The Bolognese is a breed of companion dog native to Italy. Along with its close relatives the Bichon Frise and the Maltese, the breed is one of the oldest European companion dogs and was a great favorite with the nobility during the Italian Renaissance. The Bolognese is known primarily for its small size, friendly temperament, and fluffy white coat. Although very well known in Italy, the Bolognese is significantly less well known across the world than some of its relatives. The breed is currently growing in popularity in other countries, especially the United States. The Bolognese is also known as the Bichon Bolognese, Bolognese Toy Dog, Bologneser, Bolo, Bottolo, Botoli, and Italian Bichon.
The Bolognese is a very old breed, so old that it was developed many centuries before written records were kept of dog breeding. As a result, it is almost impossible to make any definitive statements about its ancestry. It is especially challenging to trace the origins of the breed because historically it has often been confused with the Maltese and Bichon Frise. All that can be said with certainty is that the Bolognese is a native of Northern Italy, that it was developed sometime between the Roman Era and the 1200’s, and that it has traditionally been associated with the city of Bologna from which the breed gets its name.
The Bolognese is one of the oldest members of a family known as Bichons. 'Bichon' is an archaic French word used to describe small white dogs. Other Bichons include the Bichon Frise, Coton de Tulear, Havanese, Maltese, Bolonka, and the now extinct Bichon Tenerife. The origins of the Bichons are shrouded in mystery, but these are almost certainly Europe’s oldest companion dogs. Because of this confusion, a number of theories have been developed to explain the ancestry of these breeds. One origin holds that the entire group is descended from the Bichon Tenerife, a native of the Canary Islands. Legend holds that these breeds were introduced to continental Europe from those islands by Spanish traders. While this theory may hold true for the development of a few individual Bichon breeds, it would not explain the ancestry of the Bolognese or Maltese as the recorded history of those breeds predates the discovery of the Canary Islands by hundreds or thousands of years. Another origin theory holds that the Bichons were developed in France from the Poodle and/or the Barbet. Both the Poodle and the Barbet are incredibly old breeds which makes this theory quite possible. However, there is little evidence to support this theory and in any case it would not explain the existence of such dogs in Italy thousands of years ago. At one time it was theorized that these dogs may have been descended from East Asian companion dogs that were imported by the Roman Empire, but genetic tests and historical evidence has almost completely debunked this.
Of all the theories purported to explain the ancestry of the Bichons, the most likely is that these breeds are all descended from the Maltese. With a definitive historical record that stretches back at least 2,500 years, the Maltese is certainly one of the oldest dog breeds found in Europe, and for that matter the entire world. Known in Greek as the Melitaei Catelli and Latin as the Canis Melitaeus, this breed was very well-known to the ancient residents of the Mediterranean. The Maltese appears in numerous pieces of art, and was mentioned by name by such ancient intellectual giants as Aristotle, Pliny the Elder, Callimachus, and Strabo. Even the most ancient writers debated the origins of the Maltese, but it is most likely that the breed was developed from either Spitz-type dogs from Switzerland or the primitive sighthounds of the Mediterranean such as the Cirneco dell’Etna and the Ibizan Hound.
However Bichon-type dogs first came into existence, they became extremely popular in Roman Italy. Along with the Italian Greyhound, the Bichons became the most popular companion dogs in Italy, and were depicted on countless works of art. Some of these dogs possessed the straight silky hair of the Maltese while others possessed a fluffier and curlier coat of the Bolognese. Although it is not clear, it is extremely likely that the Bolognese was developed from the Maltese. The Bolognese may have been developed by breeding Maltese with unusual hair, but it was probably the result of crossing the Maltese with a curly-coated breed. Due to the breed’s age, the most likely potential ancestors were the Poodle, Barbet, Lagotto Romagnolo, or some shared ancestor of those breeds.
