Try presuming your way into the very chic Murray’s Cheese on Bleecker Street and you’ll be faced with a precondition posted on the door. A familiar red circle, universal warning sign to all ye who plan to enter, is cut diagonally, like a wheel of Brie, across a silhouette profiling what is not permitted beyond this point.
On the other side of this slash line of death is the image of a French bulldog. No Frenchies allowed? In a shop that sells luxury items imported, in some cases, from…France? This would not go over well in Paris. Banning dogs from purveyors of food or drink is culturally biased enough. Discriminating against a particular breed is pure prejudice. Does this mean that English bulls get a pass while Frenchies get tied to lampposts? And where should the favoritism end? Turn away one breed from eateries, and none are safe. Next will be the chocolate labs, café-au-lait poodles, and champagne pugs who can’t get in, not even as paying customers!
Forget about pit bulls. From New York to San Francisco I’ve crossed thresholds to finer dining where canines of all different shapes, sizes, and coat colors are singled out arbitrarily and denied passage, and for no better reason than their looks or family background. The worst atrocities of Ellis Island rear their ugly heads at artisan coffee breweries and overpriced cupcake emporiums, their portals marked with those same red insignias striking undesirables from inner circles, reminiscent of elite old social clubs with racial restrictions. Some say golden retrievers must be shown the door. Others label beagles the outliers. Labs get lumped into one league (in silhouette profile they all look black). Pugs are too ugly for some haters. Boston terriers are least welcome in Boston, and down south the border collies rank lower than Chihuahuas.
Yet for all our talk of inclusiveness and not judging, many self-styled dog lovers are, in fact, breed lovers who recognize only what’s in their own personal winner’s circle. So seriously do specialists take their narrow definitions of “dog”; so much of their identity gets invested in this model or that; woe to nonmembers who dare discuss matters they, as generalist dog amateurs, cannot possibly understand. Many times have I, and other canine critics, fended off online attacks from the dread English Bulldog Mafia for reminding them their breed is among the sickest on the market and suggesting maybe they should stop buying these poor, wretched creatures. Extremely well organized and bullheaded, bully apologists are quick to mob websites and comment sections with testimonials averring that their picture-perfect clones, miraculously, haven’t seen a sick day in their lives.
If only purebred extremists would invest as much time, money, and outrage in helping one of the millions of perfectly wonderful animals facing death each year in shelters across the globe as they do defending their God-given right to buy dogs seemingly designed to have problems — which brings me back full-circle to those sad Frenchies who can’t get into Murray’s cheese salon.
Unlike many formerly healthy, intelligent, skillful, and useful breeds turned couch potatoes and beauty queens, French bulldogs never had a practical purpose to lose during years of show-ring mutation and overbreeding to meet the demand for four-legged luxury items. Frenchies, whether purchased from puppy mills or society’s so-called “reputable” breeders, have been dysfunctional from the start. “Form and function,” that specious defense for keeping ornamental pets, is even less applicable here because Frenchies have been, from Dog Adam in the 1890s, pure form. They can lounge about eating bonbons all day if they want, because, much like court dogs of centuries past, their traditional function, so to speak, is only to advertise the discriminating taste, social standing, and spending power of the company they keep — in other words, to show their owners’ own good breeding.
French bulldogs do their job by looking as told, which is not as easy as it looks. Like their closely inbred and similarly deformed cousins the English bull, Chinese pug, and Boston terrier, these strange bug-eyed darlings of the rich or upwardly mobile must take whatever bizarre, contorted, unnatural shape needed to direct our gaze to the other end of that Louis Vuitton leash. Hard at work standing out from the hordes of lesser breeds on the sidewalk, they huff and puff, dragging their impractical carcasses just to keep up. So competitive is this drive to let Frenchies, and only Frenchies, into finer homes, canine connoisseurs are willing to overlook the fact that a flashy anatomy and closed-door DNA policy threaten this breed’s ability to perform even as a fashion accessory and trophy of family pride.
