon Frise is thought of as a pure white dog, and this is definitely preferred under the standards. However, the breed may also have buff, cream, or apricot shading around the around the ears or on the body. No dog may have more than 10% of its body colored however. Occasionally, a Bichon Frise will be born in an alternate coloration such as with an entirely cream coat. Such dogs are ineligible in the show ring and should not be bred but otherwise make just as excellent companion animals as any other breed member.
The Bichon Frise has been bred almost exclusively as a companion animal for more than 500 years and has a temperament one would expect of such a dog. This breed is most known for its merry temper and generally happy personality. The Bichon Frise forms incredibly strong attachments with its family, to whom it shows intense and lifelong loyalty. This breed is incredibly affectionate, very often fawningly so. Bichon Frises want to be in the constant company of their families, and often suffer from severe separation anxiety when left alone for long periods. One of the breeds that is often referred to as a Velcro dog, Bichon Frises often follow their owners around the house, meaning that they are often ,”underfoot.” Well-socialized Bichon Frises have an excellent reputation with children, with whom they are very gentle. Although this breed is definitely not a rough-houser, it is substantial enough that it is not likely to be easily injured accidentally by a child. In fact, many Bichon Frises are very fond of children, especially those that provide them with the extra attention and treats that they crave.
When properly trained and socialized, most Bichon Frises are very tolerant of and polite with strangers. In fact, this breed tends to be incredibly friendly, and many breed members consider any new acquaintance an immediate friend. Poor breeding practices have resulted in shyness appearing in some lines, and such dogs will require extra training and socializing to prevent that shyness from becoming fearfulness. Although generally easy-going, the Bichon Frise is a very alert breed that makes an excellent and vocal watchdog. This breed makes a very poor guard dog, however, as it lacks both the necessary size and aggression.
Bichon Frises usually exhibit low levels of animal aggression. When properly trained and socialized, most breed members are very good with other dogs. While this breed is happy as an only dog, most would love to share their lives with at least one other dog, particularly if it is another Bichon Frise. As is the case with all breeds, a Bichon Frise that has not been exposed to other creatures will probably chase them. However, this breed gets along very well with cats and other pets with which it is familiar.
This breed is considered one of the most highly intelligent and trainable of all dogs. Well-bred Bichon Frises are very willing to please, and many seem downright eager to do so. This dog is a very successful competitor at the highest levels of competitive obedience and agility and is famous for its ability to learn tricks. Once well-trained, most Bichon Frises are very obedient. Some Bichon Frises are considerably more independent minded than others and may not respond as well or quickly to training. Most of these difficulties can be solved by starting training early and using consistent routines.
There is one aspect of training that Bichon Frises have notorious difficulties with. This breed is often extremely difficult to housebreak. The bladders of Bichon Frise puppies are so small that they simply cannot hold it in for as long as larger dogs. Additionally, the dogs are small enough to do their business behind sofas, underneath beds, and other locations where their accidents are likely to go unnoticed and uncorrected. Expect housebreaking a Bichon Frise to take longer, require more crating, and experience more setbacks than would be common in most breeds.
The Bichon Frise is a low energy breed that does not require much exercise to stay happy and fit. This breed is satisfied with a long daily walk of between 30 to 45 minutes in addition to multiple potty walks. Just because this breed does not require much exercise does not mean that it can get by with none at all. Breed members who do not have their minimal needs met are likely to develop behavioral problems such as destructiveness, hyper activity, over excitability, and excessive barking. The Bichon Frise can make an excellent apartment dog, but does greatly enjoy regular opportunities to run around off-leash in a safely enclosed area.
Although generally well-suited to life in urban areas, the Bichon Frise does have one common behavioral problem that may create some difficulties. Like many small breeds, the Bichon Frise tends to be extraordinarily vocal. Bichon Frises tend to bark a great deal, and their barks are often ear-splittingly high-pitched and repeatedly rapidly in quick succession. Training and proper exercise will usually greatly reduce a Bichon Frise’s barking, but they will not eliminate them completely. Individuals that are not properly trained or exercised can become nearly constant barkers that will not stop for hours.
The Bichon Frise is very susceptible to a behavioral condition known as small dog syndrome. Small dog syndrome is caused by owners who do not discipline their small dogs for the same behaviors that they would a larger animal because they are cuter, less dangerous, funny, less annoying, etcetera. No matter the reason, the end result is a dog that thinks that it is in charge of the world. Dogs with small dog syndrome are usually dominant, aggressive, excessively vocal, challenging, and generally out of control. Luckily, this condition is almost entirely preventable with proper training.
As one might expect from looking at the dog’s coat, the Bichon Frise requires a substantial amount of grooming. This dog should be thoroughly brushed every day or every other day and should be bathed at least once a month. The Bichon Frise definitely requires professional grooming, and should go every month or two. Many owners choose to keep their Bichon Frises in a shorter puppy cut. Such cuts require much less maintenance, a brushing three or four times a week and a trip to the groomers very two to three months. The Bichon Frise sheds very little to nothing on a regular basis, and is said to be an excellent choice for allergy sufferers and neat freaks alike. Owners do have to regularly clean around the mouths and ears of their Bichon Frises to prevent infections and staining.
The Bichon Frise is a generally healthy breed. There are not life threatening or debilitating diseases that are especially prevalent in this breed. The Bichon Frise is regarded as being amongst the longest lived of all breeds. This dog has a life expectancy of between 14 and 16 years, and it is far from unheard of them to reach ages of 18 or 19. However, this does not meant that the Bichon Frise is immune to genetically inherited health problems. The BFCA has long been on the leading edge of canine health testing and studies and has conducted a number of studies on Bichon Frises in America. They have found the following conditions to be of the greatest concern in order of prevalence and severity: skin allergies, atopy, bladder infections, bladder stones, patellar luxation, disc disease, dental disease, eye diseases, cancers, cardiac disease, disease of the liver, gastrointestinal problems, and metabolic diseases.
There is almost universal agreement that the Bichon Frise’s most common health issue is skin disorders. Many Bichons have very sensitive skin, and many others have severe skin allergies. These allergies can be extremely uncomfortable for a dog, which can lead to constant scratching and injury. Luckily, many of these conditions are entirely treatable, but most treatments are lifelong and costly.
Because skeletal and visual problems are known to occur in this breed (especially cataracts and patellar luxation), it is highly advisable for owners to have their pets tested by both the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) and the Canine Eye Registration Foundation (CERF). The OFA and CERF perform genetic and other tests to identify potential health defects before they show up. This is especially valuable in the detection of conditions that do not show up until the dog has reached an advanced age, making it especially important for anyone considering breeding their dog to have them tested to prevent the spread of potential genetic conditions to its offspring.
A full list of health problems to which the Bichon Frise is known to be vulnerable would have to include: