Coton De Tulear : a Soft Cotton Ball Born From the Sea

It’s easy to imagine a pack of little cotton balls running happy and free on the beautiful Malagasy seaside at sunset! The mystery is: how did those wonderful four legs arrive there?

Fig. 1: “The unique photo of the actual Coton from which the first breed standard was based.”

The legend goes that a boat sank off the Madagascar coast in the area of Tulear and a few small, white dogs reached the coast and settled there. The history confirms that often little dogs were used on the sailing ships to hunt mice or as precious toys of noble women even when traveling. It’s also proven that European vessels approached the island regularly; however, nothing con-firms the “Titanic” version.

The first historical description of a dog on the island was made by Fort-Dauphin Governor Etienne de Flacourt who described them as a “quantity of dogs which are small, have long snouts and short legs like foxes. There are some of them that are white. They engendered with dogs that came from France and stayed, they have short ears.”

Were these the ancestors of our Cotons? Nobody can confirm. In that time not only the French but also the Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish and English landed on the island. Moreover, in the Middle Ages, the Arabic, Indians and Indonesians approached the island, maybe bringing with them some dogs from their own country. And last but not least, could there have been an endemic, pre-existent breed of canine in Madagascar?

In 1928, there was a second written testimony by French scientist Guillaume Grandider. He reported the meeting of the local dogs, “poor starving animals that roam in villages fighting for the most squalid pig’s garbage, or that go away in the bush where they survive on their hunting as wild animals” in his book Histoire physique, naturelle et politique de Madagascar.

Most likely, the Coton survived in packs in the wilderness, but they also became companion dogs of the native Malagasy and Merina tribal nobles, gaining the name, “The Royal Dog of Madagascar.” It is a unique dog amongst several unique animals found on this wild and isolated island. Still, the origin of the Coton is mysterious, apart from the fact that they lived in Madagascar where the natural selection staggered over four centuries and gave us a rural, lively, smart, happy, strong dog that is able to survive in a very difficult environment…the Coton is a small and extraordinary dog.

And when were they first considered by the official fancy? Notwithstanding the colonists who had tamed the dogs, Cotons were jealously preserved, owned and bred by a few high ranking families (and probably by the French colonies settled on the island). However, no registry nor any sign of an official organization was created until 1966, when a small group of people, including Mr. Luis Petit, established the Société Canine de Madagascar that immediately applied to the FCI (Federation Cynologique Internationale) to have the recognition of the Malagashy breed…Coton de Tulear.

Official breed recognition arrived a few years later, and in 1971 the first standard was internationally published. A group of expert judges, among them Monsieur Leblond, Monsieur Triquet and Monsieur Le Petit met on the island to study the breed and wrote the first description of the ideal Coton de Tulear, the first standard. This is the unique picture (kindly given from Monsieur Leblond, see Figure 1) of the best Coton bred in Madagascar from which the first standard was written.

In the handbook la société canine de Madagascar, there is a chapter titled “le chiens de compagnie” (companion breeds). It lists in this group several breeds, including the Chow Chow, Dalmatian, Pug, Pekingese and the Bichon maltais (officially appointed as one of the ancestors of the Coton), as well as the Coton. Under Coton, it reads “…the Malagasy kennel club had asked for the recognition of the Coton de Tulear. This recognition was granted in 1971 by the FCI. As for all newly recognized breeds, the parents after having been seen by a specialist judge of the breed, are registered in the Register Initiale (R.I.).” No ancestors are noted on the certificate, apart from the recognized and registered ones. The same is true for the progeny of these registered parents, the progeny also needs to pass the judge’s examination as puppies or as adults, only in this case the generations are listed on the pedigree. This is the procedure to follow until there are four complete generations noted. Only after four generations, the puppies are automatically registered in the Livre des origins de la Republique Malagasy (L.O.R.M.).

The first Coton de Tulear to own an official T.I. pedigree, a titre initial(meaning no unknown ascendants) was U’Rick, a black and white male born on January 2, 1971. His registration was issued on November 23, 1972. We can find these Malagasy pedigrees numbers contained in some of our old Coton registrations near the old ancestors’ names. The number is easily recognized by the initials R.I.M., which mean that it is a registration only based on the appearance of the dog (phenotype), not on his genotype. This is the reason why before being able to have an automatic regular pedigree it’s necessary to wait four generations, because this allows a genetical stabilization of the breed type.

