The Coton de Tulear is a breed of companion dog native to the nation of Madagascar, where it is the Official National Dog Breed. The Coton de Tulear is known for its sweet and affectionate nature and its cute and charming appearance. Although the breed was only first introduced to the United States and Europe in the 1970’s, it is rapidly gaining in popularity. There is currently a major rift between Coton de Tulear breeders and fanciers in the United States over recognition with the American Kennel Club (AKC), with one group of fanciers working towards full recognition and the other staunchly opposed. The Coton de Tulear is also known as the Royal Dog of Madagascar, the Malagasy Royal Dog, the Coton, and the CDT.
The Coton de Tulear was first developed before written records were kept of dog breeding and most of its early history has been lost to time. Nobody knows for sure how the Coton de Tulear was first developed, and anything said about its ancestry is little more than pure speculation. All that can be said is that the breed was developed in Southern Madagascar, that it was traditionally kept by the Merina (pronounced Mare-In) people, and that it was in existence no later than the 19th Century. It is also universally agreed that the Coton De Tulear is a member of the Bichon family, a very old group of Western European companion dogs typified by small to tiny size, solid or primarily white coloration, and long fluffy coats. Other members of the Bichon family include the Bichon Frise, Havanese, Bolognese, the various Russian Bolonka breeds, and the now-extinct Bichon Tenerife. Sometimes the Maltese and Lowchen are included in the group as well.
The Bichons are a very old group with highly disputed origins. Some claim that the Bichons were descended from the Bichon Tenerife, a small, fluffy white dog native to the Canary Islands, a Spanish Territory off the coast of Morocco. Others claim that these dogs were descended from the Maltese, which was one of the most favored companions of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Yet others claim that the French developed the Bichons by crossing such breeds as the Poodle, Barbet, and Lagotto Romangnolo. Because the historical evidence is lacking and the modern Bichon breeds have been so extensively crossed with each other to render genetic evidence nearly meaningless, the full truth of their origins will probably forever remain a mystery. In the opinion of this author, these breeds are almost certainly descended from the Maltese. The Maltese is one of the oldest of all European breeds, and quite possibly the oldest. There is solid historical and archaeological evidence showing that the Maltese was well-known and common across the Mediterranean several thousand years ago (long before any records of other Bichon breeds), and it was very popular with both the Greeks and Romans, who had the trade and military contacts necessary to spread the breed across Europe.
However the Bichons came into existence, these dogs became the treasured companions of the European nobility. These dogs were frequently depicted in Renaissance artwork and literary works. Although found across Europe, the Bichons were always most popular in France, Spain, and Italy. Although primarily kept by the nobility and upper-class artisans and traders, Spanish sailors quickly adopted these breeds as well. Probably first encountering Bichon-type dogs on the island of Malta and the Canary Islands, Spanish sailors began bringing Bichons with them around the entire world. These small dogs were easy to feed and care for on a ship, and they provided valuable services. These charming dogs provided companionship for sailors on journeys where they might not see their families for months or even years. More importantly, Bichons hunted and killed rats which ate a ship’s valuable stores, poisoned what they did not consume, and spread disease. Eventually sailors operating out of French, Italian, Belgian, and Portuguese ports also began bringing Bichons with them as well.
Bichon-type dogs were reaching the peak of their popularity with sailors at exactly the same time that the Age of Discovery was dramatically increasing European knowledge of the world. These dogs were carried across the entire world, from South America to East Asia. At some point, a group of these dogs made it to the island of Madagascar, although it is not clear how or when. Sources range widely in the time that these dogs arrived. All that is clear is that the breed was developed prior to 1658, when the Frenchman Etienne de Flacourt wrote “The History of the Great Island of Madagascar” which first described the breed. Some claim that it was as early as the late 1400’s, while others claim it was as late as the early 1600’s with the exact introduction theory one prefers strongly influencing the date given. Given the history of European involvement in the Indian Ocean, it is the opinion of this writer that the first Bichons in Madagascar probably did not arrive before the late 16th Century at the earliest, but it is much more likely that they arrived in the 17th Century.
