The Bichon Frise was reported to having originated from the Mediterranean. It is a descendant of the Water Spaniel (or Barbet) and the Standard Poodle. Many online Bichon Frise guides make the mistake of claiming that the cross breeding has resulted in the creation of the Barbichon breed.
In truth, however, the word “Bichon” (French for “small long-haired dog”) has been in use since 1588 in comparison to “Barbichon” (“small poodle”), which was used in 1694. The time of usage of these two terms as well as historical documents purporting the breed to have originated in the 15th century is proof enough that the Bichons, of which the Bichon Frise is a member, is a much older breed than the Barbichons.
Because of their cheerful temperaments, the Bichon has been a favorite companion of European sailors, and have been used as barter as they traveled from country to country. Initially popular in Spain, it is reported that Spanish sailors introduced the breed to Tenerife in the Canary Islands. During this time, the dog was either called “Tenerife” or “Bichon”. Italian tradesmen then rediscovered the breed and brought the dogs back with them to Italy during the Renaissance period, wherein they became the favorites of Italian royalty. Many paintings of Bichons during this era depicted the plucky little dog with a lion-style haircut.
Thanks to an exchange of cultural ideas, the popularity of the little dog even reached France. In fact, it was said that King Henry III became so enamored of his Bichon that he would carry his pet around in a small basket adorned with ribbons tied around his neck. The Breed was a particular favorite among the Infantas of Spain. Even Spanish painters loved to put a Bichon or two in their paintings. Some of the masterpieces of famous Spanish artist Francisco de Goya featured the Bichon.
Renewed interest in the Bichon was sparked during the reign of Napoleon III. However, by the late 19th century, interest in the dog has waned considerably, so that the Bichon has been reduced to a common stray. Even then, Barbary organ grinders saw the intelligence in the little dog and have used them to perform tricks to the delight of passers by and crowds. The Bichon has even earned the reputation of being one of the earliest “seeing eye” dogs.
In March 5, 1933, the Société Centrale Canine adopted the official standard of the breed, thanks in part to the tremendous success of the “Tintin” books, which featured a Bichon named Milou. Because it was still being called as “Tenerife” or “Bichon” during this time, the President of the Fédération Cynologique Internationale decided to end the matter by giving the breed its official name based on its white curly coat – Bichon Frise. By October 18, 1934, the Bichon Frise was admitted into the Société Centrale Canine’s stud book.
Despite the breed’s popularity in Europe and Australia, it took some time before the Bichon Frise was recognized in the United States. Despites its introduction in 1955, the Bichon Frise was only admitted into the American Kennel Club Stud Book in October 1972.
The story of the origins of the Bichon Frise is testament to the breed’s hardiness through time. Indeed, this cheerful little dog has carved its own niche in the annals of human history.