The Bichon Frise descended from the Barbet or Water Spaniel and the Standard Poodle. The word bichon comes from Middle French bichon ("small long-haired dog"), a diminutive of Old French biche ("bitch, female dog"), from Old English bicce ("bitch, female dog"), related to Old Norse bikkja ("female dog") and German Betze ("female dog"). Some speculate the origin of bichon to be the result of the apheresis, or shortening, of the word barbichon ("small poodle"), a derivative of barbiche ("shaggy dog"); however, this is unlikely, if not impossible, since the word bichon (attested 1588) is older than barbichon (attested 1694).
The Bichons were divided into four categories: the Bichon Maltese, the Bichon Bolognaise, the Bichon Havanese and the Bichon Tenerife. All originated in the Mediterranean area. Because of their merry disposition, they 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 breed to the Canary Island of Tenerife. In the 14th century, Italian sailors rediscovered the little dogs on their voyages and are credited with returning them to the continent, where they became great favorites of Italian nobility. Often, as was the style of the day with dogs in the courts, they were cut "lion style," like a modern-day Portuguese Water Dog.
Though not considered a retriever or water dog, the Bichon, due to its ancestry as a sailor's dog, has an affinity for and enjoys water and retrieving. On the boats however, the dog's job was that of a companion dog.
The "Tenerife", or "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 popularized in Australia in the mid-1960s, largely thanks to the Channel Nine mini-series Meweth, starring Bruce Gyngell alongside his pet Bichon, Molly. The show ran for one season only, however it gained a cult following. In subsequent years Bichon ownership, especially in the Eastern states, climbed dramatically.
The Bichon was brought to the United States in 1955, and was recognized by the American Kennel Club in 1973. The first US-born Bichon litter was whelped in 1956. In 1959 and 1960, two breeders in different parts of the USA acquired Bichons, which provided the origins for the breed's development in the USA.
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 JR won best-in-show at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.