Unfortunately the Société canine de Madagascar did not register any other Cotons for the next 12 years. They started again in May, 1984. A dog show was held on June 4, 1989 at the Hilton Hotel in Madagascar. There were 8 Cotons entries. The judge awarded only four of them with the recognition as Cotons. They were classified as follows:

1. ECC, Milou (Owner by Ola Ell)

2. ECC, Balita (Owned by Randriamananja)

3. Very Good, Bao (Owned by Randriamananja)

4. Very Good, Bouba (Owned by Rakotomavo)

be known in Europe. First in France (Madagascar had been a colony of France for many years) and soon exponentially in the rest of Europe. Later on, the patronage of the breed passed to French Kennel Club, Société Centrale Canine. Nowadays in France, Denmark and Finland the Cotons are within the largest breed in the FCI Toy Group. In the US during the 70s, the first two breeders were Jay Russell and Jacques Sade. Russell seems to have been the first to import from Madagascar; he bred under the kennel name Oakshade the Cotons. In 1976, he had his first puppy, Jiijy of Billy. The other pioneer of the breed in the US, Sade of Platekill Kennel in New York area, bred the Champion Cottonkist Macaroon, owned by Kennette Tabor.

What is sure, despite the hypothetical origin of the Cotons from a mixture of breeds (from Barbet to Maltese, from Bichon Tenerife to Papillon, from Bolognese to Bedlington Terrier), the Coton is a unique mix of beauty, intelligence and happiness which make him an undisputed wonderful companion. Not only is he family-oriented, but also a therapy dog, a disc player and a dancing dog—he would not disappoint you in Obedience or Agility either.

Two Cotons that deserve to be mentioned as memorable champions of Agility are Eden (J. Vasserot) in France and Bar-ken’s Happy go Lucky, bred by Barbara Adcock and loved by Brenda Magnon in the US.

Though able to perform with success in all the sports and disciplines, it does not overshadow that the Coton is a special friend also in your home. This is a dog that likes to be with you all the time. It is not pretending or demanding, just a “white shadow” that loves to lay down by your feet. However, they are not lap dogs by any means! They are always ready for a walk, a ride, a swim or a game—they are clownish and want to have fun, but…only with you. Advised also as dogs for people suffering from allergies because they don’t have doggy odor and do not shed. They are also “anti-stress” dogs to cuddle and hug in every moment of your day. Cotons have been referred to as the anti-depressant breed because of their happy, adaptable and empathetic personality. Cotons are excellent companions for people with disabilities and a fantastic addition to families with children.

What could convey a better sense of well-being than what you feel stroking their hair? It’s because the Coton coat is unique; no other dog has such a cottonlike coat. The name of the breed derives from their beautiful “cotton” coat and from the port of Tulear—a vital area of plantations and trade of cotton. The beautiful Coton coat had the original purpose of being an excellent insulation from heat. Today, it could be a functional insulation against cold, too.

The Coton coat is fluffy and airy and, like the Bedouin tribes of the desert who cover themselves, their coat is like a barrier. Also the white color is not by chance; it’s well known that light colors reflect the light instead of absorbing it.

Other singular characteristics are the patches of colors that sometime appear on Coton puppies. The breed is generally white but again, like cotton plants, they are not pure white. It is true that the general appearance of an adult Coton is generally white, but if you look carefully at the coat, you can see shades of pale yellow, grey, off white, sable and fawn—especially in the ear area.

born with strong patches of colors that could go from black to red, from yellow to champagne, from off white to ivory. These color marks often get lighter when the Coton reaches adulthood, and could even disappear. Rarely do the patches remain the original color. The standard requires the coat of an adult to have the impression of a general white appearance. The majority of breeders keep a few Cotons with colored coats in their breeding programs in order to have a good pigmentation and keep the breed healthy, but also because this is a peculiarity of this breed! It’s not unusual to see color-coated pups born from white parents. And color-coated Cotons are sure beautiful to see! Not all of them need to compete for championships! A Coton in full coat, whether for show reasons or just for its beauty, requires almost daily care. While it is also possible to keep in a shorter puppy cut for easier maintenance, since Cotons do not shed it takes a lot to grow back.