There are many stories detailing how Bichons arrived in Madagascar. The most commonly held theory is that there was a major shipwreck off the southern coast of Madagascar. All the sailors allegedly perished in the wreck, but a few of their small Bichon dogs managed to swim ashore. There are many versions of the tale, with the wreck sometimes being French and other times Spanish. In several popular versions, the ship that wrecked was actually a pirate ship. Although possible, this story is very unlikely. Not only are there absolutely no records of this wreck, it also seems unlikely that the very small number of dogs that could have survived would have been enough to found the entire Coton de Tulear breed. Another popular theory holds that pirates operating off the coast of Southern Madagascar introduced the breed to the island, either by bringing Bichons directly from Europe or by stealing them from other vessels. This theory is also unlikely, and has essentially no evidentiary support. It is unclear how common piracy was in the Indian Ocean at the time, and it is also unclear whether pirates kept Bichon type dogs.
The most likely ancestry for the Coton de Tulear claims that these dogs were first introduced to Southern Madagascar from the islands of Reunion and Mauritius. Settlers from Europe began colonizing the Mauritius and Reunion in the 16th and 17th Centuries. We know that they brought Bichon-type dogs with them because there is solid historical evidence documenting the existence of a breed known as the Bichon de Reunion, which descended from those dogs. It is very likely that French, Dutch, Portuguese, or British traders acquired these dogs on Reunion and Mauritius and then introduced them to the Merina People, who have long been one of the most powerful groups on Madagascar. These dogs may have been traded to Merina rulers for goods, or they may have been given as gifts to earn favor. Because there are no records of such an introduction and genetic comparisons are impossible because the Bichon de Reunion is now extinct, it is impossible to definitively confirm this theory. However, the evidence to support this theory is considerably greater for this theory than any others.
There is major debate among fanciers as to what happened to the Coton de Tulear once it arrived on Madagascar. Some claim that the dog initially went feral, and that it survived by hunting in packs. Proponents of this theory usually claim that the breed hunting lemurs and feral pigs. According to this theory, the breed was forced to live on its own for many years (and perhaps centuries), and only became a treasured companion of the Merina upper classes after it was captured and redomesticated. Others claim that it was immediately adopted by the Merina ruling classes upon arrival on the island. Proponents of this theory usually point out that the Coton de Tulear is too small and lacks the aggression to survive on its own. In the opinion of this author, the second theory is almost certainly accurate while the first is nothing more than a romantic myth. Madagascar would be a very difficult place for a dog to survive. To begin with, any story about packs of Cotons de Tulear hunting feral pigs is absolutely ridiculous. There is simply no way that any number of Cotons de Tulear could bring down an adult pig, regardless of how small the pig is. There are very few other ground dwelling animals large enough for a dog to eat other than rats, small insectivores, and a very small number of lemur species. Most of these animals are extremely well-defended by teeth or spines, and those that aren’t such as the famous Ring-Tailed Lemur can easily escape up a tree where dogs could not reach them. Even if these dogs could have found enough food to sustain themselves, which is highly unlikely, they almost surely would not have been able to escape the island’s predators. Madagascar is home to a mysterious group of carnivores, which scientists still do not know how to properly classify. Among them are the Cougar-like Fossa, a fierce and greatly feared hunter easily capable of killing an adult Coton de Tulear, and seven smaller mongoose and weasel-like species such as the Falanouc and Fanaloka which are capable of killing a Coton de Tulear puppy.
Both because the Coton de Tulear’s breeding was not carefully regulated and because so few ancestral Bichons probably landed on the island, the breed was heavily crossed with native Malagasy hunting dogs. It is not clear exactly what types of dogs figured into the Coton de Tulear’s ancestry, but the Morondava Hunting Dog and local feral Pariah types are thought to have been prominent. These local dogs changed the appearance of the Coton de Tulear, including making them somewhat larger, making their features less exaggerated, and introducing the variety of colors and unique genes found in the modern Coton de Tulear. Such crossings between the Coton de Tulear and other Malagasy dogs almost certainly happed with great frequency, and probably regularly continued well into the 20th Century.
