According to the "History of the Rare Breed Coton de Tulear" by Kris Forke, the Coton de Tulear are part of the Barbichon family of dogs that include the Bichon Havanese, the Bichon Bolognese and the Bichon Tenerife. The Barbichons travelled around the Mediterranean on ships and eventually ended up in the Canary Islands on Tenerife and would later be referred to as the Bichon Tenerife. The Bichon Tenerife are the ancestor of the Bichon Frise and the Coton de Tulear.
In the 15th century, the Bichon Tenerife were brought to the island Reunion in the Indian Ocean by sailors and possibly also by pirates. There, they mated with the local dogs and were eventually called the Coton de la Reunion. By the 16th century, the Coton de la Reunion were spotted in Madagascar. While no one knows exactly how they ended up in Madagascar, there have been exciting stories told of the Coton de la Reunion surviving a shipwreck during a violent storm and swimming to shore in Tulear. Once on the island, they mated with the local dogs, thus creating the Coton de Tulear.
By the 17th century, the Cotons had became so loved on the island that they were named the "Royal Dog of Madagascar". The French colonized the island in the late 17th century and inevitably fell in love with the Coton as well and made it illegal for anyone but nobility to own one. The French possibly started selectively breeding the Coton, thus creating a "white dog with long, straight hair and a wonderful temperament." The Cotons were finally exported to America in 1974 by Dr. Jay Russell who discovered them in Madagascar while studying lemurs. The rest as they say, is history. To read a more detailed history of the Coton de Tulear, click here.