How could I be so cruel as to criticize these adorable Pokémon pups? I’m often accused of “breed bashing,” though anyone who cares about dogs as much as I, and regardless of their appearance, can only feel anger and pity when aesthetics threaten an animal’s health and well-being. What’s wrong with French bulldogs? Where should I begin? Generations of unwise inbreeding to no good end, far beyond what would be needed to keep their signature looks, have left these cartoon critters with low resistance to illness and allergies. Physically handicapped at birth (by cesarean, because the heads are, like the owners’ pride, inflated) with squashed-in faces that are freakishly flat, they face serious challenges in performing some of any mammal’s basic functions — like getting enough oxygen and keeping their bodies at a safe temperature. Life’s burdens grow heavier under a long list of deformities preventing even mobility, and a task as simple as walking is no small feat. The internet abounds with news of young bulls — French and English — dying in their basic obedience classes just overdoing their sits and stays. The successful movers-and-shakers who bought these challenged Paralympians may themselves fly around the country to run marathons and train for extreme sports, but extreme breeds like these, from early puppyhood onward, can’t run, jump, or play like the other dogs and must be closely monitored at all times. Try and make them swim and they’ll sink like cannonballs. Much of what is normal activity for most dogs can be, and often is, fatal for Frenchies.
So not only are overall health, quality of life, and mobility sacrificed to get these modern marvels distinctive enough to flatter the owner’s self-image and impress passersby, so is the ability to behave as real dogs. Deduct right off the top the many weeks or months the French and English bulls that I, personally, have known to spend in ICU isolation attached to oxygen tanks for pneumonia. Add the very common multiple surgeries to correct their show-standard mouths, noses, eyes, skin, legs, and spines. Then add the recovery time, assuming there will be full recovery in immunocompromised breeds prone to infections, and not much is left for getting to know other dogs and learning basic social skills. Disabled pets may help improve their owners’ social chances, but they’re dealt a bum hand for dealing with their own kind. Poor performance in puppy mixer groups is par for the course.
Assuming Frenchies survive puppyhood — and the owners don’t dump them — they’ll never be able to use normal body language to communicate with other dogs because their bodies are so warped. “Correct” appearance as per their breed standard may say something about the owners’ financial condition and discriminating taste, but those weird alien eyes, the frozen glare and exposed teeth, the endless coughing, wheezing, and cartoon gurgling that fans find so cute and entertaining, give other dogs they pass on sidewalks good reason to be alarmed and on their guard. Nature’s basic repertoire of expressions and vocalizations has been perverted by human meddling, and if the owners aren’t smart enough to know the gene pool is being threatened by these weak and tragic specimens, other dogs are. Humped backs distort posture and intent. Dwarfed legs prevent play bowing and invite aggression. Short curly tails can’t wag or warn to signal as they should. Deliberate mutations multiply misunderstandings and explain the constant brawls Frenchies are famous for getting into at the local dog park, even amongst each other because they’re startled by what they see in the mirror.
Bad health and bad behavior, a sensible person might think, are good reasons for not buying a dog. The thought of taking on such a flimsy, temperamental, problematic breed as the French bulldog is no doubt daunting, and yet humans hooked on their looks gladly rise to the occasion. According to pet insurance companies, Frenchies rank with English bulls as one of the sickest breeds on the market. They’re also, based on American Kennel Club registrations, the single most fashionable breed in New York City, and they’ve just joined English bulls on the lists of top ten breeds in both the U.S. and Canada. No matter how strongly people are warned, and despite the very high likelihood of surgery, medication, and endless hours of special care from a tender age, fans don’t flinch at spending vast amounts on these cuddly money pits that are almost guaranteed to start falling apart the moment they get home. Otherwise educated, sophisticated, thoughtful folk gladly succumb to the Frenchie’s strange allure as they would to a weakness for pastry. They’re overeager to line up and order puppies in advance, sight unseen and no questions asked, from the sought-after breeders, bypassing all knowledge on what makes a quality product and tossing the rules of rational, responsible consumer behavior right out the window.
As much as I love dogs, I have trouble finding anything nice to say about anyone who buys a Frenchie. So if only in the name of fair and balanced reporting, I’ll give those diehard Frenchists the benefit of the doubt, for a moment. I’ll suspend, for as long as I can stand, my disbelief that anyone but a fool or a very selfish person would pay a breeder to go on producing these carnival freaks. I’ll assume, clenching my teeth and holding my breath, they’ve somehow missed the steady stream of media coverage warning them away; the wealth of studies from prestigious universities and respected scientists; a major documentary showing in lurid detail what happens when an animal’s minimal survival needs are subordinated to human whim. I’ll even walk that extra mile (which a Frenchie can’t) to ask people partial to these pooches what makes them so wonderfully irresistible.
