When Winston Churchill spoke of a "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma," he was referring to Russia -- but his statement describes the history of the little white dog known as the Coton de Tulear. While there's not a lot of legitimate documentation regarding the Coton, there's no shortage of legends. Evidence suggests this rare dog shares ancient bloodlines with similar small, white canine breeds.
The breed's name reveals some of its ancestry. "Coton" means cotton, referring to the color and quality of the hair. De Tulear refers to a small port on the large island of Madagascar, located in the Indian Ocean off Africa's southeast coast. Madagascar was once a French colony, but the history of the Coton de Tulear predates that of France's colonization of the island. The Cotons, known as the "Royal Dogs of Madagascar," were owned by the ruling Merina nobles.
In Rome, the ancestors of today's Cotons de Tulear were known as table dogs, accompanying their aristocratic owners to dinners and other events. It's possible that these dogs made their way to Rome via trade caravans from central Asia. The Cotons' ancestors were also the progenitors of breeds such as the Maltese, the bichon frise and the Havanese. Small, light-colored companion dogs often accompanied sailors and seafaring travelers. Whether by shipwreck or more prosaic means, these are the dogs that ended up in Madagascar in the 15th century.
The Coton ancestors -- known as Cotons de Reunion -- arriving in Madagascar quickly became feral, breeding with native island canines and forming packs. Even modern Cotons form strong pack bonds and, unlike related breeds, still enjoy hunting. By the 1600s, the Cotons were domesticated and living in noble households.
While the origins of the Coton de Tulear are mostly lost in the mists of time, actual breed establishment is relatively recent. Selective breeding by the French in Madagascar didn't begin until World War II. By the 1960s, after Madagascar's independence, the Cotons became popular "souvenirs" of French vacationers. The Fèdèration Cynologique Internationale, or World Canine Organization, officially recognized the breed in 1999. The American Kennel Club officially permitted the breed to qualify for AKC registration as of June 2, 2014, and to compete in the non-sporting division at AKC-recognized dog shows as of July 2, 2014.