Sacrebleu! It seems that Britain’s top dog is a French bulldog. Katy Birchall finds out why the endearingly bat-eared canine is taking over homes and hearts–and why you should do your research before buying a puppy. Photographs by David Yeo and Neil Macmillan.

Everybody loves them— it takes me hours to get anywhere,’ says Jamie Bouloux of his two French bulldogs, Bruce (named after Bruce Springsteen) and Shirley (Shirley Temple). ‘There’s just something about them.’ Mr Bouloux, CEO of London-based MGA EmergIn Risk, is besotted with the breed and he’s not the only one.

Last month, the Kennel Club (KC) sent shockwaves through the nation when it announced that the labrador’s long-held position as Britain’s most popular dog was under threat, for the first time in 27 years, from the rise of the French bulldog, a breed that saw a 47% increase in puppy registrations in 2016 alone. Registrations have increased by 368% in the past five years and 3,000% in the past 10.

Although labrador devotees are currently splashing their faces with cold water, the news is no surprise to ‘Frenchie’ fans. ‘What is surprising is that it’s taken nearly 100 years for the Frenchie to become so popular,’ declares Jackie Mavro-Michaelis, secretary of the Pennine and Scottish French Bulldog Association and owner of more than 20 dogs.

‘They’re funny, loving, companionable, curious, intelligent and tenacious. They’re ideal for town or country living, they make good family pets and don’t need lots of exercise.

‘They can, however, suffer from flatulence,’ she adds knowingly. ‘Nor do they like water—they’re not natural swimmers.’

There is one other characteristic that deserves a mention as well: these lovable dogs can suffer from breathing difficulties. It’s generally believed to be a problem of over-breeding. In some cases surgery can help, as can making sure that you only go through the Kennel Club to find a reputable breeder.

Enthusiasm for this cheerful, wrinkly-nosed dog stems largely from its endearingly comical appearance— with its big bat ears, sturdy body and exaggerated features, the French bulldog appeals to us in the same way a baby chimp does, explains Mrs Mavro-Michaelis. ‘They have a unique look— a flat face and big, dark engaging eyes.’

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Jamie Bouloux wouldn’t be without Bruce and Shirley: ‘I’m a Frenchie fan for life’

It was certainly love at first sight for Penny Rankine-Parsons, now president of the French Bulldog Club of England, when she set eyes on two Frenchies belonging to a bulldog breeder she was visiting. ‘I discovered the breed purely by accident—I’d never seen one before and knew nothing about them. At that time, fewer than 200 puppies were being born a year, so I waited two years for one [Wiz]. Before Wiz arrived, I educated myself about all matters Frenchie.’

Mrs Rankine-Parsons shares her home with three Frenchies and has lost count of the number she has owned over the past 35 years. ‘They have each had their own personalities, but have all been super companions, with the best of temperaments. The breed is charming and has such an amusing clown-like persona.’

Clownish is a description long associated with the Frenchie—Will Judy wrote of the breed in the 1936 Dog Encyclopaedia: ‘He may look serious but he is a laughing philosopher… He is always a clown.’ ‘They’re hilarious,’ Mr Bouloux agrees. ‘We once came home to find Bruce, who’d been chasing his ball about, with his head stuck underneath the dressing table and his bottom sticking out in the air.’

Television chef Tom Kerridge, proprietor of the Michelin-starred The Hand and Flowers in Marlow, Buckinghamshire, describes his French bulldog, Inky, as ‘a cross between a grumpy teenager, a slightly deranged boxer dog and a very happy spaniel’. He adds: ‘I absolutely love this breed. There’s so much character behind that squashy face.’

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Jeweller Cecilia Stamp was looking for a dog to keep her company in her studio that wouldn’t require much exercise—‘lazy’ Leo certainly fits the bill

Jeweller Cecilia Stamp, proud owner of one-year-old Leo (Frontispiece, March 
1), agrees that these small dogs come with large personalities. ‘Leo is such a character—everyone who meets him says so. If he sees you have a treat in your hand, he will go through his entire repertoire of tricks in one go before you ask him to do any, just to save time. He also loves being close if I’m napping. I usually wake up with him sleeping on my head and snoring in my ear.’

Miss Stamp was looking for a dog to keep her company at her studio and decided on a French bulldog after a great deal of research about breeds suited to an urban lifestyle. ‘Leo is the perfect city dog, he comes with me everywhere. As Frenchies are fairly small, they don’t require heaps of exercise. Leo is also quite lazy and doesn’t like the rain, which is unfortunate as we live in Glasgow. When we go to the studio, he has a tendency to pull me towards the bus stop or train station if he can’t be bothered to walk. He doesn’t get his way, however.’

There’s no doubt that the Frenchie’s surge in popularity owes much to celebrity culture—high-profile owners include the Beckhams, Leonardo DiCaprio, Reese Witherspoon, Lady Gaga and the late actress Carrie Fisher—her therapy dog, Gary, was a popular fixture on the red carpet.

Manny, a Frenchie from Chicago, has four million followers between his Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts. With a clothing line and merchandise range under his belt, the influential dog has raised more than $150,000 for charities.

The steep rise in popularity is tempered by a strong warning from the Kennel Club (KC). ‘Although the French bulldog is a lovely breed, it’s very unwise for anyone to buy one simply because they think it looks cute or is a fashionable choice,’ cautions KC Secretary Caroline Kisko. ‘Anyone doing so could inadvertently be contributing to an impending welfare crisis.’

Karen Crossan, co-founder of French Bulldog Rescue GB, emphasises the importance of doing your homework before buying a puppy. ‘We’ve seen an increase with owners who, unfortunately, have not researched the breed or who they’re buying from— 99% of dogs coming into the rescue have severe medical issues with allergies, spine deformities, ongoing ear infections or aggressive temperament issues due to poor breeding. I can’t stress enough how important it is to buy from a reputable breeder.’

However, the Frenchie fashion doesn’t look as if it’s likely to peter out any time soon. ‘They’re just brilliant dogs—they tick every box,’ concludes Mr Bouloux. ‘I’m a Frenchie fan for life.’