The ‘Personality’ Dog that endeared itself to Royals

Uday Kumar Varma

Known and admired as a dog of ‘rare personality’ the small and smart Brichon Frisé have remained a favourite and pride of the rich and high. Royals loved them, kings and monarchs patronized them, aristocrats flaunted them. But for a reason.

Impossibly cute and extremely beautiful; and barely a foot tall at the withers, their endearing antics and the skill of arresting attention, places them on a pedestal bringing pride and pleasure to the privileged possessor. Drawing smiles and hugs wherever they go, their irresistible charm is legendary. Read about this breed, the third in the series on the smallest dogs, in this piece.

Bichon Frisé

King Henry III of England was so fond of this dog that he carried it wherever he went in a special basket that he hung from his neck. He did not know that he was setting a trend that millions will follow one day.

And never before in the history of mankind, an animal has faced an existential crisis with the demise of a political regime.  Brichon Frise, the adorable white bundle of soft white fur, a style and symbol of high and haughty living of aristocracy and royalty across Europe, was literally on the street as the French Revolution swept France.

A Rare Resilience

In 1789 as France was overwhelmed by an unprecedented and violent turmoil, Bichon’s days as the pampered and perfumed lapdog of aristocrats came to an uncivil end. One by one as the breed’s benefactors were sent to prison and marched to the guillotine, Bichons lost their position of privilege. Many turned out into the street to fend for themselves. 

But impossibly cute, this bright, brilliant and extra-ordinarily agile piece of beauty, even though on street, could not be ignored, nor could be consigned to anonymity. Their proclivity to antics and an unusual talent for arresting attention of people around them could not be missed. Street entertainers were the first to realize their potential and took them under their wings. They were trained to coax a coin or two from passers- by with their entreating manners. Trainable, irresistibly charming, and always at their best when in the spotlight, Bichons soon became excellent candidates for showbiz success, particularly road shows and circuses.

The lean phase continued till late 1800s.  Considered a common dog, sometimes owned by organ grinders or circus performers and sometimes trained to help lead the blind, they survived. Had it not been for the Bichon’s intelligence and appeal, the breed probably would have become extinct then.

They faced a second crisis in the 20th century. Hard times fell on them because of the shortages and austerities brought on by the two world wars. And again, many Bichons found themselves out in the cold. But there were indomitable admirers who gathered Bichons off the streets of France and Belgium, looked after them and protected them. The breed survived again and there has been no looking back since then.

The breed was recognized in France under the auspices of the Societé Centrale Canine in1933 as the Bichon a Poil Frisé—the “Bichon of the curly hair.” The Bichon was brought to the United States in 1955. A Bichon Frise Club of America was founded in San Diego in 1964. In 2001, a Bichon Frisé named J.R. won best-in-show at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. The Bichon was introduced into Australia in the 1970s and since its introduction has proved successful as both a show and companion dog.

Today, it enjoys a global standing few of its ilk command.

Appearance

Beautiful, playful, cheerful, affectionate, sensitive, gentle but feisty, a Bichon Frise is a small breed of dog that never exceeds 12 inches at their withers, often a few inches shorter. its weight varies between 6 and 7 kilograms and females characteristically and predictably weigh 2 kilos less than their male counter parts. They can live unto 15 years, the average life expectancy being around 12 years. One of them lived till the ripe old age of 21 but it was an exception.

They are mostly white in colour while some show tinges of apricot, cream or buff with the dominant white. The breed’s glory is a white hypoallergenic coat, plush and velvety to the touch, featuring rounded head hair that sets off the large, dark eyes and black leathers of the nose and lips. 

Origin

Bichons are a member of the clan of little white dogs formally known as Barbichon types. They are related to several small breeds: The Coton de Tulear, a dog who originated off the African coast on an island near Madagascar; the Bolognese, bred in northern Italy near the city of Bologna; the Havanese, from Cuba; and the Maltese, developed on the island of Malta in the Mediterranean. (All these are now treated as separate breeds). It is thought that these ancient breeds began their modern development on Tenerife, the largest of the Canary Islands, where they were brought by Spanish seamen. One of these breeds became so popular with the island’s sailors that it was known as the Bichon Tenerife, the primary ancestor of today’s Bichon Frise. It is believed that they were brought back to the Continent by Italians and when the French invaded Italy in 1500s, this breed came back to France as a war booty.

The Tenerife, often simply called the Bichon, had success in France during the Renaissance under Francis I (1515–1547), but its eminence reached a zenith in the court of Henry III (1574–1589), while it had become popular amongst French nobility as both a court companion and a lap dog.

The Royal Connection

There could be some controversy regarding how Bichon Frise arrived in Europe but it is established that the breed’s close association with European nobles began sometime in the 13th century. Most notably, they endeared themselves to the royal courts of Spain, Belgium, Italy, and France, and came into their own during the Renaissance.

The White Duchess, painted by Francisco de Goya in 1795, featuring the Duchess of Alba and her Bichon

Bichons were popular in royal courts during the reigns of France’s King Francis I (1515-1547) and England’s King Henry III (1574-1589) in the 16th century. King Henry III was so fond of his Bichons that he carried them wherever he went in a special basket that he hung from his neck. Bichons became favourites of Spanish royal families and even of such painters as Goya, who included a Bichon in several of his paintings.

Interest in the Bichon Frise remained strong during the rule of Napoleon III.

The White Duchess, painted by Francisco de Goya in 1795, featuring Duchess of Alba and her Bichon

The Bichon and the French

The Bichon Frisé is often depicted as a French dog. Although the Bichon breed type are originally Spanish, used as sailing dogs, also as herding dogs sometimes, the French developed them into a gentle lap-dog variety.

The popular name of the breed, however, became very French. ‘Bichon’ comes from Middle French bichon (‘small dog’), a diminutive of Old French biche (‘female dog’, cognate with English bitch), from Old English bicce, and related to other Germanic words with the same meaning, including Old Norse bikkja, and German Betze. The name Bichon Frise, thus,derives  from the French bichon à poil frisé meaning ‘curly haired small dog’.

Separation Anxiety

Although a high maintenance possession, they keep relatively healthy. But they do have a reputation for suffering from separation anxiety. A prolonged stay all by themselves is very stressful to them. Bichons don’t just like to be with their families, they need to be with their families.

The Personality Dog

Small, sturdy and resilient Bichon Frise stands among the world’s great ‘personality dogs.’ Since antiquity, these irresistible canine comedians have relied on their charm, beauty, and intelligence to weather history’s ups and downs. 

A cheerful attitude is the outstanding trait of the Bichon’s personality. This dog loves to be loved, enjoys being the centre of attention, and is adept at charming his family, neighbours, groomer, or veterinarian with his winning personality.

With their black eyes and fluffy white coat, the Bichon looks almost like a child’s toy, whose looks are enhanced by a perky, good-natured disposition. ‘They are lovers, not fighters, and operate under the assumption that there are no strangers, just friends they haven’t met yet’.

No wonder that they draw smiles and hugs wherever they go.


Uday Kumar Varma, a 1976 batch IAS officer of Madhya Pradesh cadre, was Secretary Information & Broadcasting, member of the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT) and member of the Broadcasting Content Complaints Council, a self-regulatory body for general entertainment channels. As Secretary I&B, he spearheaded the nationwide digitisation programme.

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