The Bichon Frisé

Energy and affection in a powder-puff package


The little white dogs danced on hind legs, paws waving in the air, black button eyes gleaming with intelligence and a touch of mischief. They yapped their pleasure at the attention of a visitor, attention they take as a divine right, for they are Bichon Frisé, the consummate companion dogs.

Born in the Mediterranean in the days of ancient exploration and the opening of trade routes between east and west, the Bichon is a healthy breed, hardier than his powder-puff appearance suggests to the casual observer. His beginnings are a bit obscure, but it is known that the Phoenicians and other ancient traders carried small white dogs on their journeys long before the time of Christ. These dogs may have been related to the larger Barbet, a water spaniel. They took up residence on various islands and on the European mainland and eventually became the five Bichon breeds of today: the Coton de Tulear, Bolognese, Havanese, Maltese, and Bichon Frisé. Only the Maltese and Bichon Frisé are recognized by the American Kennel Club.

The Bichon Frisé began life as the Tenerife Terrier on Tenerife Island in the Canary Islands in the Atlantic Ocean northwest of the African coast. Eventually, as trade routes expanded and countries changed hands, the Tenerife Terrier traveled to the Continent and evolved into the Bichon Frisé of today.

Bichon mind and body

The Bichon Frisé stands tall at 9.5-11.5 inches at the withers and weighs seven-to-12 pounds. His compact body is medium-boned and is slightly longer than tall. His sassy expression is enhanced by halos of dark skin around black eyes and by black eye rims and nose leather.

Bichon ears droop and are covered with long flowing hair trimmed to balanced a bearded muzzle and a slightly rounded head. The neck is arched, giving the dog a confident stance.

The lowest point of the Bichon chest reaches the elbow or below and flows smoothly along the ribs and abdomen to a moderate tuck-up in front of the hind legs. The back is firm, the body well-muscled for effortless movement. The tail is well-plumed and curves gracefully over the back.

Bichons are always white, but puppies can have shadings of buff, cream, or apricot around ears and on the body. Colors on adult dogs are heavily penalized in the show ring.

The Bichon coat is unique. The undercoat is soft and dense, the guard hairs coarser and curlier. When trimmed, the coat follows the lines of the body and is left long enough to give the breed's characteristic poufy appearance, with hair left longer on head, ears, beard, and tail. The coat should not be wiry, limp, or over-soft.

Gentle, perky, playful, and affectionate, the Bichon is a delightful family companion, well-suited for apartment living or for families with older children. Some Bichons dislike sudden touching, which makes them unsuitable for families with small children. Prospective buyers should keep in mind that this breed needs to be with people; families that spend most of the time away from home should select another breed.

The Bichon gets along well with other animals; he is bright, and outgoing and loves to learn tricks. He's not a guard, but h does bark when strangers approach.

Bichon care

Anyone considering a Bichon should carefully weigh the amount of time available for grooming, for the coat needs lots of attention. Bichon undercoat does not drop when the hair dies, so it must be combed from the coat to avoid hot spots and prevent mats and tangles. Even if the dog is to be professionally groomed every month, owners must be prepared to brush the pet at least twice each week. Puppies must be accustomed to brushing at an early age, a process that requires much patience and gentle handling.

Bichon surroundings should be kept as clean as possible to keep dirt and chaff out of the coat and prevent flea infestations. The breed is susceptible to skin irritations; careful coat care can keep skin healthy and problems to a minimum.

White dogs stay white by frequent bathing. The coat must be completely free of snarls before bathing or the hair will compress into felt-like mats.

Other than coat care, the Bichon is a relatively easy keeper. The breed is subject to some allergies that cause skin problems, bladder stones, ear infections, and a neurological problem that has been associated with vaccination protocols.

Bladder stones are linked to excessive protein, magnesium, and phosphorus in the diet and with long confinement that forces the dog to hold his urine. Symptoms of bladder stones include frequent urination, bloody urine, straining to urinate, and loss of appetite.

Ear infections occur in many breeds that have drop ears that do not allow air circulation. Thus it is important to keep Bichon ears clean and free of inside hair. The groomer can pluck the hair; the veterinarian may recommend periodic cleaning with a special ear wash.

The problem with vaccinations occurs when inoculation for parvo virus is given in combination with vaccines for distemper, hepatitis, leptospirosis, and parainfluenza (DHLP). Many breeders recommend that parvo vaccinations be given two weeks after the DHLP shots.

Bichon training

The Bichon is a wonderfully trainable breed. He enjoys obedience, tricks, therapy work, and agility. Training must be gentle and firm, with no harsh corrections or scolding. Buckle collars, leather training collars, or reversed pinch collars are acceptable for training, but chain or nylon chokers will get tangled in the hair. Treat training works well, although an owner could easily fall into the habit of treating a Bichon into obesity when the little dog learns the variety of tricks he is capable of. Roughhousing is definitely out with this guy, and play-training is in.

The Bichon is highly sociable but can become frantic if not appropriately trained as a puppy and young adult. He's fairly active indoors, so owners must teach some manners for control. However, he will seldom need more than a couple of class sessions unless the owner gets bitten by the competition bug.

His gentle nature is perfect for therapy work in nursing homes and children's hospitals, a calling that can be rewarding to the owner, the dog, and the patient.

The Bichon Frisé Club of America recommends against buying this breed from a pet shop. “You may be captivated by a puppy in a pet shop,” according to the club brochure, “and although it has all the proper papers and its parents are purebred Bichons, you will never be able to evaluate the puppy's parents nor do you know anything about the puppy's upbringing.”

The Bichon cousins

The Coton de Tulear originated off the African coast on the Isle of Reunion near Madagascar, but takes its name from a region of the larger island, where he became known as the Royal Dog of Madagascar. The Coton has an unusual cottony coat, probably developed from a genetic mutation.

The Bolognese developed in northern Italy, near the city of Bologna. He, too, became a court favorite in both France and Italy.

The Havanese developed in the new world in Cuba, possibly as crosses with other small breeds, The Havanese is the only Bichon breed that comes in colors; the others are all white.

The Maltese is the smallest of the five and may be the oldest. He comes from the island of Malta in the Mediterranean and is perhaps related to the small spaniels of Europe and the Miniature Poodle.

For more on this breed see the AKC Bichon Frese Page.

Norma Bennett Woolf

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