Regardless of how the Coton de Tulear came to be in the possession of the Merina rulers, the dog became highly prized by them. A major symbol of the aristocracy’s status and wealth, the Merina nobility made it illegal for anyone who did not have noble blood to possess one of these dogs. Initially, Madagascar was inhabited by a number of different competing kingdoms and chiefdoms, but the island eventually unified into one nation, a nation in which the Merina people played a major role. The Merina spread the Coton de Tulear across the entire island of Madagascar, although it remained most common in the island’s south. The breed became especially associated with the coastal port city of Tulear, now known as Toliara, located on Madagascar’s southeast. The Coton de Tulear came to be considered a major status symbol across the island, and owning one was a sign of wealth, power, and prestige. Many stories about the Coton de Tulear came to be told across Madagascar. Perhaps the most famous tells of a pack of Cotons de Tulear that needed to cross a crocodile infested river. The dog’s found the shortest and shallowest river crossing and then sent half of the group back up river. The upriver group began barking loudly and drew all of the crocodiles away from the crossing. Once across the river, the first group of dogs did the same thing to allow the stragglers to cross. Based on what is known about the behavior and intelligence of both crocodiles this story is virtually impossible and is almost surely nothing more than a story. It does, however, illustrate the high regard in which the Coton de Tulear is held among the Malagasy People.
After years of intense competition between British and French interests for control of the island, the French Government officially annexed Madagascar in 1890. The French colonial rulers of the island quickly came to appreciate the Coton de Tulear just as much as the native Malagasy. Many soldiers and administrators brought their own Bichon dogs from Europe such as the Bichon Frise, Maltese, and Bolognese and crossed them with the local Cotons de Tulear in an attempt to improve the breed. Although a few breed members were brought back to France by colonial officials, the Coton de Tulear remained essentially unknown outside of its native island until Madagascar achieved full independence in 1960.
During the 1960’s, tourism to Madagascar greatly increased as many Europeans became anxious to see the island’s unique landscapes and wildlife. Many planes were greeted at the airport in Orly by groups of Malagasy in traditional dress and a few Cotons de Tulear. These dogs created quite a stir with the tourists and many purchased them. Breed members brought back to Europe became even more highly sought after and were so valued that selling a single dog could often pay for an entire vacation. As the Coton de Tulear became more valued and popular, a number of disreputable sellers began selling mixed breed animals or other breeds as purebred Cotons de Tulear. To help combat this, in 1970 Monsieur Louis Petit, the president of the Canine Society of Madagascar officially petitioned the Federation Cynologique Internationale (FCI) for full recognition. This request was quickly granted, which allowed the Coton de Tulear to become pedigreed and papered. The demand for papered and pedigreed dogs in Europe skyrocketed, and many examples were shipped to Europe. So many Cotons de Tulear were shipped to Europe that the breed became very rare on Madagascar. By 1980, the Malagasy government had limited the number of purebred breed members that could be exported from the island to 2 per family per year and 200 per year total. This only led to an underground breeding market developing that passed of any small fluffy white dog as a Coton de Tulear. Breeders in Europe worked hard to standardize and improve the Coton de Tulear, resulting in a much more unified breed than what had existed before. European Cotons de Tulear came to have much longer and fluffier coats than their ancestors.
The first Coton de Tulear arrived in America in 1974. In that year, the American Dr. Jay Russell was studying lemurs on Madagascar. He discovered the Coton de Tulear during his work and became enchanted by the breed. He sent several breed members back to his father Lew Russell and the two founded Oakshade Kennel. In 1976, the pair whelped the first breed member to be born in the United States, Jiijy of Billy. The Russells also founded the Coton de Tulear Club of America (CTCA), the first club dedicated to the breed in the United States. The Coton de Tulear attracted a substantial amount of media attention in its early days in the United States and appeared on a number of television programs and in a number of books and magazines. The first European-style standardized Cotons de Tulear to arrive in the United States were imported in 1977 by Jacques Sade, who had acquired his dogs in Madagascar. Sade founded the Plattekill Kennel and produced a number of highly influential dogs.
