For the first time in three decades, the US has a new favorite dog breed, according to the American Kennel Club.
Adorable in some eyes, deplorable in others, the sturdy, driven, perky-eared, world-weary look and distinctive look became the nation’s most popular purebred dog last year, the association announced Wednesday. Frenchies knocked Labrador retrievers off the top spot after a 31-year record.
“They are funny, friendly, loving dogs,” says French Bull Dog Club of America spokeswoman Patty Sosa. City-friendly, with moderate grooming and exercise needs, he says, “they offer a lot in a small package.”
Still, the Frenchie’s meteoric rise—it wasn’t even a top 75 breed a quarter of a century ago—has its fans worried, to say nothing of its detractors.
The lively little bulldogs have been the target of thefts, including the fatal shooting of a 76-year-old South Carolina rancher last month and the 2021 shooting of a California dog walker who was walking singer Lady Gaga’s pets.
There is concern that the demand, plus the premium some buyers will pay for “exotic” coat colors and textures, is driving breeders and unhealthy dogs. The breed’s popularity is fueling debate over whether there is anything healthy about breeding dogs prone to respiratory, spinal, eye and skin ailments.
The British Veterinary Association has urged people not to buy flat-faced breeds such as Frenchies. The Netherlands has banned the breeding of dogs with very short muzzles, and the country’s agriculture minister plans to outlaw even owning them.
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“French bulldogs can be a polarizing topic,” says Dr. Carrie Stefaniak, a Glendale, Wisconsin-based veterinarian who serves on the Frenchie Club’s health committee.
He has treated French bulldogs with breathing difficulties and stresses that prospective owners should research breeders and health tests and recognize that problems can be expensive to treat.
But he is not an enemy of the French woman. She owns two and has set them up to run agility courses and go on hilly hikes.
“These dogs can be very fit, they can be very active,” Stefaniak said. “They don’t have to be sedentary dogs who can’t breathe.”
The AKC’s popularity rankings cover about 200 breeds in the nation’s oldest dog registry. The statistics are based on nearly 716,500 puppies and other dogs newly registered last year — about 1 in 7 of them French. Registration is voluntary.
The rarest property? English foxes.
The ranking does not 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, Greyhounds, Dachshunds and German Shorthaired Pointers.
With roots in England and then France, French bulldogs became fashionable 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 (from Leonardo DiCaprio to Megan Thee Stallion to Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez) have given dogs new exposure. Even more came last year, when US television 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 Philadelphia Kennel Club.
Last year, about 108,000 newly registered French Bulldogs outnumbered Labs by over 21,000.
As a longtime breeder and veterinarian, Dr. Lori Hunt sees Frenchies as ideal companions, but their popularity as a “curse, not a blessing.”
“They’re being taken advantage of a lot” by unscrupulous ranchers, he said. The Westlake, Ohio-based veterinarian has seen many Frenchies with problems, but rejects arguments that the breed is inherently unhealthy. Some of hers do dog performance sports.
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Some other breeds are prone to diseases ranging from hip dysplasia to cancers, and mixed breeds can get sick too. However, recently published research of around 24,600 dogs in Britain claimed that Frenchies have “very different and largely much poorer” health than other canines, largely because of the short, wrinkled face that encapsulates the breed’s je ne sais quoi.
With these findings in mind, the British Veterinary Association said it “strongly recommends” against buying flat-faced dogs and has campaigned to purge them from advertising and even greeting cards.
The American Veterinary Medical Association is investigating ways to improve the welfare of flat-faced dogs, says President Dr. Lori Teller.
To animal rights and welfare activists, the French bulldog frenzy puts a puffy, panting face on the problems with dog breeding in general.
“A lot of the breed traits that are bred into these dogs are for looks, not necessarily health and well-being, 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.
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“It’s a welfare issue. These dogs are suffering,” he says.
The AKC notes that the Canine Health Foundation has donated $67 million to it since 1990 for research and education in many breeds, and the kennel and Frenchie clubs say progress has been made. A new breath test debuted in the US with Frenchies, bulldogs and pugs at a demonstration in January.
Prospective purebred owners should explore the breeders’ history and health testing, accept the wait for a puppy and ask themselves whether they are prepared for the responsibility, the AKC says.
“Do your research on dog ownership,” says spokesperson Brandi Hunter Munden, “and really do an assessment of your lifestyle to make sure you’re really making the best decision, not just for you, but for the animal as well.”