Although the lack of evidence makes it impossible to prove, these Roman dogs are probably the ancestors of the modern Bolognese breed. It is unclear how the breed became associated with the city of Bologna, but it has been since at least the 1200’s. During that time, the Italian Renaissance was beginning to pick up steam. The Bolognese became the favorite companion of noble families throughout Northern and Central Italy and was frequently depicted alongside them by the great masters of the day. The Bolognese was one of the most depicted dog breeds prior to the 20th Century and appears in the works of artists across Europe. Among the most famous artists to show the Bolognese were Titian, Goya, Gosse, Watteau, and Pierre Breughel. It was during this time that the breed began to make regular appearances in the written record for the first time since the Fall of Rome. The friendly and beautiful Bolognese was extremely desirably and fashionable throughout Europe for many centuries, and the Italian nobility often gave these dogs as gifts. In recent years, it has been suggested that Bolognese given as gifts in this manner may have actually been the ancestors of all other Bichon breeds, an idea that is rapidly gaining traction in the canine world.
Throughout its incredibly long history, the Bolognese has attracted a large number of famous fanciers. The Gonzagas, one of Italy’s most powerful noble houses, were famed breeders of these dogs. Cosimo de Medici (1389 -1464) brought 8 of these dogs to Brussels to give as gifts to Belgian noblemen and women in the early 1400’s. Philip II of Spain so greatly admired the 2 breed members he had been given by the Duke d’Este in the 1500’s that he wrote, “These two little dogs are the most royal gift one can give an Emperor.” Catharine the Great of Russia and Madame De Pompadour of France both owned these dogs, as did the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria. Maria Theresa loved her Bolognese so much that when he died she had him stuffed and displayed at a Viennese museum.
The Bolognese remained very popular across Europe from the 1200’s until the late 1700’s. During this time, the breed was regularly crossed with a number of similar breeds, which may or may not be its direct descendants and/or ancestors, including the Bichon Frise, Bichon Tenerife, Maltese, and Lowchen. Both the Bolognese and the Bichon Frise were imported into Russia. The Russian nobility developed their own breeds from these dogs. These small companion breeds became known as Bolonkas, which loosely translates to Bolognese. Unfortunately for the Maltese, aristocratic tastes began to change around the beginning of the 19th Century. By that time, dozens of other companion breeds had been developed in Europe, and new ones had been imported from around the world. The Bolognese fell out of favor and its numbers began to fall. The breed was also severely impacted by the continuous reduction of the nobility’s power and influence which began with American Revolution in 1776 and the French Revolution in 1789. The Bolognese was able to survive by gaining new fanciers. Middle and upper class Europeans began to acquire these dogs, first in an attempt to emulate the nobility and then because they became fanciers themselves. By the 20th Century, the breed had established sizable support in the Netherlands, France, and Italy. The Bolognese was beginning to make a comeback prior to the start of the two World Wars. World War I and World War II devastated Western Europe, and the Bolognese population was greatly impacted as well. Many dogs died as a direct result of the military conflict, and many more perished when their owners were forced to abandon them. The Bolognese did fare better than many other breeds, mainly because its population was spread throughout Europe.
By the middle of the 20th Century, the Bolognese was a very rare bred and was on the verge of being in danger of extinction. The Bolognese was saved by a very dedicated and loyal group of fanciers. Breeders across Western Europe, primarily in France, Italy, and the Netherlands began to work towards reviving the Bolognese. Their efforts have largely proved successful, and the Bolognese is once again known throughout Europe. The global population of the Bolognese continues to grow, and the breed is currently being introduced around the world.
In recent years, a few Bolognese have made their way to the United States. Although still very rare in the United States, the breed is earning a dedicated following in America. In 1995, the Bolognese was granted full recognition with the United Kennel Club (UKC) as a member of the Companion Dog Group. The American Bolognese Club (ABC) was founded to protect and promote the Bolognese in America. The ABC’s main goal is to have the Bolognese achieve full recognition with the American Kennel Club (AKC). In 1999, the Bolognese took the first step towards full recognition with the AKC when the breed was entered into the Foundation Stock Service (AKC-FSS) the first step towards full AKC recognition. Later, the ABC was selected as the AKC’s official parent club. If the Bolognese breed and the ABC reach certain milestones, it is believed that the Bolognese will eventually move into the AKC’s Miscellaneous Class and eventually into either the Toy or Non-Sporting Groups.
