Editor’s Note: Urmee Khan is a London-based journalist with more than two decades of experience in TV, print and online media. She is founder of Rakhana, a media consultancy. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. Read more opinion at CNN.
It would be easy to dismiss French bulldogs, with their squidgy, cartoon faces and small squat bodies, as little more than a handbag accessory. Some people might even see them as little more than a conversation piece affording the pretext to gossip about a favorite music star or actor. And no one can deny the trend: Celebrities everywhere are photographed toting a baby Frenchie in a shoulder bag, or holding one at the end of an expensive designer leash.
But while it’s true that these dogs have become a runaway favorite among celebrities, the breed has lot more than that to recommend it. I don’t claim to be impartial, however. I have been sharing my London living quarters for the past decade with a brindle-coated French bulldog who is the joy of my life.
It comes as no surprise to me that the French bulldog has supplanted the Labrador retriever as America’s most popular dog, ending the sporting dog’s 31-year reign. Many people might be wondering how a country that for decades has preferred the outgoing, high-energy Labrador would swap it out for a pint-sized, sedentary, furry gargoyle.
Even where I live in Britain, one could read the tea leaves: America’s tastemakers and trendsetters have been making French Bulldogs their canine of choice for years. Music stars from Lady Gaga to 2 Chainz, Megan Thee Stallion and Snoop Dogg have one, as do some of Hollywood’s most famous celebrities, including Hugh Jackman, The Rock and Reese Witherspoon.
The French bulldog’s popularity is not just a reflection of a desire to imitate the habits and predilections of the rich and famous, however. My personal theory is that it reflects the changing nature of what many Americans are looking for in a family pet. In the post-Covid era, these more inward-looking times call for a pup that is less demanding, a pet whose company you can enjoy within the quiet and solace of your four walls.
You didn’t need to be a psychic to see the change coming. Last year, the ever-popular National Dog Show – America’s premier competition for purebred dogs and something of an arbiter in trends about which breeds will be up-and-comers – saw a French bulldog by the name of Winston emerge victorious, beating out hundreds of other canines.
The show’s host sized up the breed pretty well, and got to the root of what makes Frenchies so appealing, in saying that Winston (as well as his handler) “have cornered the market on energy, enthusiasm and just pure spunk.”
“Spunk” is what Frenchies have no shortage of. They are, in short, total clowns. These pint-sized gremlins are about the most entertaining companions one can ever wish to have. My delightful Bertie (also known as “Berts” and “Bertle”) snacks on cooked carrots, Bonios – his favorite brand of dog treat – and sardines. He has his own Instagram account: @bertie_french_bulldog. Bernie abhors walking in the rain, the washing machine and horror films. (The scary music soundtracks send him racing to hide in the bath.)
Frenchies are very stubborn little beings; they are fiercely independent and they have a charming and pugnacious personality. They also possess, in no small measure, qualities that some people would consider drawbacks in a human companion: They sulk, emit noxious fumes, snore, grunt and regularly give you very judgmental side-eyes. But in a furry friend that fits in the crook of your arm, what could be more appealing?
These dogs are quite sociable, which is unsurprising given they were originally bred in the early 1800s as companion dogs to lace workers in Nottingham, England, according to the American Kennel Club.
“Perhaps these miniaturized bulldogs ate less food and took up less room in the tight quarters that were all the women could afford with their meager wages. Maybe they fit snugly on a lap, where they made an attractive detour for fleas that were otherwise human-bound,” the AKC said on its site.
“What we do know is that the lace workers were so smitten by their funny little bulldogs that when the Industrial Revolution eliminated their jobs completely, they took the dogs with them across the English Channel to the Normandy area in northern France.”
In short, these darling toy bulldogs emigrated from Britain some 200 years ago and were repatriated as “French.” And who could blame the French for claiming them as their own?
If there is any drawback to the breed, it’s that some have been found to have breathing problems: those adorable squished-flat faces can be cute, but respiratory difficulties have been know to be an issue for some of them.
You have to be mindful not to over-exercise them, and hot climates can be a no-go for the same reason. Luckily, I’ve not had any issues with Bertie in this regard. His breathing has always been fine. He once overheated, but a cold tea towel and a Bonio set things right.
There is one other concern: Their portability and desirability make them the target of dognappers. The violent armed robbery of Gaga’s French bulldogs made headlines a couple of years back, but even dogs belonging to owners with a far more modest profile have been known to be nabbed. Some owners of Frenchies have learned the trick of tightly wrapping their dog’s leash around their hand at all times and never letting their pooch out of their sight.
No offense to other breeds, but I somehow suspect that, even after the mighty Labrador’s impressive run, it might take more than 30 years for French bulldogs to be dethroned from the top spot in Americans’ hearts.
Bertie keeps our friends and the community entertained with his daily refusal to walk, his daft antics – his zoomies and spins – and an assortment of neat party tricks: He can walk on his hind legs like a pocket-sized dinosaur, plays dead when he gets “shot” and liberally gives high fives and “fist bumps.”
But he’s also a gentle soul. Bertie has been invited to many children’s tea parties and sleepovers and has endured wearing a dress, a fez and being a unicorn. He has even won over my traditional Muslim parents and siblings, who agree he’s a “good boy” and are amused by his comic personality.
Can a Labrador do those things? Maybe. Probably, even. Can they do them as adorably as a French bulldog? I have a hard time imagining that that could ever be the case.