The Coton de Tulear continued to increase in popularity in the United States throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s. Like many rare breed clubs, the CTCA was staunchly opposed to formal AKC recognition. It is the CTCA’s belief that the AKC does not properly regulate and control its breeders. The CTCA feels that the AKC allows too many puppy mills and backyard breeders to operate and register dogs, which compromises the health, temperament, and quality, of many breeds. The CTCA also believes that the AKC should require all show dogs to be cleared of serious health problems before championships can be awarded. The CTCA has remained very firm in its opposition to AKC recognition, right down to the present day. In the early 1990’s, a number of other Coton de Tulear clubs formed across the United States, although most have since closed down except for the American Coton Club (ACC). Although the ACC and CTCA disagree on a number of points, both clubs are united in their staunch opposition to AKC recognition. Many fanciers and breeders of the Coton de Tulear disagreed with the CTCA’s position and wanted to help their breed earn full AKC recognition. The most long-lasting and influential of these is the United States of America Coton de Tulear Club (USACTC), which was founded in 1993. It has been the primary goal of the USACTC since it foundation in 1993 to get the Coton de Tulear AKC recognized.
The dispute between the USACTC and CTCA/ACC over AKC recognition has become incredibly heated and bitter. These debates were heightened after the Coton de Tulear was granted full recognition by the United Kennel Club (UKC) in 1996 as a member of the Companion Dog Group. Although feelings about the UKC vary dramatically, most breeders of rare dogs and working dogs have a substantially higher opinion of the UKC than the AKC. Both sides have been extremely critical of the other and each other’s members. Many attacks have been quite personal and massive amounts of hate emails have been sent. The fight between Coton de Tulear breeders and fanciers has been equally as equally passionate and nasty as a number of other major disputes over AKC recognition that have played out over the last 20 years, including those over the Australian Shepherd, Border Collie, Neapolitan Mastiff, and Jack Russell Terrier. Just as the AKC recognized all of those breeds over the opposition of many (in some cases the vast majority) of fanciers, the club officially entered the Coton de Tulear into the Foundation Stock Service (AKC-FSS) in 2009. By 2011, the AKC determined that the Coton de Tulear breed and the USACTC had achieved sufficient benchmarks to enter the Miscellaneous Class and become the official AKC parent club, respectively. On June 27, 2012, the Coton de Tulear officially entered the Miscellaneous Class. Entry into the Miscellaneous Class means that full AKC recognition is imminent for the breed, and provided more benchmarks are met the Coton de Tulear will soon become fully AKC registered.
Although AKC recognition appears imminent, the CTCA and the ACC are still making attempts to fight it. The two groups are trying to mobilize their membership to fight such recognition, although it appears that it will be in vain. Those who still oppose recognition are now faced with several options. There is some talk about doing what a number of Border Collie and Jack Russell Terrier fanciers have done and refuse to breed their dogs with any AKC registered breed members. Over the past 20 or so years this has led to such a major divide between AKC and working lines of those breeds that the various lines are essentially different breeds. In the case of the Border Collie, many breeders of non-AKC Border Collies are considering officially changing the name of their dogs to avoid any connection to the AKC lines. It is unclear whether or not the CTCA and the ACC will take such drastic measures, but they remain a possibility.
The Coton de Tulear has always been kept primarily as a companion animal, and the future of the breed is almost certainly as a pet rather than a working dog. In recent years, however, the breed has also begun to make a name for itself in a number of canine competitions such as conformation shows, agility, and competitive obedience. Coton de Tulear numbers are currently increasing rapidly across the United States and Europe, and the breed is becoming more well-known and desirable. Provided that the breed’s current quality can be maintained during this growth, the future of the Coton de Tulear looks bright.
The Coton de Tulear is very similar in appearance to a number of other Bichon breeds, and most casual fanciers would probably mistake it as a mix of one of those dogs. There are several lines of Coton de Tulear, each of which differs somewhat in size, overall appearance, and coat length. This means that anyone wishing to acquire a Coton de Tulear should carefully select a breeder to ensure that their dog has the desired appearance. The Coton de Tulear is a very small dog, although it should not be a tiny one. Most breed members stand between 9½ and 12 inches tall at the shoulder, males typically weigh between 8 and 14 pounds and females are a bit lighter at between 7 and 12 pounds. The Coton de Tulear is significantly longer from chest to rump than it is tall from floor to shoulder, with the ideal dog being about 50% longer. Most of the breed’s body cannot be clearly seen underneath its coat, but this dog tends to be somewhat more sturdily constructed than most breeds without ever being heavy or stocky. The tail of the Coton de Tulear is low set and relatively long. When a Coton de Tulear is at rest, the tail is typically held down with an upwards pointing curve. When the dog is in motion, the tail is carried upright with the tip pointing towards the head.