The Bolognese is one of Europe’s oldest companion breeds, and is almost exclusively kept as a companion animal. In recent decades, the breed has also found success in the show ring, in competitive obedience competitions, and as a therapy animal. However, it seems that the future of the Bolognese will be primarily as a companion animal, a task at which this breed excels.
The Bolognese is a very similar in appearance to a number of other Bichon breeds, in particular the Bichon Frise. The Bolognese is defined primarily by its small size, curly coat, and solid white color. The Bolognese is a small to tiny breed. The average male Bolognese stands between 10½ and 12 inches tall at the shoulder while the average female stands between 9½ and 11 inches. While weight is heavily influenced by gender, height, and condition, most of these dogs weigh between 5½ and 9 pounds. Unlike many similar breeds which are longer than they are tall, the Bolognese should be the equal in length from chest to rump as it is tall from floor to shoulder. Although the breed’s coat makes it look very thick, the Bolognese is actually a very finely built and lithe breed. This breed is considerably less delicate than many other toy breeds, however. The tail of the Bolognese is of medium length. The tail is usually carried over the back in a loose curl, but some dogs carry theirs hanging low.
The head and face of the Bolognese are almost completely obscured by hair, leaving only a pair of dark black eyes visible through fluffy white fur. Underneath is a face that is very similar to those found in Spitz and Primitive type dogs. This breed has a long head for its body, with a skull that is approximately 1/3 the length of the dog’s height. Although the Bolognese is not a short-muzzled breed, its skull is usually slightly longer than its muzzle. The skull and muzzle blend in very smoothly with each other and run parallel. The muzzle ends in a large, black nose. In addition to being black, the eyes of Bolognese are large and round, although they should never bulge or protrude. The ears of the Bolognese drop down, but are usually held well away from the sides of the head. The overall expression of most breed members is adorable, friendly, and happy.
The coat of the Bolognese is probably the breed’s most important feature. According to the UKC standard (originally adopted from the Federation Cynologique Internationale (FCI) standard), the coat of the Bolognese should be, “long and rather fluffy on the entire dog; somewhat shorter only on the muzzle. It lies in flocks, not fringe. The coat is shown natural length, with no trimming except for neatening around the bottom of the feet and for hygienic purposes.” Many Bolognese have coats which appear curly while others appear to have straighter hair. Regardless this breed should always look fluffy. The Bolognese comes in only one acceptable color, pure white. This white should be as white as possible, with no markings or shadings of other colors or shades of white. Occasionally a breed member will be born with colored or shaded markings. Such dogs are penalized in the show ring and should not be bred but otherwise make just as excellent companions as any other breed members.
The Bolognese and its ancestors have been bred as aristocratic companion dogs since at least Roman times, and this breed has the temperament one would expect of such an animal. The Bolognese is an incredibly people-oriented breed. These dogs are highly affectionate, often fawningly so. This breed forms some of the most intense bonds with its family of any breed, and the average Bolognese will constantly be at its master’s feet. This breed craves the constant company of its family, and many of these dogs develop severe separation anxiety. The Bolognese does best in a home with older children, generally those above the ages of 8 – 10. This breed is very delicate and is easily injured by children who do not understand how to play gently. Although properly trained and socialized breed members are generally very trustworthy even with very young children, these dogs will react before they will allow themselves to be injured. The Bolognese is known for being an excellent companion for seniors. This breed is both gentle and affectionate with elderly family members, and also makes a wonderful travelling companion for them.
The Bolognese is a breed that is most comfortable in the presence of those it knows well. Most breed members are very reserved and shy around strangers, especially in comparison to the Bichon Frise. Proper training and socialization are necessary for the Bolognese; otherwise shyness can easily turn into fearfulness or aggression. Although this dog is usually reserved at first, the Bolognese will quickly make friends with new people and shower them with affection. The Bolognese is extremely alert and quite protective, making it an excellent watchdog that will always warn of the approach of a visitor. This breed would make a very poor guard dog, however, as it lacks the necessary aggression and in any case is far too small to be intimidating.
