The Goldendale Sentinel - Headlines & History since 1879

By Diane Jessup
For The Sentinel 

Companion Animal

Meet the Breeds Part 4: Buyer Beware - The French Bulldog Fad


September 18, 2019


CUTE BECAUSE OF HUMAN NEED?: The French bulldog, now the fourth most popular registered dog in America, was bred for a short muzzle but suffers breathing diffi culties because of it.

The suave little Frenchman that has taken America (again) by storm is a dog with a complex story. There is probably no more endearing, engaging, friendly and humorous dog breed on the planet, but they can also bring enormous heartbreak when the very traits they are bred for threaten their well-being. This two-part look at the French bulldog (Frenchie to his friends) will take an in-depth look at much more than the usual "they don't shed much and love children" review of the breed. To know the Frenchie and to really understand what ownership-and stewardship of the breed-is about, requires understanding the human forces which have shaped him and brought him to his current "fad" ranking as the fourth most popular registered dog in America. The Frenchy's story is a mixture of success at winning over the hearts of whole nations as well as a distressing view of man's thoughtless manipulation of our "best friends" for monetary gain and ego.

What cost "cute"?

The bulldog breeds have always tended to evoke strong emotions, pro or con, within the public. Today the Frenchie is in the middle of a controversy regarding the breeding of brachycephalic dog breeds. Brachycephalic refers to those dogs with a very short muzzle or no muzzle at all. There is no argument that this condition puts dogs at risk of death due to difficulty breathing. Airlines have bans and restrictions on "brachy" dogs for this very reason. The New York Times reported on an Agriculture Department finding that between June 2005 and June 2011, more than half the animals that died on commercial flights were brachycephalic breeds.

Opponents of breeding brachy dogs put forth this argument: if you saw a man putting his hands around a dog's neck and squeezing so that the animal had to labor to breath, you would stop him. So why not stop those who produce dogs who are born to a life of the same labored breathing? To me it seems a compelling argument, and yet many who call themselves dog lovers think nothing of breeding or owning dogs that struggle their whole lives to breath and cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, live a normal, active life.

Proponents claim that it is just the price of having "breed traits." Rowena Packer of the Royal Veterinary College (England) carried out research to determine if owners of brachy dogs understood their animals were living in respiratory distress. She stated, "Our study clearly shows that owners of brachycephalic dogs often dismiss the signs of this potentially severe breathing disorder as normal and are prepared to tolerate a high degree of respiratory compromise in their pets before seeking help."

To someone considering the purchase of a French bulldog, research into the many serious issues of Brachycephalic Syndrome (BS) is a must. BS consists of a cluster of problems surrounding shortened muzzles in dogs. These include stenotic nares (closed nostrils), everted saccules (when saccules become inverted and protrude into the laryngeal opening causing snoring, noisy breathing, nasal congestion and shortness of breath), elongated soft palate (causes snoring, noisy breathing and shortness of breath) and hypoplastic trachea (narrowing of the trachea which causes respiratory distress and noisy breathing).

As the owner and breeder of a breed considered brachycephalic the answer seems simple-breed the dogs as they originally were, with enough muzzle to allow normal breathing. It certainly can be done; my Bostons have the same amount of muzzle their ancestors had when the breed was created, and they run in front of my quad twice a day, covering 20 acres morning and night without even panting in moderate weather.

But the future of the Frenchy and other brachy breeds will ultimately be a matter of the public's decision on whether a flat face is more important than good health. Through their pet-buying decisions, the public can pressure changes which would improve health, or not. The choice is ours.

From the future to the past

Dogs evolved from the grey wolf, which has a long muzzle. As dogs were adapted for domestic purposes, their forms changed to give them superiority in specialized fields. The wolf is a great survivor-a generalist-but man has produced specialized dogs which are faster, stronger, tougher and more aggressive than the wolf. Terra cotta panels in Iraq show us that over 2,000 years ago the Assyrians had already molded the wolf into a great mastiff war-dog, and its muzzle was about half the length of a Wolves. This shortening and broadening gave the war dogs a stronger over all grip, and more importantly, the shorter length was less prone to injury than a longer, more slender jaw. To this day, breeds of dog which are used for heavy catch work on bulls or hogs have a medium length muzzle. However, a short muzzle such as the show bulldog has, causes the dog to miss its grip and more importantly, impedes breathing.

The Chinese bred very short nosed dogs for their grotesque appearance before it became a fad in the rest of the world. When the British over ran the Imperial Palace in China in 1860 they found (and filched) both pugs and Pekinese with very short muzzles.

These very same hijacked pugs were to play a role in the development of the French bulldog. While pugs had been in Europe for centuries before the Palace was raided, the careful breeding done by the Chinese had resulted in these new imports having both shorter legs and shorter muzzles. Queen Victoria became enthralled with the Palace pugs and became a keen breeder. This helped the popularity of the pug to skyrocket.