The head of the Coton de Tulear is quite short, measuring only about 20% the length of the body. When viewed from above, the head forms a triangular shape that is thickest at the back. The skull is quite rounded on top and rather wide, giving it an almost baby-like shape. The muzzle and skull are distinct, but they still blend in relatively smoothly. The muzzle itself is short, approximately half the length of the skull, but this trait should not be over exaggerated as it is in a Shih Tzu or Pug. The muzzle should end in a wide nose that is either black or dark brown in color and contain tight fitting lips that match the color of the nose. The Coton de Tulear usually has a scissors or level bite, but very slight under bites that have no space in between the front teeth are also acceptable and occasionally seen. The ears of the Coton de Tulear are thin, triangular, and drop down very close to the sides of the head. The eyes of the Coton de Tulear are round, dark, brown, lively, and set well-apart. The overall expression of most breed members is cheerful, kind, and gentle.
The coat of the Coton de Tulear is the breed’s most important feature, and that which most distinguishes it from closely related breeds. The coat should be very soft, supple, and cotton-like in texture, never rough or harsh. The coat is dense and profuse over the entire body and may either be straight or slightly wavy. The hair of this breed can grow quite long and fluffy although most owners of pet Cotons de Tulear choose to keep their dogs in a shorter and easier to maintain puppy cut. If left uncut, the Coton de Tulear’s coat may impede the dog’s vision and should be kept out of its eyes with ribbons or barrettes. The Coton de Tulear is primarily white in color, but often exhibits colored markings. According to the UKC official breed standard, “Ground color: White. A few slight shadings of light gray color (mixture of white and black hairs) or of red-roan (mixture of white & fawn hairs) are permitted on the ears. On the other parts of the body, such shadings can be tolerated on 10% of the entire coat as long as they do not alter the general appearance of the white coat. They are, however, not sought after.” The AKC standard is similar although it only permits grey markings on the ears and face, not the body. Occasionally, Cotons de Tulear are born in alternate colorations such as exhibiting too much coloration, too dark coloration, or even being solidly colored. Such dogs are ineligible in the show ring and should probably not be bred, although they make equally excellent companions as any other breed members.
The Coton de Tulear has been bred exclusively as a companion dog for countless generations and exhibits the temperament one would expect of such a dog. This breed is known for being extremely playful and clownish. Many Cotons de Tulear seem to delight in entertaining their masters with tricks and silliness. This breed is usually described as having a “Big Dog Personality,” and the breed is most frequently compared to the Labrador Retriever. This breed does bark, but it tends to be significantly less vocal than many similar breeds.
The Coton de Tulear tends to be extremely devoted to its family, with whom it forms intense bonds. This is a breed that wants to be in the constant company of its family and may develop severe separation anxiety issues in their absence. The Coton de Tulear is an incredibly affectionate dog, usually fawningly so. This breed is a much better choice for families with children than many other similar breeds because the Coton de Tulear tends to be very gentle and affectionate with them. Many breed members seem to actively enjoy the company of children and follow them around the house all day. Adult Cotons de Tulear also tend to be considerably less fragile than most other small dogs. Coton de Tulear puppies may not be ideal for young children as they can be very fragile and delicate.
When properly trained and socialized, the Coton de Tulear is usually very accepting of strangers, and most breed members are very friendly with them. These dogs tend to think that any new person is a potential friend and playmate, and often must be trained to not greet with face jumping and licking. The Coton de Tulear makes a very vigilant watchdog that will always notify its family of the approach of a stranger, although their barks are more excited greetings than warnings. The Coton de Tulear makes a very poor guard dog as it is too small, and most of these dogs would probably follow a stranger home than show one aggression.
