Beloved and debated, French bulldog becomes top US dog breed
Lola, a French bulldog, lies on the floor prior to the start of a St. Francis Day service at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Oct. 7, 2007, in New York. The American Kennel Club announced Wednesday, March 15, 2023 that French bulldogs have become the United States' most prevalent dog breed, ending Labrador retrievers' record-breaking 31 years at the top. (AP Photo/Tina Fineberg, File)
By JENNIFER PELTZ
NEW YORK — For the first time in three decades, the U.S. has a new favorite dog breed, according to the American Kennel Club.
Adorable in some eyes, deplorable in others, the sturdy, push-faced, perky-eared, world-weary-looking and distinctively droll French bulldog became the nation's most prevalent purebred dog last year, the club announced Wednesday. Frenchies ousted Labrador retrievers from the top spot after a record 31 years.
“They’re comical, friendly, loving little dogs,” says French Bull Dog Club of America spokesperson Patty Sosa. City-friendly, with modest grooming and exercise needs, she says, “they offer a lot in a small package.”
Yet the Frenchie's dizzying rise — it wasn't even a top-75 breed a quarter-century ago — worries its fans, to say nothing of its critics.
The buzzy little bulldogs have been targeted in thefts, including last month's fatal shooting of a 76-year-old South Carolina breeder and the 2021 shooting of a California dog walker who was squiring singer Lady Gaga's pets.
There’s concern that demand, plus the premium that some buyers will pay for “exotic” coat colors and textures, is engendering quick-buck breeders and unhealthy dogs. The breed's popularity is sharpening debate over whether there's anything healthy about propagating dogs prone to breathing, spinal, eye, and skin conditions.
The British Veterinary Association has urged people not to buy flat-faced breeds, such as Frenchies. The Netherlands has prohibited breeding very short-snouted dogs, and the country's agriculture minister aims to outlaw even owning them.
“French bulldogs can be a polarizing topic,” says Dr. Carrie Stefaniak, a Glendale, Wisconsin-based veterinarian who's on the Frenchie club's health committee.
She has treated French bulldogs with breathing difficulties, and she stresses that would-be owners need to research breeders and health testing and to recognize that problems can be expensive to treat.
But she's no Frenchie foe. She owns two and has conditioned them to run agility courses and take hilly hikes.
“These dogs can be very fit, can be very active,” Stefaniak said. “They don’t have to be sedentary dogs that can't breathe.”
The AKC's popularity rankings cover about 200 breeds in the nation’s oldest canine registry. The stats are based on nearly 716,500 puppies and other dogs newly registered last year — about 1 in every 7 of them a Frenchie. Registration is voluntary.
The most rarely owned? English foxhounds.
The rankings don’t count mixed-breeds or, at least for now, Labradoodles, puggles, Morkies and other popular “designer” hybrids. The AKC's top 10 were: French bulldogs, Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, German shepherds, poodles, bulldogs, Rottweilers, beagles, dachshunds and German shorthaired pointers.
With roots in England and then France, French bulldogs became chic among American elites around the turn of the 20th century, then faded from favor.
That changed, rapidly, in this century. Social media and celebrity owners (ranging from Leonardo di Caprio to Megan Thee Stallion to U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) gave the dogs fresh exposure. Still more came last year, when U.S. TV audiences watched a Frenchie named Winston take second place at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show and then win the National Dog Show hosted by the Kennel Club of Philadelphia.
Last year, about 108,000 newly registered French bulldogs surpassed Labs by over 21,000.
As a longtime breeder and a veterinarian, Dr. Lori Hunt sees Frenchies as ideal companions but their popularity as “a curse, not a blessing.”
“They're being very exploited” by unscrupulous breeders, she said. The Westlake, Ohio-based vet has seen plenty of Frenchies with problems but rejects arguments that the breed is inherently unhealthy. Some of her own do canine performance sports.
Some other breeds are prone to ailments ranging from hip dysplasia to cancers, and mixed-breed dogs also can get sick. But recently published research involving about 24,600 dogs in Britain suggested that Frenchies have “very different, and largely much poorer" health than do other canines, largely due to the foreshortened, wrinkly face that encapsulates the breed's je ne sais quoi.
With such findings in mind, the British Veterinary Association has said it “strongly recommends” against buying flat-faced dogs and has campaigned to scrub them from ads and even greeting cards.
The American Veterinary Medical Association is exploring ways to improve flat-faced dogs’ welfare, President Dr. Lori Teller says.
To animal rights and welfare activists, the French bulldog frenzy puts a snorting, panting face on problems with dog breeding in general.
"A lot of the breed characteristics that are bred into these dogs, they’re for looks, not necessarily health and welfare, and Frenchies are probably one of the most exaggerated examples of that,” said Dr. Lorna Grande of the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association, a professional group affiliated with the Humane Society of the United States.
"It is a welfare issue. These dogs are suffering,” she says.
The AKC notes that its Canine Health Foundation has donated $67 million since 1990 for research and education on many breeds, and the kennel and Frenchie clubs say there have been advances. A new breathing test made its U.S. debut on Frenchies, bulldogs and pugs at a show in January.
Prospective purebred owners should explore breeders' history and health testing, accept waiting for a puppy, and ask themselves whether they're prepared for the responsibility, the AKC says.
“Research what goes into owning a dog," says spokesperson Brandi Hunter Munden, "and really take an assessment of your lifestyle to make sure that you’re really making the best decision, not just for you, but for the animal.”