Invariably, I get the same reply: “They’re great apartment dogs!”
For all their willingness to overlook the facts, Frenchists can’t be accused of not having done their homework before taking the plunge. “Research” on the breed typically includes a brief visit to the AKC’s website and, possibly, Wikipedia, or to a source called Bankrate.com whose official list of “10 Pet Breeds Suited to Apartment Living” ranks the French bulldog the number six best buy, slightly behind the similarly troubled English bulldog and Boston terrier. The report, from Bankrate’s “Smart Spending” series, advises savvy shoppers that “French bulldogs are affectionate dogs that need a minimal amount of exercise.” Prospective investors are told these are “great indoor dogs, perfect for apartment living, according to the American Kennel Club.”
Maybe in some eccentric, upside-down way these dogs are suited for apartment living, not because they don’t require exercise but because they can’t handle much. It only stands to reason that a half-lame creature that can barely move and has breathing problems won’t behave like a bull in a china shop and go breaking big-ticket tchotchkes on the coffee table. Even so, I keep hitting a wall trying to understand how such a disaster could be considered a good value whether you call home a big-city apartment, a sprawling suburban McMansion, or a vast country estate.
Bankrate.com’s stated mission is “to help educate and empower you along your financial journey.” The assumption is that “saving money is as important to you as spending it.” Now, let’s make one thing perfectly clear right off a Frenchie’s bat-shaped ears: No one who’s ever invested in one would say these dogs are in any way, shape, or form cheap to keep around the house, apartment, or château. Quite the contrary: You need money to keep pets that consume cash, and no small part of the attraction to this very high-maintenance breed comes not from the possibility of saving but from the certainty of spending (which Bankrate.com admits is equally important). Could it be some exquisite sense of gratification felt while flashing credit cards at the local veterinary hospital that accounts for this very impractical breed’s glamour? As with other lavish luxury items, it’s not the promise of sound construction and durability that draws, but an even rarer pleasure in the opposite.
While fashions in dogs are constantly changing, the timeless appeal of expensive but useless ephemera is hardly new. Economist and social critic Thorstein Veblen remarked back in the 1890s — when French bulldogs, English bulldogs, and similarly sick and deformed “canine monstrosities” were first invented for show rings and showing off — that the goal in owning a shoddily made bauble requiring massive upkeep is to advertise wealth through not just “conspicuous consumption” but “conspicuous waste.” The palpably well-off make their marks on every lamppost by demonstrating how much they have to blow on potlatch pooches, a pleasure reserved for them and denied the lower classes forced to focus on, say, health and functionality in their dogs — assuming they can afford to keep them at all.
Here we are in our latest Gilded Age, with a growing divide between the filthy rich and the uninsured, and Frenchies have suddenly, by no strange coincidence, come back into vogue. So, too, is a new breed of dog owner taking over the promenades of New York and cities around the world. Parading about in full regalia to give their darlings daily constitutionals are legions of ladies in Marc Jacobs “Mr. Pickles Bullflats” (dainty slipperettes bearing the image of one of the designer’s own favorite freaks). Matching accessories include the Marc Jacobs French bulldog iPhone case, the Marc Jacobs French bulldog keychain, the Marc Jacobs bamboo brown French bulldog clutch, the Marc Jacobs French bulldog black-and-white leather over-the-shoulder bag — and, for the multitaskers, the Marc Jacobs leash. Proud carriers of so many accoutrements have to tie their actual lapdogs outside before entering the fashionable Murray’s Cheese on Bleecker, but once inside they’re spotted tout de suite as Frenchists while their maison breadsticks are weighed out at a twisted $28.99 per pound.
Have no illusions: Wearing a French bulldog, or buying anything purporting to be French (whether it’s good or overrated), is about spending money, and doing so in the most extravagant and public way possible. Pet insurance companies know this, and their customers are almost giddy when reimbursed some small portion of the funds wasted on endless vet bills, a gift from Heaven for which they have no one to thank but themselves.