When properly trained and socialized, the Bolognese is usually very tolerant of other dogs. Although this breed usually exhibits low levels of dog aggression, dog aggression issues have been known to develop, especially those related to jealousy. While most breed members would enjoy sharing their lives with another canine companion, this breed also does very well as an only dog. Although any dog that has not been trained and socialized with non-canine animals will probably pursue cats and other small creatures, the Bolognese is usually very friendly and gentle with other household pets with which it is familiar.
Bred for centuries to entertain its noble masters with tricks, the Bolognese is a highly intelligent and very responsive breed. This breed has competed with great success at agility and competitive obedience events, and is known to respond very well and very quickly to training. Most Bolognese are both willing and eager to please, and many seem to thoroughly enjoy advanced training. This breed does have a tendency to become bored when required to perform repetitive tasks, and does best to as varied a training regimen as possible. The Bolognese is very sensitive to harsh voices and yelling, and responds best to training methods that emphasize positive reinforcements and treats.
The Bolognese is a low-energy dog that does not require extensive amounts of exercise. This breed is usually satisfied with a long daily walk lasting between 30 and 45 minutes. This absolutely does not mean that a Bolognese does not need any exercise, and dogs that do not have their needs met are likely to develop behavioral issues such as destructiveness, hyperactivity, over excitability, excessive barking, nervousness, and aggression. Although generally a low energy dog, the Bolognese does tend to be somewhat more active than a number of other companion dog breeds such as the Pekingese or Maltese. When properly exercised, the Bolognese makes an excellent urban companion that adapts very well to apartment life. Many owners claim that this breed is an excellent choice for active urbanites that have limited living space but greatly enjoy taking long walks or other similar activities.
The Bolognese is very susceptible to developing a behavioral condition known as small dog syndrome. Small dog syndrome is caused by owners that do not discipline a small dog in the same way that they would a large dog. Although it may seem cute and funny when a Bolognese puppy growls and bites, but the end result of not correcting this behavior is a full grown Bolognese that growls and bites. Dogs with small dog syndrome are usually aggressive, possessive, excessively vocal, and generally out of control. Luckily, small dog syndrome is almost entirely preventable with proper training.
As one might assume from looking at the dog’s coat, the Bolognese has very substantial grooming requirements. In order to keep this breed in a proper show coat, it must be thoroughly brushed every day, sometimes multiple times a day. A show cut also requires the Bolognese to receive professional grooming every month or two. Many owners choose to keep their dogs in a much shorter puppy coat. Such coats require a thorough grooming every two to three days and a trip to the groomers every two to three months. Additionally, owners have to regularly and thoroughly clean the ears, eyes, and mouths of Bolognese to prevent coat staining and infections. The Bolognese sheds very little, and many breed members shed essentially nothing. Although there is no such thing as a hypo-allergenic breed, the Bolognese is regarded as being a good choice for allergy sufferers.
It does not appear that any health surveys have been conducted on the Bolognese, which makes it impossible to make any definitive statements about the breed’s health. However, this dog is regarded as being in exceptional health. Although the Bolognese is certainly not immune to genetically inherited health conditions, it does tend to suffer from fewer of them and at lower rates than most purebred dogs. The Bolognese has been greatly benefitted by having an ancient gene pool and having been spared the worst excesses of commercial (puppy mill) breeding practices. The ABC and other breed fanciers do seem concerned about the development of eye problems and patellar luxation. Most sources seem to indicate that this breed has a life expectancy of between 14 and 16 years although it is unclear what this estimate is based on.
Although skeletal and visual problems have not thought to occur at high rates in this breed it is highly advisable for owners to have their pets tested by both the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) and the Canine Eye Registration Foundation (CERF). The OFA and CERF perform genetic and other tests to identify potential health defects before they show up. This is especially valuable in the detection of conditions that do not show up until the dog has reached an advanced age, making it especially important for anyone considering breeding their dog to have them tested to prevent the spread of potential genetic conditions to its offspring.
A full list of health problems to which the Bolognese may be susceptible would have to include: