The Bichon Frise is often depicted as a French dog. Although the bichon breed type are originally Spanish, used as sailing dogs, the French developed them into a gentle lap-dog variety. The bichon type arose from the water dogs, and is descended from the poodle-type dogs and either the Barbet or one of the water spaniel class of breeds. Modern bichons have developed into four categories: the Bichon Frise or Tenerife, the Maltese, the Bolognaise, and the Havanese, often treated as separate breeds.
Because of their merry disposition, the ancestral bichons traveled much and were often used as barter by sailors as they moved from continent to continent. The dogs found early success in Spain and it is generally believed that Spanish seamen introduced the early breed to the Tenerife in the Canary Islands. In the 14th century, Italian sailors rediscovered the little dogs on their voyages and are credited with returning them to continental Europe, where they became great favorites of Italian nobility. As was the style with dogs in the courts, their coats were cut "lion style", like a modern-day Portuguese Water Dog.
The Tenerife, often simply called the Bichon, had success in France during the Renaissance under Francis I (1515–1547), but its popularity skyrocketed in the court of Henry III (1574–1589). The breed also enjoyed considerable success in Spain as a favorite of the Infantas and painters of the Spanish school often included them in their works. For example, the famous artist, Francisco de Goya, included a Bichon in several of his works.
Interest in the breed was renewed during the rule of Napoleon III, but then waned until the late 19th century when it became the "common dog", running the streets, accompanying the organ grinders of Barbary, leading the blind, and doing tricks in circuses and fairs.
On 5 March 1933, the official standard of the breed was adopted by the Société Centrale Canine, the national kennel club for France. This was largely due to the success of the French-speaking Belgian author Hergé's The Adventures of Tintin, which featured a small, fluffy, white fox terrier dog named Milou (Snowy in the English editions). As the breed was known by two names at that time, Tenerife and Bichon, the president of the Fédération Cynologique Internationale proposed a name based on the characteristics that the dogs presented – the Bichon Frisé. ("Frisé" means "curly", referring to the breed's coat.) On 18 October 1934, the Bichon Frisé was admitted to the stud book of the Société Centrale Canine.
The Bichon was brought to the United States in 1955. The first US-born Bichon litter was whelped in 1956. In 1959 and 1960, two breeders in different parts of the US acquired Bichons, which provided the origins for the breed's further development in that country.
The Bichon Frise became eligible to enter the AKC's Miscellaneous Class on 1 September 1971. In October 1972, the breed was admitted to registration in the American Kennel Club Stud Book. On 4 April 1973, the breed became eligible to show in the Non-Sporting Group at AKC dog shows. In 2001, a Bichon Frise named J.R. won best-in-show at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. In the United States, the Bichon Frise was ranked the 40th most popular breed in 2013 according to the American Kennel Club.