Like good capitalists, investors take a gamble and accept their losses, even if they bought recklessly with full knowledge of what to expect. Petplan, one of several insurance companies with sliding premium scales based on breed, has its own flashy Pinterest page posting some of the more lavish bailouts they’ve arranged for clients. “Claims to Fame” include recent payments to Frenchie owners as high as $20,000, a petit peu of the total lifetime costs for these animals, which are in most cases still very young (they’ll cost more to insure as they grow older). “The cost of caring,” Petplan seems to be saying, will show the world how much your dog is being loved. “You can’t put a price on unconditional love” are words of wisdom hard to contradict. “But you can budget for it.”
It’s all part of being a responsible parent, and anyone who plans to buy a Frenchie is wise to open a savings account, as they would for a child’s dentistry, and for more than a Frenchie’s overcrowded teeth. The AKC helps out by offering its own Visa credit card, personalized with a picture of your dog or favorite breed. Holders earn reward points for every dollar spent on veterinarians, which over the lifetime of many inbred and deformed breeds promoted by the AKC can add up to a lot of points, and a vicious circle of spending and caring.
Is it really love for dogs, or even for a particular breed, that makes Frenchie flash mobs appear from out of nowhere in the Washington Square dog run certain Sundays — or is it some new strain of mass, socially sanctioned MBP? Suddenly and without warning, the place is literally flooded with grunting ghouls oozing from every orifice, each and every one its own special horror show that won’t need a costume for the next Halloween contest. While the dogs bang skulls and pool labored breaths into a hellish hiss that rises above the treetops, proud parents commiserate on the stellar cost of their breed’s upkeep, sending congratulatory winks on being in a club where money is no object. You can’t put a price on caring — or, for that matter, on knowledge. Breathing problems, allergies, heatstroke, Addison’s, Cushing’s, cherry eye, entropion, HD, MPL, IVDD — reciting in clinical detail the many esoteric health problems, another part of the allure, is like pointing out subtle nuances among wine grapes and coffee beans with words and phrases only the initiated understand.
Becoming expert on this very special breed’s many torments, and the litany of secret elixirs and special handling required, is almost as rewarding as imparting this arcane erudition slowly, carefully, and in graphic detail to the hired help. “It’s just a Frenchie thing,” one wealthy couple told a hopeful dog walker a few months ago about their six-month male, who couldn’t go more than a few city blocks on a mild spring day without being carried. “Yeah, it’s called brachycephalic syndrome,” was my response during the interview, which didn’t end well. Telling me what I already knew about their dog not being allowed, under any circumstances, on stairs — climbing up, Frenchies risk heart attack; going down they tumble like turnips with those supersized skulls — was a way to remind me they lived in an elevator building, one with a doorman instructed to report back on how closely the help was following their emphatic instructions.
By no choice or fault of their own, French bulldogs are really quite nasty and disgusting little brutes that only a person with very exotic tastes would find cute or in any way desirable to keep as pets. If you won’t believe me, a lowly if not humble New York dog walker who bites the hand that feeds, then ask any seasoned connoisseur who knows exactly what to expect and would still rather have no dog at all than settle for anything less, or more, than a Frenchie.
The creators of a recently defunct but oft-quoted website called Frenchbulldogz.net, “the VERY FIRST French Bulldog site on the web,” show that a dog’s best friends can also be its harshest critics. These insiders got in on the ground floor of their breed’s return to fashion in recent years, prior to the parvenus, and are displeased to see their club become too popular for them (and their dogs) to stay special. They do everything in their power to shoo away gatecrashers and make no attempt to sugarcoat the Frenchie. Be warned, all ye who presume to enter: You may be man enough to handle the vet bills, but are you woman enough to keep these little troublemakers from turning the stateliest home into a depository for dog hair, drool, vomit, urine, feces, and a few other unsavory items? The truth is, Frenchies are not great apartment dogs unless you have the patience, money, and maybe staff to make them barely bearable as indoor pets.
Topping the site’s now-famous list of “Top Reasons to NEVER Buy a French Bulldog” (plus a few of my own): “They are possibly the most flatulent breed on the face of the planet.” As with English bulls, owing to a poorly designed torso, when you invest in a Frenchie you’re also investing in inexhaustible reserves of natural gas. “We’re not talking one or two little farts per week, either — we’re talking about a constant miasma cloud of evil smelling gas that will hang over top of your Frenchie pretty much constantly.” Unless your dinner guests also collect Frenchies and appreciate their endearing bittersweet quirks, you’d be wise to offer an overripe Camembert for dessert to cover the stench rising from under the table.
