America’s New Favorite Dog Breed: the comical and controversial french bulldog — has never won the nation’s preeminent dog show.
Yet here, at a ambling trot, comes Winston. The NFL-connected Frenchie is a strong contender at this week’s Westminster Kennel Club dog show, less than two months after the publication of rankings showing his species has become the most prevalent dog breed in the country. .
The Frenchies’ rise has been astounding: from 83rd most popular to #1 in three decades. It has also been dogged by concerns about its health, debate over the ethics of breeding, allegations of a gold rush-like market with increasingly “exotic” variations, and a recent spate of high-profile thefts and sometimes fatal.
If all of that says something about these stubby-nosed, pointy-eared, deep-chested, and inquisitive little bulldogs, what does it say about the culture that loves them?
YOUR MEDIA IMAGE IMPACTS YOUR POPULARITY
“Like humans, dogs are characterized by what they can do, but more importantly, by what they can symbolize,” says Cameron Whitley, Western Washington University sociology professor and section chair-elect. of Animals and Society of the American Sociological Association. Whitley argues that the popularity of breeds depends less on their traits than on their representation in media and pop culture.
In fact, a 2013 study found no indication that longer lifespans, better behavior, or other desirable characteristics make a dog breed more sought after. One of the authors, Western Carolina University psychology professor Hal Herzog, has also observed that parabolic spikes in dog breeds resemble those in baby names, hit songs, and other staples. of pop culture. In short, they are canine memes.
“Dogs have become a fashionable way,” says Herzog, who wrote a book on human attitudes and behaviors toward animals.
French bulldogs have a colorful, centuries-long history involving English lacemakers, the Parisian underworld, and the Gilded Age American tourists who brought the dogs home. (One even died in the sinking of the Titanic in 1912.) But the breed’s heyday in the United States soon ended.
Then the Americans saw the French again in the current century. They appeared on the TV show of domesticity expert Martha Stewart, then in narrative series and films (such as “Modern Family” and “Due Date”), commercials (including Super Bowl commercials for Skechers in 2012 and Bud Light this year). ) and social networks. media accounts of celebrity owners (Lady Gaga, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and many more).
French bulldog fans point to attributes beyond camera readiness to explain the dogs’ appeal. They boast easy-care coats, modest exercise needs, an apartment-friendly size, and demeanor memorably described as “a clown in a philosopher’s cape.”
However, that hasn’t translated into victories at Westminster, where each dog is judged against an ideal for its own breed, not for others.
Still, Patty Sosa, longtime breeder and spokesperson for the French Bull Dog Club of America, posits that Frenchies “might have been outclassed” by flashier-looking breeds like poodles. (Similar theories were harbored by Labrador retriever supporters during the 31 years their breed topped the popularity charts; it has yet to win Westminster.)
Winston, however, came within a step of the trophy last year, coming in second to the first hound to win. The Frenchie then went on to win another prominent competition, the National Dog Show in Philadelphia in November. He heads to Westminster on Monday as one of showbiz’s winningest dogs (the top prize will be awarded on Tuesday night).
If a dog can gain a competitive advantage through osmosis, the cream-colored 4-year-old probably does. He lives with co-owner Morgan Fox, a defensive end for the Los Angeles Chargers, when he’s not on the show circuit with manager and co-owner Perry Payson.
Plus, Winston “has the build, he’s got the contour, he’s got the head and he’s got the movement” of a winner, Sosa says. “And by God, he’s got the attitude.”
PEOPLE CARE ABOUT THEIR HEALTH
While applauding Winston’s success, he says the French have mixed feelings, part joy, part misgivings, about seeing dogs gain more recognition.
Long-time breeders who adhere to health testing and other guidelines feel that Frenchie fever has already attracted opportunistic, careless individuals who produce anything-goes, possibly unhealthy puppies. There is concern that “we are losing the battle with education and only promoting a well-behaved dog,” Sosa said.
Some vets are concerned about Frenchies too, all of them.
Partly because of their sunken, wrinkled faces, the animals are susceptible to respiratory, eye, and other problems. While other breeds also have predispositions and mixed-breed dogs can be a question mark, recent research in Britain suggested that Frenchies’ health is “largely much poorer” than other canines.
The British Veterinary Association has “strongly” recommended against buying flat-faced dogs, and the Dutch government has banned the breeding of very short-nosed dogs. In the US defense: He wants to “counter the dramatic increase in demand” for poke-faced dogs, in part by discouraging their use in advertising.
“Owners who really love these dogs don’t understand how much dogs suffer,” says the group’s director of education, Dr. Lorna Grande. (Meanwhile, the American Veterinary Medical Association has generally said it is exploring ways to improve the well-being of flat-faced dogs.)
Dr. Carrie Stefaniak has seen French bulldogs in respiratory distress at her practice in Glendale, Wisconsin. She urges prospective owners to understand the health risks of the breed and the potential cost of treatment. She emphasizes carefully researching breeders.
But he is quick to add that Frenchies can thrive.
“The general public talks about the unhealthy ones,” says Stefaniak, “but we don’t often hear about the 13-year-olds who are still out there, doing really well, or doing agility or doing long walks. . ”
His two French bulldogs do both.
New York-based Associated Press journalist Jennifer Peltz has covered the Westminster dog show since 2013.