As 1963’s The Incredible Journey and 2008’s Marley & Me attest, the Labrador retriever has long been a beloved staple of American pop culture. Officially recognized as a breed in 1917, the lovable dogs originated in Newfoundland rather than Labrador. Despite the naming glitch, labs soon stood apart for their incredible temperaments and happy-go-lucky energy. Nevertheless, it took time for them to catch on, only hitting the American Kennel Club’s (AKC) Top Ten in the 1970s.
By the 1980s, Labrador retrievers rose to No. 3, continuing to gain momentum until they clinched top dog in 1991. The reign of this incredible breed continued uninterrupted for 31 years, making the AKC’s 2023 announcement that French bulldogs have become America’s new most popular breed a total shakeup. So, how did a diminutive, flat-faced lap dog dethrone fun-loving labs?
Keep reading for everything you need to know about America’s new favorite best friend and what AKC’s announcement may say about changing U.S. lifestyles.
The Unlikely Origin of French Bulldogs
French bulldogs have long existed as beloved companion animals. Despite its moniker, the breed originated in England. Descended from the iconic British bulldog, the smaller version was initially favored by English lacemakers as lap warmers while they worked away in their cottages.
After the lacemaking cottage industry relocated to Northern France, these artisans brought their best friends with them. As British lacemakers established themselves across the English Channel, their diminutive pooches bred with local terriers. Over time, this amalgamation earned the title bouledogues français or French bulldogs.
Contemporary technology helped the breed along. As Frenchie proportions became increasingly unusual and unique, this caused reproductive problems. For starters, males and females found it difficult to breed, leading to the need for artificial insemination. Today, most Frenchies are created this way. Moreover, females typically undergo C-sections due to their strange proportions. Cutting-edge inventions like televisions and computers may have also contributed to the rise in popularity of this breed in other ways.
The Contender That Came Out of Nowhere
Unlike Labrador retrievers’ slow rise to prominence over the 20th century, French bulldogs skyrocketed onto the scene. Just 25 years ago, they weren’t even included in the top-75 dog breeds. In other words, labs never saw this contender coming.
What helped the little guys climb in popularity? Patty Sosa, a spokesperson for the French Bull Dog Club of America, argues it has everything to do with their personality. She explains, “They’re comical, friendly, loving little dogs. They offer a lot in a small package.” Hollywood celebrity endorsements have no doubt helped the breed gain in popularity, too. Everyone from Reese Witherspoon to Leonardo diCaprio, Lady Gaga, Megan Thee Stallion, and Hugh Jackman have them.
But A-Lister canine endorsements don’t explain the trend in its entirety. The unprecedented rise in popularity of French bulldogs may have more to do with transforming American behaviors and shifting populations. After all, French bulldogs have low-maintenance exercise needs, and they thrive in urban environments. These two factors complement social demographic shifts happening nationwide.
Changing American Behaviors and the Rise of Lap Dogs
Americans have become more sedentary over the years. In 2019, researchers discovered that the average American spends at least two hours daily in front of a screen. And COVID-19 only exacerbated things. One study showed reduced physical activity in the U.S. by as much as 32 percent during the pandemic.
Coupled with more than 80 percent of North Americans now living in urban areas and you’ve got the perfect storm for French bulldog popularity. In light of this furry friend disruption, the question remains: Will French bulldogs maintain their first-place finish over the long haul? Only time will tell.
But many researchers studying the increase in sedentary habits among Americans don’t see these changes going away soon. Some have declared the effects of the pandemic on exercise as “long-lasting.” The same goes for living in metropolises over rural areas. With more time spent on the couch in big cities, the ultimate lap dog doesn’t appear to be going anywhere as AKC figures show.
Not everyone agrees that the Frenchie revolution is a good thing, though. In recent years, the British Veterinary Association has discouraged people from buying flat-faced breeds, like Frenchies. And the Dutch have gone further, prohibiting breeding these pooches altogether. Why the pushback? Besides reproductive problems, short-faced canines often face other health concerns, including breathing issues.
Unscrupulous breeding to make a fast buck only exacerbates these issues. Some fear the AKC announcement portends a bigger health crisis for these lap dogs and their sedentary owners. Currently, there are 21,000 more French bulldogs than Labrador retrievers in America. In other words, one in every seven purebred dogs in the U.S. are Frenchies. That said, inclusion on the AKC’s registry of nearly 716,500 pooches remains voluntary, which leaves room for error and skewed figures.
If Frenchie owners are glued to their computer screens, it stands to reason they might be more inclined to register puppies online than the owners of nature-loving, exercise-craving labs. The digital revolution — like the invention of artificial insemination and C-sections — may be throwing lap-loving French bulldogs an extra bone. Where this goes, nobody knows. But one thing’s for sure: Getting more active is beneficial for Americans and their flat-nosed companions… just remember to let the Frenchie set the pace.
By Engrid Barnett, contributor for Ripleys.com