The Bichon Frisé, a type of bichon, is sometimes simply called a bichon in North America.
The Bichons are descended from the ancient ancestors of the Poodle, the Barbet, a water spaniel. From this, the Barbichon, a small curly coated water spaniel and another name for this family, was created. The Bichons are a Mediterranean breed, generally named for the region from where they originated. The original breeds were the Bichon Tenerife, from the Canary Islands; the Bichon Maltais, or Maltese; and the Bichon Bolognese, or simply Bolognese. There is argument on whether the Tenerife is the original stock for all Bichons, or whether the Maltese (which seems to be an old type found on the islands before even the Barbet was known) is the progenitor of the Bichons, through its breeding with the Barbets. Ultimately, most of the modern Bichon breeds have developed by introducing a variety of dogs to the Barbichon type, creating a family with recognizable characteristics in both temperament and type but no single distinct progenitor.
The Bichons were the court dogs of medieval Europe, especially finding favor in France, Italy and Spain. The French word bichonner, which means to pamper or doll up, derives from the be-ribboned and lavish lifestyles of the Bichon of Henry III of France, who was carried in a little basket wherever the King went. Bichons buzz around with energy and suffer from separation anxiety.
The Maltese is undoubtedly ancient, and dogs of its type, with long hair and dropped ears, were described in Roman times on the island of Malta. In earlier imagery of the breed, it is shown with wavy fur, more typical to the Bichons, and it is only relatively recently that a totally smooth coated Maltese has developed as the final type. The Romans selected for a pure white coat from the very early multicolored Maltese-like dogs. The Maltese has steadily retained its popularity throughout the centuries, unlike any other Bichon, most of which became very rare at least once in their history as fashions and governments changed.
The modern Bichon Frisé was created by combining the Tenerife with the poodles and barbets of the day to produce a tightly curled, rather than wavy, coated Bichon, hence the full name, Bichon a poil Frisé. Only white and white tinged with buff are allowed in the show ring.
The Tenerife also traveled to Reunion Island to develop the now extinct Coton de Reunion, which then traveled to nearby Madagascar and became the Coton de Tulear. It is one of the few modern breeds that developed through natural selection and therefore comes in a range of colors.
The Bolognese was already being developed as a toy dog as early as the 11th century in Bologna, Italy. A favorite gift between courts, the little dog traveled to places like Spain, Belgium, France, Russia (as a gift to Catherine the Great) and Austria. They only come in pure white.
The Bichon Havanais, or Havanese, seems to have been descended from a variety of small, Bichon-type dogs that traveled with Spanish and Italian sailors to Cuba. They were possibly bred with a now extinct poodle type from South America to produce a wavy coat which was also silky, but it may be that they simply expressed a wavy coat trait through a random chance of genetics. In appearance, breeders prefer a "natural" look, allowing all possible colors and letting the hair grow long.
The Löwchen is an enigma. Though classically considered a Mediterranean Bichon dog, research into the origins of the dog show it may not have passed through the Mediterranean at all to travel to its current originating countries of Germany and the Netherlands. It is possible that the breed had some Bichon blood, or that it's simply a terrier type from Tibet with no connections at all to the Bichons. It does have a typical friendly Bichon temperament, though. It comes in all colors.
Specifically in Russia, other Bichons were developed. After the retreat of Napoleon's army, left behind Bichons, primarily the Bolognese and Bichon Frisé, were bred into a unique breed called the Franzuskaya Bolonka. After World War II, the French Bolonka was then bred with poodles and silky terriers such as the Yorkshire Terrier to produce a small dog with a multi-coloured, long, wavy coat, called the Tsvetnaya Bolonka, or Multicoloured Bichon. Until recently, these breeds were unknown outside of Germany and Russia.
Despite their current popularity, almost all Bichons, even the very popular Frisé, went through a period in the 1800s where they were hardly fancied at all. Breeds like the Havanese and Bolognese are recovering from this period, and even more common Bichons like the Löwchen and Bichon Frisé were almost extinct at the beginning of the 20th century. Court dogs were not very well regarded in Europe at the turn of the twentieth century, and many Bichon types are now extinct thanks to this period of alleged "enlightenment".
Today Bichons are seeing a second renaissance with popularity they haven't seen the likes of since the last Renaissance. The Bichon family of dogs were all selected for the same reason: to be small, charming companion dogs with even temperaments and playful attitudes, good with children while maintaining alert watchdog abilities. Over a thousand years of dedicated breeding to making a friendly, playful and affectionate dog for court is finding new use for the needs of a house pet. More and more, dog owners are interested in companion type dogs that have good all around temperaments, and there is an increased desire for small dogs which won't be yappy, stand-offish, nervous or aggressive, all traits the Bichons should not have if properly bred.
The modern Bichon Frise came to North America in the 1950s, and was admitted into the AKC (American Kennel Club) in 1972. They are shown not in the Toy Group, but in the Non-Sporting Group, and its playful temperament is a large factor in judging Bichon Frises.