Stuart Fitzgerald
Dr Stuart Fitzgerald (MVB MANZCVS, University College Dublin)
Photo of adult Bolognese

Don’t be deceived by the appearance of this adorable ball of fluff – the Bolognese is not a modern breed, created to satisfy our insatiable demand for cute, curly haired toy dogs, but actually has an extremely long history, having been a favourite with Italian aristocrats for many hundreds of years. As one might suspect from a first glance, it is related to the Maltese and Bichon Frise, but is the steadiest of the three in terms of temperament. Though often described as serious, the Bolognese is an affectionate and sociable dog that enjoys play, and is a good choice of toy breed for older children; although it is more stocky and less delicate than many other dogs of a similar size, it may still be inadvertently hurt by youngsters. It is very reliable with smaller pets, as well as being well-mannered and laid back in its dealings with other dogs.

Part of the Bolognese’s appeal is its striking white coat – it does require a good deal of commitment to maintain in a tangle-free state, but it sheds very little, meaning that this is one of the breeds sometimes cited as being less allergenic. It is a very intelligent dog, eager to please, and is usually very easy to train. The Bolognese’s small size and moderate exercise requirements mean it can live quite happily as an indoor dog, as long as daily walks are provided, and it is very healthy; its life expectancy of 12 to 15 years reflects the low incidence of inherited health problems.

About & History

Unfortunately, the breed’s early history remains a mystery; while there are verifiable records of its existence in the thirteenth century, it is believed to been first developed several hundred years earlier. Being part of the so-called Bichon family, which includes the Coton de Tulear and Havanese in addition to the Bichon Frise and Maltese, it is likely the Bolognese’s story began in the Middle East around two thousand years ago, from where it would have joined seafaring merchants to travel the Mediterranean and beyond. At some point, the individual breeds found their respective homes and were developed independently, although the Bolognese and Maltese are believed to be more closely related than the other family members, and so they may have a more recent shared past on the Mediterranean islands.

Whatever the case, the Bolognese eventually settled around the Italian city of Bologna, a wealthy trading post. Here, it became popular with the nobility, who remained its patrons for centuries, with no lesser a figure than Cosimo de Medici presenting these dogs as gifts to foreign dignitaries. Evidence of its enduring appeal may be found in a painting by Titian from the seventeenth century, who depicted Duke Frederico Gonzaga with a small white dog that is unmistakably a Bolognese. However, in spite of this long and prosperous history, the breed remained relatively unknown outside of Italy, and the first Bolognese did not arrive in the United Kingdom until the 1990s. Though it is still far from being a common sight on our shores, the Kennel Club registration statistics do show a steady increase in the number of UK-based Bologneses over the past decade, meaning this is a breed that should become more familiar to all of us over the coming years.


Bolognese Large Photo

Though small, the Bolognese is relatively strong and stocky, and it is covered in a single-layered fluffy white coat. It has a square build, with a back that is equal in length to its height at the point of the shoulder. Its head is reasonably long, measuring around one-third of the dog’s height, and it is unusual in having an egg-shaped skull when viewed from the side. It has a pronounced stop and frontal bones (the portion of the skull above the eyes), which give it an eternally earnest expression. The muzzle length is slightly less than half that of the entire head, and it, too, has a square outline. The lips, eyelids, and nose are a solid black, and the round eyes are a dark shade of ochre. The ears are set high on the head and are rather long, hanging down at the side of the face.

Further adding to the Bolognese’s proportionate shape, the neck is equal in length to the head, and is reasonable slender, with taut skin that does not form a dewlap. The back and torso are compact, and the well-sprung ribs give the body an almost cylindrical shape, save for a slight abdominal tuck. The croup (or buttock area) slopes seamlessly into the thin, curved tail that is held over the back. The breed has short, but usually well-formed limbs that should not deviate from vertical when viewed from the front, and feeling beneath the generous coat reveals a reasonable degree of angulation in the shoulder and stifle joints.