The Coton de Tulear usually exhibits low levels of dog aggression, and most breed members would greatly prefer to share their lives with another dog, especially another Coton de Tulear. As is the case with any breed, Cotons de Tulear that have not been properly socialized with other dogs may develop issues with them. This breed also tends to get along very well with other animals. All dogs will probably chase animals with which they are unfamiliar, but training and socialization will usually make this breed very trustworthy around them.
The Coton de Tulear is regarded as both highly intelligent and extremely eager to please. Not only do these dogs learn a great deal and very quickly, but they seem to absolutely delight in making their owners happy. This dog takes to basic obedience and manners training very quickly, and is also a master at learning tricks. This breed is also very skilled at canine competitions such as obedience and agility trials. There is probably no excuse for having a poorly trained Coton de Tulear, and those willing to take extra time and effort will probably be rewarded with a fabulously trained dog. Harsh training methods should never be used on this sensitive breed which responds much, much better to rewards-based methods, especially when the reward is a treat. Cotons de Tulear do provide major difficulties in one aspect of training: housebreaking. The bladders of Coton de Tulear puppies are very small, meaning that they simply cannot hold it in for as long as larger breeds. Additionally, the puppies are so small that they can easily hide underneath a chair or behind the sofa when they do their business, which means that their accidents often go unnoticed and uncorrected. This breed will housebreak, but owners should expect the process to take several months longer than is the case with larger breeds and for there to be numerous accidents and the occasional backslide.
This is among the most active and energetic of all small companion dogs. Cotons de Tulear absolutely love to play outside, and can follow their owners on horseback for several miles. Although this is definitely a breed that should live indoors, the Coton de Tulear is hardy enough to spend time in the somewhat adverse weather conditions, and absolutely loves the snow. Not nearly as dainty as one would think, Cotons de Tulear often love to go swimming, jogging, or for bicycle rides. Because of this, the Coton de Tulear does require more exercise than many similar breeds, at least 30 to 45 minutes every day. Without this activity, this breed may develop behavioral problems such as destructiveness, hyper activity, excessive barking, and over excitability. That being said, this breed is certainly not going to run its owners ragged, and the average committed family will be able to meet its needs with little difficulty. Although the Coton de Tulear would love a yard to play in, this breed adapts very well to apartment life. Because this breed is capable of substantial and rigorous exercise but does not need to every day, it makes an excellent choice for families who love going on weekend adventures but may not have the time to provide a dog with hours of activity during the week.
Owners of Cotons de Tulear do need to be aware of small dog syndrome. Small dog syndrome occurs when owners fail to correct bad behaviors of a small dog in the same manner that they would those of a large dog. There are many reasons for this such as not wanting to hurt the dog’s feelings or thinking that a small dog is not as dangerous as a large dog, but the end result is always the same: a small dog that thinks it is control of the world. Dogs suffering from small dog syndrome tend to be dominant, aggressive, excessively vocal, badly behaved, and generally out of control. Luckily, small dog syndrome is almost entirely preventable with proper training.
As one would expect from the breed’s coat, the Coton de Tulear requires a substantial amount of grooming. This breed should be thoroughly brushed several times a week, preferably at least every other day. During these grooming sessions, owners must thoroughly search for any potential tangles and mats and carefully brush them out. This breed also requires regular baths. Dedicated owners will find that the Coton de Tulear does not always require professional grooming, although most find it easier to take their dog’s to the groomer on a regular basis. Many owners choose to have their Cotons de Tulear shaved into a low maintenance puppy cut. The Coton de Tulear sheds very little to no hair, and although no breed is truly hypoallergenic, allergy sufferers have claimed that this breed bothers them less than many others.
The Coton de Tulear is regarded as a generally healthy breed. Although a number of health problems have been identified in Cotons de Tulear, most are found at significantly lower rates than similar breeds. The Coton de Tulear has greatly benefitted from having breeders who are absolutely dedicated to maintaining the breed’s health. The CTCA, ACC, and USACTC all regularly conduct health surveys and have implemented breeding procedures and protocols designed to maintain the breed’s good health. It is hoped that by constantly remaining vigilant, the Coton de Tulear will remain largely free of the problems that have been so problematic to many purebred dogs.
Although skeletal and visual problems are not common in this breed, they have been known to occur, and 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 which have been identified in Cotons de Tulear would have to include: