What has put French Bulldogs on top of the heap in American cities? Small size? Giant joie de vivre? Or is it just some special je ne sais quoi?
It was the last blast of summer sunset gathering of the French Bulldog NYC Meetup group. Sophie, 5 months old, was determined to make the most of it.
First, there was some serious rough-and-tumble with her pal, a Bernese Mountain Dog who was born just one day after Sophie in April.
Then she was off, a beige blur leading a thundering pack of toy dogs and puppies around the Carl Schurz small-dog run, a concrete rectangle that overlooks the East River in Manhattan.
After that, she just had to make sure that every human in and around the run knew she was there. One by one, she stopped, sniffed, and wiggled her little fawn-colored body until she got the attention she so craved, at which point she moved on to the next potential admirer. When she had been adequately adored by everyone inside the run, she made the rounds of the spectators who were leaning on the wrought-iron fences surrounding it.
That’s what it’s like for people lucky enough to share their lives with these smiling little creatures, perhaps the most sparkling French import since champagne.
“She has an awesome personality—so sweet, so loving. She wants to meet all dogs and all people,” says owner Kate Feldman, 26. “She makes me so happy.”
Apparently, many New Yorkers share Feldman’s sentiment. These charming clowns were New York’s most popular dog in the AKC’s 2020 breed rankings. They made the top five in other major U.S. cities.
Laps and Lace
When dog experts come together, you’ll always hear talk about form and function and purpose-bred dogs, those who have been molded over decades, even centuries, for a particular job. Coursing hounds, for example, have long legs and taut, light chassis; castle-guarding Mastiffs have huge frames and imposing faces, and water retrievers have webbed feet and moisture-resistant coats.
Frenchies were created to comfort stressed souls and stroll along the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, says Jim Grebe, historian for the French Bull Dog Club of America.
Like Bulldogs, Frenchies trace their roots to the canine gladiators used in bull-baiting, a blood sport outlawed in the mid-19th century. One group of breeders wanted to maintain the good qualities of the fighting dogs—brains and loyalty—in miniature. They bred the big animals who were capable of holding a bull by the nose down to a toy variety; some believe that a smidgen of terrier got added at some point, although there is no real record of this.
The result was, as the breed standard specifies today, an active, intelligent creature, “of heavy bone,” with a smooth coat. Ideally, this “compactly built” happy dog would weigh no more than 28 pounds.
The miniatures became a favorite of lacemakers in the textile center of Nottingham, England. Their size made them perfect lap warmers, says Grebe. (Also, he believes that, in the days before bug spray, there was another benefit: Canine body temperature is higher than humans and tend to attract fleas off their owners during snuggle sessions.)
Industrialization of the textile industry sent displaced lacemakers to Northern France. They brought their lap warmers with them.
Dog experts credit the French with creating the essentials of the dog we love today, with their straight legs, tidy compact form, and bright, humorous attitudes.
The Frenchie Revolution
It was not long before they made their way to the City of Lights. Their arrival sparked little interest until they became the chers amis of one notorious group—Parisian streetwalkers. Racy postcards from that era show the dogs with their courtesans sitting patiently on barstools as their mistresses turn on their charm, or giving a disapproving glance as she plants her foot on a hatbox and shows way too much leg.
Frenchies appear in the art of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and the writings of Colette, who said her beloved pet, Toby Chien, had a face that “looked like a frog’s that had been sat upon.”
Wealthy Americans touring Europe spotted the charming Bouledogues Français. Before you could say allez vite, they were on ocean liners crossing the sea, nestled happily in some of America’s most luxurious laps.
The new world welcomed the French Bulldog with great enthusiasm. American fanciers founded the first club devoted solely to the breed in 1897. They made another critical decision and broke with other countries’ tradition when they wrote the first breed standard, including a major statement about ears. Two types of ears were accepted in Europe—the folded-over “rose” ear that you see on Bulldogs and the upright “bat ear” that is the Frenchie’s signature today.