The coat is pure white, although a hint of ivory is permitted by the breed standard. It is long – usually around 8 to 10 centimetres – and lies in ringlets, and it has only a single layer, lacking an undercoat. Male Bologneses are around 27 to 30 cm (11–12 in) in height, and weigh 2.8 to 4 kg (6–9 lb), while females are 25 to 28 cm (10–11 in) tall, weighing 2.5 to 3.8 kg (6–8 lb).

Character & Temperament

The Bolognese is a generally calm, serene dog that is intensely loyal to its master. It forms strong bonds early in life, so ideally should be rehomed before ten weeks of age. It lives for affection and attention, and should always be in contact with its family, never forced to spend time alone outside, and may be prone to separation anxiety if it finds itself alone or ignored. Although it is a low-energy breed, it is also playful, in a gentle way, and enjoys its belly tickles and ball-chasing as much as the next dog.

The Bolognese is the quintessential lapdog, and should be indulged with physical contact as much as possible without encouraging so-called “small-dog syndrome”. It is very sociable with other dogs and smaller pets, and a great pet for older children who are not too rough or unpredictable in their behaviour.


Photo of Bolognese puppy
Grace Courbis /

Bologneses are very clever dogs, and highly motivated to please, so training is generally easy. Unusually, they often have very little interest in food, so the traditional treat-based approach to training is not necessary. Instead, lavish praise and attention are all the reward the Bolognese seeks in return for good behaviour and learning new commands.


In contrast to many other of the toy breeds, the Bolognese does not have a high incidence of significant health issues, but like any pedigree, there are certain problems that do crop up:

Hip Dysplasia

This problem is usually first noticed in older juvenile Bologneses as stiffness after rest or lameness while exercising. It is an inherited disorder that results in malformation of the growing hip joints. The best way to avoid hip dysplasia is through careful breeding of adults that are not themselves affected, and breeders should always have hip scores available for both parents on request.

Legg–Calvé–Perthes Disease

Another cause of hindlimb lameness, in this case one that is common in many toy breeds. For reasons unknown, the bone of the upper thigh may outgrow its developing blood supply in young pups, leading the bone to weaken and disintegrate. This manifests as severe pain in pups between 5 and 12 months of age, and requires surgery to remove the damaged bone and alleviate pain.

Patellar Luxation

Slipping of the dog’s kneecap from its normal position because of often very slight malformations of the hindlimb. Causes a skipping gait that may or may not cause pain to the dog, and can be surgically corrected if required.


The small jaw of the Bolognese is prone to developing periodontal infection, leading to tooth loss, something best prevented by regular brushing.

Exercise and Activity Levels

The Bolognese is not especially active, and is a low-energy presence around the home. As such, it is suitable for homes without access to a garden, but it does need at least one 20 to 30 minute walk every day.


The single-thickness coat should never be clipped, and so it requires a lot of work to prevent it knotting. Owners must be prepared to spend at least ten minutes every day combing and brushing it, as any knots that do develop are very tricky to tease out if left unattended. Even though it is white, it rarely needs washing. As mentioned above, the Bolognese is prone to dental disease, and so daily tooth brushing should also be part of the dog’s routine.

Famous Bologneses

Over the centuries, the Bolognese has found itself in the company of some great historical figures, from royalty to more modern celebrities, including:

  • Catherine the Great
  • Cosimo de Medici
  • Louis XV
  • Marilyn Monroe


The Bolognese has its share of designer dog offshoots, with the following being the more common:

  • Beaglolo – Cross between a Bolognese and a Beagle
  • Bolo-chi – Cross between a Bolognese and a Chihuahua
  • Bolo-tzu – Cross between a Bolognese and a Shih Tzu
  • Bologco – Cross between a Bolognese and a Cocker Spaniel
  • Bolonauzer – Cross between a Bolognese and a Schnauzer
  • Bolonoodle – Cross between a Bolognese and a Poodle

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