In the United Kingdom the puritans had managed by 1835 to get the baiting (fighting) of bears and bulls with bulldogs banned. It was difficult to hold now clandestine fights with large animals, so English sportsmen fell back on watching dogs fight. The larger baiting dogs were crossed with small, fierce, game terriers, resulting in a smaller, quicker dog, easy to spirit away if police interfered. These dogs became the Staffordshire and American pit bulls of today. The original bulldog was beginning its journey as the foundation breed for many newer breeds.

The world's first dog show was held in England in 1859. It was an immediate success. The idea of breeding dogs for a job was replaced by the fever to produce fancy new breeds-the more grotesque, large, small, or somehow unique, the better. No breed would suffer a steeper fall from usefulness to exhibition-worthy deformity than the bulldog.

By 1873 when England formed the first Kennel Club, there were very few men left who knew what a real bull-baiting dog looked like, and so when a "standard of perfection" was drawn up for an exhibition-only "bulldog," it was left to the imagination of men who wanted to produce the most profoundly shocking looking dog they could. Structural faults which would ruin the elegance and symmetry of other breeds became "points of honor" in what was in reality a Dr. Frankenstein-type creation-this new exhibition breed called "bulldog." These faults were drawn from kernels of truth; the original bulldog had had a strong, thick neck, massive chest, and lighter rear end. Afterall, it was the front of a dog that did the real work. Imagine if you will, being a dog and grabbing a 1,000-pound, very angry bull by the nose with your teeth. The bull will fling you up and down with strength that can flip an automobile. The lightly built rear end of the dog was just along for the ride.

Old time bulldogs, the real ones, also often had very short tails, roached backs, flat feet, and a thick, wide skull with a rather thick, wide muzzle. Victorian breeders got to work and exaggerated these attributes to the point of ridiculousness. The head of the bulldog became the most important part of the dog; the goal became to breed a dog with its nose between its eyes, and the lower jaw jutting out beyond to give a pugnacious appearance.

At this time Bulldogs weighed about 30 to 60 pounds. In order to produce a more exaggerated bulldog, cross breeding with the now-popular pug helped produce the desired layback of nose and had the added benefit of reducing size. Soon there were dog show classes for bulldogs weighing as little as 10 pounds.

And here, at this point, is where the French bulldog began.

These smaller "house" bulldogs became popular and found a loyal fancy with the lace-makers of the English midlands around Nottingham. When the Industrial Revolution ruined the trade for small craft shops like the lace-makers, these folks emigrated to the North of France, taking their small bulldogs with them. Like today, these little dogs quickly made friends in the new country and became popular all over France. Infamously, they were noted as favorites of the Parisian streetwalkers.

It wasn't long before these lovable dogs made it to the United States, where they were taken up by "East Coast Society" folks at the turn of the century. After a bitter squabble over whether the ears should be erect or fall like the bulldogs, it was American fanciers who insisted the breed have only "bat" ears. And so, the Frenchie is really the result of fanciers in Britain, France and the United States.

But fads come and go, and the French bulldog was replaced by the Boston terrier (who had, in fact, a touch of Frenchie in his breeding) and the "Boston Gentleman" enthralled America for the next couple decades. By 1960 only 106 Frenchie's were registered that year with the American Kennel Club (AKC).

Up again but not all is good

It was the explosive, sweeping fad of the American pit bull in the 1980s and 1990s that indirectly resurrected the Frenchie. And here we have history repeating itself. But now instead of East Coast Society woman making the dog popular, it was, sadly for the Frenchy, the very worst sort of "fad breeders" who used the Frenchie to produce another grotesque version of the bulldog. Just as the pug was added to the exhibition bulldog to reduce size and make them more grotesque in Victorian times, this time the show bulldog and the Frenchie were used by those seeking to profit by a new bred with shock factor-the so-called "exotic" pocket pits. These animals, also called "mini American bullies," quickly became a phenomenon of fad status in the "Urban" and "Hip Hop" cultures. Each breeder strives to produce a more shockingly deformed dog than the last, resulting in animals which are barely able to walk.

How did this lead to the French bulldog's sudden rise to the fourth most popular AKC registered breed in America? The demand for Frenchies grew as the "pocket pit" production ramped up. There is a lot of money involved in these fad dogs, and a large part of the sales pitch from bully kennel owners is the money to be made. Prices can run from $4,000 to $25,000. Obviously, the demand for Frenchies for breeding grew.

Serious breeders of the French bulldog have watched in horror as the breed is exploited and rises quickly in popularity. The French bulldog rose to the 13th most registered breed in the AKC in 2013, and in 2018 had risen to fourth. Understand that buying a French bulldog today is a risky gamble-an expensive risky gamble. You will not get a purebred French bulldog today for less than $1,800, and $2,500 to $4,000 is more like it.

Part 2: A close look at French bulldog health and personality.


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