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:
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
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.