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Royal Dog of Madagascar

The Legends and History of the Coton de Tulear Breed

By Gayle Geldermann

Madagascar, the Red Island, is home to some of the rarest and most endangered species on earth.  From this exotic habitat, the Coton de Tulear breed traces its early development.

Oral histories eventually lead to the recording of several fascinating legends which surround the origins of the Royal Dog of Madagascar.  

During the great Spanish expedition era of the 15th to 16th century, the now extinct Bichon Tenerife, a small terrier type of dog, accompanied voyagers to act as ratters and for companionship on the long, tedious journeys at sea.  It is assumed some of the little dogs escaped ship upon landing at shore.  These Tenerife dogs may have mixed with native dogs on the island of Malta, Sicily, France, and South America. Through natural selection certain types may have become more prevalent giving rise to the current day’s Maltese, Bolognese of Italy, South American Havanese, French Bichon Frise, and Lowchen of the Mediterranean region.

 The Coton de Tulear shares a similar background. The Tenerife also made its way, with pirates and sailors, to Reunion in the Indian Ocean.  The little dogs, left behind, became the foundation for the Coton de Reunion, allegedly a cotton-coated dog.  The Reunion dog was brought on sea-faring vessels to Tulear, a trade port in Madagascar.  Although the Coton de Reunion no longer exists, it is generally considered an ancient ancestor of the Coton de Tulear.

The Merina, the ruling tribe of Madagascar, were the guardians of the breed. Only the nobility and wealthy landowners were allowed ownership of the Coton de Tulear, on the world’s fourth largest island.  Thus the Coton became the Royal Dog of Madagascar.

Another tale describes a disastrous shipwreck near the Tulear coast of Madagascar.  The passengers did not survive, however some of the little companion dogs swam to the safety of shore.  These small, strong dogs assimilated into Madagascar’s wild dog population.  Over time, offspring of this association lead to the ancestors of the Coton de Tulear breed.

An anecdotal story attributes the development of the breed to a French woman residing in Madagascar during the 1800’s.  It is described that this colonist mixed the small native dog types with the Maltese, Bichon Frise, Papillon, Bedlington Terrier, and Morondava Hunting Dog breeds producing the basis for the formation of the Coton de Tulear.  The Maltese and Bichon Frise may have endowed the traits of a small, white, cottony, long coat.  The occasional color in Cotons may be the contribution of the Papillon.  The Coton has a slightly convex back similar to the Bedlington Terrier.  The sturdy bone structure of the little Coton may be related to the Morondava Hunting Dog.   

A delightful Malagasy legend outlines the intelligence of the Coton de Tulear breed.  A pack of Cotons needing to cross a riverbank encountered a barrier to their passage-hungry crocodiles.  The clever dogs devised a plan.  A few members of the pack ran to another area of the riverbank and barked loudly as a diversionary tactic.  As the crocodiles crawled up the bank, the Cotons ran like the wind and rejoined their pack to safely swim across to the opposite side.

Historical facts are shrouded by the passage of time.  However the legends give us tantalizing clues regarding the heritage of the Coton de Tulear breed.

The contemporary story of the Coton begins with the recognition of the Coton de Tulear as a distinct breed.  It has been written that during the 1950’s, a small breed dog from Madagascar began to appear in Europe.  This occurrence would seem logical since Madagascar was a colony of France at the time.   During the late 1960’s the Societe Canine de Madagascar sought breed recognition from the Federation Cynologique International (FCI).  By 1971 the Coton de Tulear was recognized as a distinct breed in Madagascar, with the establishment of the first, original breed standard.  The Malagasy Kennel Club held this early FCI Standard.  In the same year, another version of the FCI Coton de Tulear Standard was adopted in Europe.  The primary discrepancy between these two versions is in regards to coat color.  The Malagasy Kennel Club’s published FCI Standard allowed for some coat color, specifically white with black markings in its Coton description.

The Coton de Tulear made its debut in the USA in 1974.  Dr. Jay Russell originally brought two Cotons from Madagascar back to the States.  His father, Lew Russell, founded Oakshade, the first American kennel.   By 1976, a somewhat different breed standard  was written by Dr.  Russell.   However the FCI description of a Coton de Tulear has remained the standard by which Cotons are judged at shows worldwide.

 During the latter part of the 1980’s, legislation was proposed to preserve and protect the Coton de Tulear as a purebred dog in Madagascar.  The future law restricted the exportation of Cotons.  Only two Cotons may be taken out of Madagascar by an individual with Malagasy residency. 

Madagascar was considered a strategic location during the Cold War period.  The country hosted visiting statesman and dignitaries from around the world. As a gesture, the royal gift of a Coton de Tulear was given to former French President, Francois Mitterrand, as well as various Soviet ambassadors. 

Due to political instability in Madagascar, European residents brought many of the best examples of the Coton de Tulear breed back to Europe. Eventually without the presence of the European community within Madagascar, market interest in the development of the Coton de Tulear collapsed.   Malagasy breeders gave their puppies to friends, neighbors and relatives.  Neuter and spay procedures were life-threatening surgeries in underdeveloped Madagascar. Thus the Cotons bred freely with other native dogs inhabiting the island.  The development of the breed closely paralleled the socio-economic and political climate of Madagascar.  Unfortunately today, it is quite difficult to find a purebred Coton de Tulear in Madagascar.

Out of the mists of time, the modern day world is fortunate to have inherited the Coton de Tulear breed and its unique traits!