Then there’s that most common reason for not having dogs: “They shed. A lot.” Based on my own experience pet-sitting in clients’ homes, even if you have the time or money for constant grooming, Frenchies shed year round and in massive quantities of annoying little hairs that weave their way into upholstery and clothing, making removal difficult and the choice of breed a factor when selecting your other accoutrements. If you want to apply for membership to this club, you should either change your wardrobe or be ready to wear your pride on your sleeve.
Now, if you seek loyalty in a dog, you’re bound to have your heart broken. “They’re not Lassie,” the lowly farm collie always saving little Timmy, but delicate, inbred aristocrats that breathe a rarefied atmosphere and care mainly for themselves. If you’re looking for devotion, then look for another breed, or drop your petty bourgeois ideas on fidelity, because the Frenchie’s “sorta slutty” and its affections run the gamut.
Next on the list of enticements to gluttons for punishment with way too much money for anyone’s wellness: this breed’s fetish for eating shit. After “poop breath” and a taste for “truffles,” there’s stubbornness, bellicosity, and separation anxiety, not to mention allergies and all the nauseating à la carte side effects. Housebreaking? Anyone with a Frenchie, and many a dog trainer, will be forced to agree: These dogs are virtually impossible to break. “You know that rare Oriental carpet that you’re so attached to? The priceless one that Grandmother left you in her will? Well, your Frenchie just peed on it. Repeatedly.” Nice.
If you’ve run the gantlet this far and not turned back, next on the list of reasons why not to buy this dog (wink) is its propensity to drool. Of course, not all Frenchies are guaranteed to drool, not any more than they’re all guaranteed to need expensive soft-palate reduction surgery to breathe. But even “many of the non-droolers are still messy, slobbery, sloppy drinkers and eaters.” What’s not mentioned here is the constant vomiting I’ve seen in the breed, due to a deformity of the esophagus that also plagues English bulls. These critters can’t hold down food and water like normal dogs. Perfect for apartment living, a pooch that’s always hurling. Also omitted are the life-threatening heart and lung problems that come with so much regurgitation — as though these spoiled beauties were bulimic — and the higher likelihood of infections in those exaggerated skin folds on the face, already at high risk, if kept wet by perpetual spewing. Also passed over are the chronic anal-gland problems that inspire these zany beasts to leave bold and artful skid marks across your rugs and furniture. Finally, the jet set needs to know that flat-faced breeds are now banned from most commercial airlines because too many dogs have died en route. (Which gives new and secondary meaning to these pets suffering from obstructed airways.)
“Owning a Frenchie is not for the faint of heart — and it’s also not for those who can’t afford good veterinary care.” You stand warned. “Some Frenchies have health issues — and some Frenchies have lots of them!” Even society’s finest breeders, we’re told, can’t guarantee good health, so better assume it won’t be. “The amount of suffering and unpleasantness which these conditions can cause” — for the dog or for you? — “cannot be overemphasized.” A friendly veterinarian offers advice to Frenchie fanatics. The question isn’t “Why would any veterinarian worthy to practice not speak out against anyone who breeds or buys pitiful, deformed creatures with unnecessarily high health risks?” but rather: “What’s ‘normal’ for a Frenchie? And when to seek help…”
Seek help, indeed, for both the dog and yourself. Masochistic breed monomaniacs demand pleasures so rare they’re unpleasant but swing as sadists expecting dogs to serve them by suffering. “If you’re the kind of person who can tolerate all of this and still love a Frenchie, you’re just one short step away from becoming a Frenchie junkie, just like the rest of us.” It takes a special breed, a highly developed palate, and a jaded life philosophy to join this elite. Money will be wasted. Calculated cruelty will be kind. Think you’re up for the Frenchie challenge? Could you pass the rite de passage? Would you even want to?
Or do you count yourself among the many who believe it is our duty, as dog lovers and decent humans, to minimize, not maximize, suffering in animals who trust us, to avoid gambling with their health and welfare and to tip the balance more in favor of their basic needs, and rights, than a person’s social goals? Then join me by slamming your door shut, but not before posting a sign for all to see: NO FRENCH-BULLDOG OWNERS ALLOWED.
Michael Brandow’s latest book is A MATTER OF BREEDING: A Biting History of Pedigree Dogs and How the Quest for Status Has Harmed Man’s Best Friend (Beacon Press, 2015).