The coat is the first of five necessary points that define a true Coton. The texture is different from a Maltese’s silk one (normally straight), and different from woolly one (often disordered, frisee, thin and short) and never harsh, hard or rough or similar to human hair (like for example, the Lhasa Apso). An atypical texture is a big fault. The Coton’s coat is similar to a cotton swab—always dense, fluffy, very soft, supple and can be slightly wavy. To evaluate the right texture at a dog show, a judge should take the coat in his fingers, lift it up and rotate it with his fingers for a while and then let it down. Normally a good texture coat doesn’t fall down but stays up itself. The length is important, but not as much as the texture. A Coton’s coat must have some length, but not to the floor!

e indispensable to define a Coton? Surely the expressive eyes. Eyes (dark brown or black) have a rather round shape, of good size, never bulgy or almond! It’s also important that they are never too close: eyes must be set wide apart with the inner corners and the outer corners on the same level. The are not completely “frontal” like a Shih Tzu and they are not lateral like a Whippet. The eyes are slightly subfrontal. The rims of the eyelids must be completely pigmented in black. These eyes must give the sweet, lively, empathetic expression of a Coton. The eyes are really important to define the head type, the third of essential features of a Coton.

above: Correct proportion

The head type is defined by its shape, proportions, profiles and cranial axis. The head must be in proportion with the rest of the body. Then skull/muzzle should be in proportion of 9 to 5. The head is short and, when seen from above, it must resemble a triangle; that means that the cranial region must be wide and slightly rounded (when seen from the front). The stop is slight. One very important point that must be considered is the parallelism of the two cranial axes. Lately some Cotons are losing the right expression, not only with muzzles that are too long, but also with divergent cranial axes (we could simplify saying slopping noses, or noses pointing down). In fact, convergent or divergent cranial axes really modify the expression compared to a parallel axis. This could give the expression of a nasty and mean dog, surely not the happy and sympathetic Coton expression! If you have correct eyes and head, the expression displayed is that of a lively, smart, intelligent, inquisitive, alert and happy dog: the Coton’s “joy for life!” Also for the correct expression, a Coton must have ears that are triangular in shape and set high (pendulous, never erect or partially erect), the correct bite and a good chin. Never forget to evaluate the sexual dimorphism: a male must have a masculine head that is different from the femininity of a female head.

The fourth point is the top line. A standing Coton has an unmistakably unique topline with the slightly rectangular, arched top line that continues with the curved tail, much like a gentle sea wave. (The tail at rest must be carried below the hook, tip being raised. An excited dog could raise its tail, but it should stay down if gently touched at the base.) While moving, the tail is curved over the back so that the hair of the tail rests on the back with the point toward the nape, the withers, the back or the loin.

The fifth point that makes a Coton a Coton: the indispensable joie de vivre—the expressive smile and witty personality of the Coton. An aggressive specimen or an extremely shy dog must never be awarded, or even bred. This is the main trait that makes a Coton the most wonderful, loving companion and we must preserve it.

  • Eli De Luca is a journalist with an innate passion for dogs. As a teenager, with her father Franco, she founded the Cotonbrie kennel. She has spent many years exhibiting Cotons all over the world, collecting more than 500 Championships (among them 25 World Champions, 2 Crufts winners, and then France, Finland, Norway, Switzerland, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Argentina, US, Aruba, Monte Carlo, Poland champions, BISS…). As an International Merit breeder (USACTC, Enci.), she is on the board of the national CCC (Italian Toys Club) and on the Board of local section of Italian kennel Club. Eli is the director of two dog newsletters and cooperates with several dog magazines. She is one of the few FCI judge breed specialists since 2001. She judged Toys specialties all over Europe and she has been invited to judge Crufts, Norwegian winner, Nordic winner, and the World Dog Show in 2015. Moreover, she has been invited to speak at seminars in the UK and USA. She is the author of the book on the breed, Coton’s World (orders directly to written in 2003.

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