A Frenchie with NFL connections competes for the top prize at Westminster


French bulldogs, the comical and controversial breed, have become the United States' most prevalent dog breed. However, despite their popularity, no Frenchie has ever won the Westminster Kennel Club dog show, the nation's pre-eminent dog show. But here, at an obliging trot, comes Winston, a Frenchie with NFL connections and a strong contender for the trophy this year, less than two months after the release of rankings showing that his kind has become the country's favorite dog breed.

French bulldogs' rise in popularity has been stunning, from 83rd most popular to No. 1 in three decades. But it has also been dogged by concerns about their health, debates over the ethics of breeding, denunciations of a gold-rush-like market with ever more "exotic" variations, and a recent spate of high-profile and sometimes fatal robberies.

A recent study found that breeds' popularity depends less on their traits than on their portrayal in media and pop culture. One of the authors, Western Carolina University psychology professor Hal Herzog, has observed that parabolic spikes in dog breeds resemble those in baby names, hit songs, and other boom-and-bust commodities of pop culture. In short, they're canine memes.

French bulldogs have a colorful, centuries-long history involving English lacemakers, the Parisian demimonde, and Gilded Age American tourists who brought the dogs home. But the breed's U.S. heyday soon ended, until Americans got a fresh look at Frenchies in the current century. They turned up on domesticity maven Martha Stewart's TV show, then in narrative series and movies (such as "Modern Family" and "Due Date"), ads (including Super Bowl spots for Skechers in 2012 and Bud Light this year), and the social media accounts of celebrity owners (Lady Gaga, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, and many more).

French bulldog fans point to attributes beyond camera-readiness to explain the dogs' appeal. They boast easy-care coats, modest exercise needs, an apartment-friendly size, and a demeanor memorably described as "a clown in the cloak of a philosopher." Yet that hasn't translated into wins at Westminster, where each dog is judged against an ideal for its own breed, not against others.

French bulldogs, the comical and controversial breed, have become the United States' most prevalent dog breed.

Still, longtime breeder and French Bull Dog Club of America spokesperson Patty Sosa posits that Frenchies "might have been out-flashed" by showier-looking breeds, such as poodles. Winston, however, came within a whisker of the trophy last year, taking runner-up to the first bloodhound ever to win. The confident canine took the competition in stride, hopping into a box labeled "non-sporting group" by the podium as he wrapped up his final lap around the ring Monday night.

Besides Winston's physical attributes, "his personality is to die for," says Sandy Fox, who bred him with Payson and is the NFL player's grandmother. "He loves to show." To win Westminster on the heels of the popularity rankings "would be awesome," she said. But like many other longtime breeders, Fox has mixed feelings about the nation's ardor for Frenchies. "It's nice," she said, adding: "A little scary. Everybody will want one."

Show breeders who adhere to health testing and other guidelines feel that Frenchie fever already has attracted opportunistic, slapdash people producing anything-goes, possibly unhealthy pups. Some veterinarians also are worried for Frenchies, partly because of their pushed-in, wrinkly faces, which make them susceptible to breathing, eye, and other problems. The British Veterinary Association has "strongly" recommended against buying any flat-faced dogs, and the Dutch government has prohibited breeding very short-snouted canines. The Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association in the U.S. wants to counter the dramatic increase in demand for push-faced dogs, partly by discouraging their use in advertising.

Dr. Lorna Grande, the education director of the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association, says that owners who really love these dogs don't understand how much the dogs are suffering. Dr. Carrie Stefaniak, who has seen French bulldogs with breathing difficulties in her practice in Glendale, Wisconsin, urges would-be owners to understand the breed's health risks and the potential expense of treatment. She emphasizes researching breeders carefully.

Despite these health concerns, French bulldog owners and enthusiasts remain devoted to their beloved pets. Indeed, the Frenchie has become a fixture of popular culture, appearing in TV shows, movies, and social media accounts of celebrities. And this popularity shows no sign of abating anytime soon.

As for Winston, the Frenchie with NFL connections, he might just make history at the Westminster Kennel Club dog show by becoming the first French bulldog to win the nation's pre-eminent dog show. While there are no guarantees in dog shows, Winston's past successes and physical attributes, as well as his lovable personality, make him a strong contender.