The Sun Parlors of the Waldorf-Astoria was the site of the rebellion by the French Bull Dog Club of America, at a show in which only bat-eared dogs were allowed to compete. The event, according to some accounts, “garnered more printer’s ink than the Civil War,” wrote Anne M. Hier in the AKC Gazette in 1997. In the end, the bat ear emerged victorious.
Through the early to mid-20th century, the breed’s popularity rose and fell, influenced by such factors as competition for American hearts from the Boston Terrier, lack of air conditioning (these dogs need to stay cool), and the Depression.
It took until the 1980s for Americans, including many with high profiles, to rediscover them. When Carrie Fisher died in 2016, there was great concern among fans about Gary, the Frenchie who was the film legend’s constant companion.
Lady Gaga, Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson, Madonna, and Reese Witherspoon are just a few celebrities who don’t seem to mind that their dogs are likely to upstage them. “Literally, Mabel will look at me and do a take that could rival Buster Keaton’s,” funnyman Nathan Lane told NPR in an interview about Naughty Mabel, the children’s book he coauthored with husband Devlin Elliott.
Actor Hugh Jackman has a Frenchie named Dali. Jackman’s wife told People Magazine that the way her dog’s mouth curled up reminded her of Salvadore Dali’s signature mustache.
The choice of an artist’s name is fitting because another Frenchie phenomenon is the prominance of the breed in art. Frenchie-phile and art expert Gary Bachman says that from the late 19th century to the 1930s, it was the dog most often depicted in paintings, posters, sculptures, porcelains, jewelry, hood ornaments, crystal decanters, and all kinds of collectibles.
For Bachman, a retired psychologist, the art of the Frenchie has become a passion. He curated the first art show devoted to the breed at the AKC Museum of the Dog, is writing a book on the topic, and has a Facebook page devoted to Frenchie art and antiques.
“The breed appeals to people with sophisticated tastes,” says Bachman, who has lived with Frenchies since 1999. He now shares his home in the Lincoln Park section of Chicago with Benny, a 31/2-year-old brindle piebald (a term that describes dogs who have patches of brindle coloring on white).
“Their jovial personality is well-suited to city life,” he says.
Benny came from a breeder in rural Michigan. Bachman wasn’t sure how long it would take for the country puppy to adjust to life on the fourth floor of a condominium in a bustling town. It was no problem. Benny’s outsized Frenchie attitude was a natural for the Windy City.
“They think they are big dogs,” says Bachman. “Actually, they think they are people.”
Within a month, Benny had grown used to the urban noises and buzz and came to grips with the concept of an elevator.
Then he set off to conquer the world, or at least figure out how to give that “great Frenchie wiggle” in exchange for pets, praise, and a treat from every person he could find.
“Taking him out is always an adventure,” says Bachman. “Anywhere there are people, he loves it.”
Luckily for Benny, he lives in a Chicago neighborhood—Lincoln Park—that’s well populated and extremely dog-friendly. It’s made him the “happiest dog on the planet,” says Bachman. Benny lives for sojourns out into the streets where he gets to spend time with his many adoring fans.
First, there are his regulars, like the woman in the Dilly Lily, a flower shop, and the owners of a wine shop along their route, who keep a stash of treats behind the counter for him. Then there’s the street audience, people who can’t control themselves when Benny struts into view.
Bachman always has to factor in Benny’s socializing when he’s estimating how much time he needs for walks. A half an hour can easily stretch to 45 minutes or more, depending on how many potential admirers there are along the route.
“He’ll just walk up to a stranger and ask to be petted,” says Bachman.
He’s particularly amused by a ritual involving an eatery — the Bourgeois Pig. It is often crowded with diners enjoying al fresco meals.
“When I walk past, Benny will just stop and look at the people,” says Bachman. Unlike many dogs, handouts are not his priority. “He’s waiting to see if anyone there wants to talk to him.”