I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want a dog. For many years, it wasn’t a specific kind of dog I wanted, just a dog, any dog. When I imagined myself with a dog, I pictured a generic kind of Collie, wet nose and wagging tail, nothing more specific. Yet to tell the truth, although I say I wanted a dog, I hadn’t given much thought to what having a dog would involve. Plus, whenever I visited friends who had dogs, I never really found them very appealing, especially big dogs that jumped on me and drooled. For a couple of years, my closest friend had two German Shepherds. Her small house had been taken over by these huge, noisy creatures that shed hair all over the furniture. The house always smelled of dog, and frankly, so did she.
I should perhaps point out that I’ve always been drawn to animals that aren’t considered conventionally endearing—the kinds of animals that don’t get shows on Animal Planet (unless its “Nature’s Ugliest Mistakes”). I’ve recently written a book about the hyena, which is far and away my favorite animal, though I also like hedgehogs, porcupines, armadillos, rats, Tasmanian devils, African wild dogs, bats and rhinos. I’m drawn to unusual horns and oddly shaped ears, erectile manes and curly tails, don’t ask me why. Naturally, then, I’ve always been interested in the English bulldog, with its flat, jowly face and squat, muscular body, though the drool has always seemed like a drawback. I’ve always assumed English bulldogs slobber a lot, but perhaps I’m wrong.
The first time I ever saw a French bulldog was sometime around 1999, in the streets of Greenwich Village, which of all areas in the United States seems to contain perhaps the greatest concentration of the breed. Some people have suggested that French bulldogs are especially popular in the Village because, as small, affectionate lapdogs that are also solid and butch, they have a particular appeal to gay men. A 2005 article in The New York Times Style section described the French bulldog as a “gay vague” dog (as opposed to the Boston terrier, which signifies “straight,” and the Jack Russell, which apparently suggests out-and-out “gay”). What the dog signaled in Greenwich Village, however, was not my concern. What fascinated and enchanted me about this odd little creature was that at first sight it looked more like small pig than a dog—a pig with a flat snout, an underbite, and large, bat-like ears. I started looking out for these piglet-like dogs, and whenever I saw one, I’d think to myself, “There, that’s the kind of dog I want.” Finally I started to say it out loud to whomever I was with at the time. Then I learned what they were called: French bulldogs.
Notoriously, these charming little creatures were originally fashionable among prostitutes, so much so that during the belle époque in Paris, if a woman was seen walking a French bulldog, it was a sign she was looking for business. Not only did the dogs help attract potential clients, their easygoing character meant they had no problem taking short naps at hotels during the afternoon, when their mistresses were otherwise engaged. In this period, many prostitutes posed for paintings, postcards, and drawings with their French bulldogs at their feet, in their lap, by their side or under their dressing tables, the pups often sporting ruffled or feathered neckwear.
When the breed first appeared in Britain 1898, it caused a genuine scandal. The British bulldog had become such a popular symbol of the English character that the sight of this miniature French version with bat ears seemed like a mockery of everything the noble bulldog had come to stand for. The sentiment was summed up in the popular press: “We English, who have always felt a special affinity for our national symbol, must reject this little abomination that has been brought to our country.”
According to the American Kennel Club, French bulldogs are increasingly common. In the year 2000, they ranked as the 71st most popular breed in the United States; in 2010, they ranked 21st, though they are still nowhere near as fashionable as English bulldogs. It is not always a good thing when a breed’s popularity increases so fast; such trends often lead to a rise in puppy mills, backyard breeders and mixed-blood imports. Plus, some people who acquire Frenchies don’t realize that, as a “man-made” breed, they’re prone to various medical problems, including joint diseases, spinal disorders, heart defects, eye problems and deafness. Puppies have to be delivered by cesarean section, since they have such large heads, and their short snouts mean that anesthesia is always a risk. Their bulging eyes are subject to dryness and susceptible to injury. Like other flat-faced dogs, Frenchies don’t do well in hot weather: They wheeze, snort, grunt, have strange honking fits called reverse sneezing, and snore like a freight train at night. Their short jaws can cause dental difficulties, and their wrinkles can harbor bacteria that cause serious infections. I do wonder about this, and much as I love the way Grisby looks, I know that he is a product of artificial selective breeding, and his size, shape and temperament are the result of human choices that might not be in the dog’s best interests. Would he be happier if he had been born with a snout or with a tail?
I also realize that a number of people find French bulldogs hideous to look at, with their grossly foreshortened jaws, high foreheads and protruding eyes. The flat face is supposed to be especially anthropomorphic, designed to appeal to the human “cuteness” response, but many people find it grotesque and disturbing. On top of that, according to Jan Bondeson in his book Amazing Dogs, “Canine psychologists have pointed out that certain breeds of dogs are cleverer than others,” the bulldog, apparently, occupying the bottom end of the scale.
Despite all this, French bulldogs are affectionate, playful pets that don’t bark much, and have distinct personalities. They’ve recently become popular among celebrities, which might help to explain why the breed has suddenly become so fashionable among the public. Yves Saint Laurent had a series of brindle piebald Frenchies all named Moujik (Moujik II had his portrait painted by Andy Warhol), and Leonardo DiCaprio shares custody of a French bulldog named Django (likely after Django Reinhardt, the jazz guitarist) with his ex-girlfriend, the model Gisele Bündchen. Martha Stewart’s French bulldogs, Franceska and Sharkey, frequently appear on her television show and even have a blog dedicated to their adventures, “The Daily Wag.” Reese Witherspoon has a Frenchie named Coco Chanel; Christina Ricci has one named Ramon, and Michelle Trachtenberg has one named Mya. Malcolm McDowell, Hugh Jackman, Ahley Olson, Mario Lopez and Patricia Hearst are all French bulldog owners; Hearst’s French bulldog, Diva, won a red ribbon at the Westminster Dog Show last year. Comedian Patton Oswalt is sometimes said to resemble his Frenchie Grumpus. Celebrity chef Claire Robinson is often accompanied in the kitchen by her clean and well behaved French bulldog, Newman. Documentary filmmaker Errol Morris is a French bulldog fan; his black-pied Frenchie Jackpot was the predecessor of his current fawn Frenchies, Boris and Ivan. Author Augusten Burroughs also has two French bulldogs, Cow and Bentley. Burroughs writes lying on his bed, where his bulldogs join him. “One is on top of my legs and one is next to me, and if I move positions then they move with me at all times,” he explained in an interview. “I am in physical contact with my two French bulldogs literally 24 hours a day.” This is not always possible for Grisby and me, but it is definitely my ideal, and Grisby always does his best to make it happen.
Mikita Brottman teaches literature at MICA–look for her regular Baltimore Fishbowl column, “On Culture,” chronicling the weird and wonderful world of Baltimore, with special focus on fascinating small things oft overlooked.