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Get to Know the Coton de Tulear: Island Magic

The dog became the beloved Royal Dog of Madagascar, but how he got there is anybody's guess -- perhaps he swam ashore!

Lynn M. Hayner  |  May 9th 2016


Did the Coton de Tulear’s ancestors actually survive shipwrecks and swim ashore to Madagascar many centuries ago? We may never know for sure. But we do know that once on the island, the Coton de Tulear (KO-Tone Dih TOO-Lay-ARE) became the beloved Royal Dog of Madagascar. Today, the Coton’s growing fan club adores his lovely white cottony coat, cheerful disposition, vivaciousness, and joyful antics.

Coton chronicles

The story of the Coton weaves fact and folklore. Madagascar was a popular stopping point for trade with voyagers in the 15th and 16th centuries. Travelers sometimes had small, Bichon-type canine companions. Today’s Coton is likely related to the Cotons on the island Réunion. Accounts of the breed’s arrival specifically on Madagascar include stories of pirates, traveling ladies, French sailors, and a shipwreck or two. Once on the island, the Cotons developed survival skills, adapting to the rugged conditions. This history contributes to the breed’s traits today: highly adaptable and small but sturdy. On Madagascar, Coton ancestors likely got frisky with local dogs and voila! The Coton de Tulear as we know him. The Cotons became a favorite with the monarchy. Ownership of Le Coton de Tulear was reserved for Malagasy nobility and the wealthy.

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Coton de Tulear by Shutterstock.

Today, anyone can share a delightful friendship with the sweet Coton. Always hopeful for fun activities, Cotons are active, but they don’t demand strenuous exercise. In fact, the Coton makes a charming apartment companion, as long as he’s walked daily.

Cotons greet their owners with excitement. Some show a famous Coton “smile,” sing a song, or dance a jig. Frisky and lighthearted, Cotons usually can play nicely with (generally older) respectful children. Properly socialized Cotons are polite with other dogs, too. An ideal guard dog? Not exactly, although most Cotons do sound an alarm when newcomers arrive. Eager to please and easy to train, the Coton’s versatility keeps him at the top of his game, starring in sports like obedience, rally, agility, and canine freestyle.

A cottony soft lifestyle

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Coton de Tulear by Shutterstock.

What does life with a Coton look like? Well, don’t expect boredom, that’s for sure. According to longtime owner Eileen Narieka, if you share your life with a Coton, you can probably expect:

  • Smiles! Some Cotons even smile outwardly (often posing up on their hind legs at the same time!), but all smile on the inside about time with their adored loved ones.
  • Celebratory jigs. Cotons give highly exuberant greetings. Eileen’s Cotons greet her even as she moves from one level of the house to the other.
  • High-spirited chase. Don’t be surprised to see your Coton running after little critters in the yard. After all, early Cotons needed survival skills on Madagascar.
  • Barking. Families can look forward to some (fortunately not incessant) happy barking when newcomers arrive.
  • Yes! Answers to the question: Do you want to cuddle on the couch? Cotons adore being your television, reading, or nap-time companion.
  • Chatting. Most families with Cotons eventually pretend to understand the Coton’s distinctive attempts to chitchat; the dogs certainly seem intent on conversing.
  • Zoomies. Cotons often love to twirl and zoom around the house, often for reasons known only to them.
  • Portability. Adaptable and small enough to fit in a carrier even on an airplane, Cotons thrive on inclusion. A postcard just won’t do; they love being packed up for adventures.

Coton-admiring celebrities

Celebrities and non-celebrities alike revel in the cottony dog with the island history. Barbara Streisand, Debra Messing, and Catherine Zeta-Jones all adore Cotons. Looking for male celebs with a heart for Cotons? My guess is quite a few of them cuddle Cotons, too, but maybe not in front of the paparazzi lens. Actress Jane Fonda shares her life with a Coton named Tulea. Tulea was the smallest in her litter and still only weighs 9 pounds today. As for smiling, Jane confirms the renowned Coton social skills. “My Coton does smile on occasion, especially when she sees an old, close friend,” she has said.

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Coton de Tulear by Shutterstock.

Coton legends

Where history is muddled about the origin of the Coton, folklore fills the gaps. Here are a few of the chronicled options:

  • Spanish and French sailors brought early Coton ancestors directly to Madagascar and left a few there.
  • Pirates brought the breed’s ancestors to Madagascar.
  • Rich ladies carried Coton ancestors from the ships onto the island.
  • In a shipwreck during a storm near the bay of Tulear, all the humans died, but early Cotons swam ashore.
  • In that, or another, shipwreck, some highly crazy legends tell that the Cotons fought off hungry sharks
    to make it to land. A more plausible theory would be that the sharks weren’t hungry for little dogs after eating all the sailors. Just saying …

Coton particulars

  • Males weigh about 9 to 15 pounds; females about 8 to 13 pounds. The Coton benefits from daily brushing to keep his coat tangle free. Extra brushing is needed when, at about 1 year old, the grown-up coat grows right into the puppy coat. The combination coat mats rather easily.
  • Most companion owners choose to keep the Coton in a puppy cut that’s easier to handle yet maintains the overall charming look of the breed.
  • Properly socialized Cotons do well around other dogs and generally cats.
  • If the Coton chose his own breed motto, he might choose the following: I have only two kinds of days: happy days with my family and extraordinarily happy days with my family.