From War Dog To Couch Potato, The Incredible French Bulldog History

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black french bulldog playing

If you are unaware of the French Bulldog history, you might believe it must have its roots in France, right?

Well! Not completely, and that’s what we will discover together in this article.

As Françoise Girard says so well in her book “Le Bouledogue Français”: “The British provided the main ingredients, but it was the French who established the final recipe that resulted in the French Bulldog as we know it.”

And I might add: it’s thanks to the Americans that the French Bulldog gained so much popularity worldwide!

But first, to understand why Frenchies look the way they are today, we have to start with Ancient Greek times.

The Very Beginning Of The French Bulldog History

molossian hound statue
A Molossian hound, a Roman copy of a lost Greek bronze statue, on display at the British Museum

As you can imagine, there is no certitude when retracing the French Bulldog ancestry.

I will expose the different theories to help you understand where your furry kid comes from.

Around 370 BC, an ancient greek tribe lived in the mountainous regions of northwest Ancient Greece and southern Albania.

This tribe, called the Molossians, used to breed two types of dogs. One for hunting with a broad muzzle, the other a large livestock guardian dog, known as the Molossus!

It is believed that all mastiff-type dogs descend from the Molossus.

Later on, this large molossus dog was spread to Italy and other places in the Greek world by Phoenician traders. These merchants traded it along their shipping routes giving rise to other families of dogs.

roman soldiers with a war dog
Roman soldiers with a war dog

One of them, the British Molossian, gave rise to the Mastiff family, which was further perfected as warriors, guardians, and workers.

Another theory is that Alexander the Great discovered some giant dogs in Asia during his military conquests. These dogs impressed him so much that he decided to send some to his hometown. Being the son of a Molossian princess, the dogs became associated with the Molossian.

The most important thing to note here is that these dogs were large, ferocious, and able to take on large animals.

The Bull-Baiting Period

bull baiting scene 14th century
A bull-baiting scene in the 14th Century

As you will understand very soon, the sport of bull-baiting in England has been critical to the development of the modern-day French Bulldog.

This ancestral activity which became a national sport consisted of pitting dogs against bulls.

The bulls were tied to an iron stake bolted into the ground. The dog’s goal was to turn the bulls on their side by grabbing their snouts, their most sensitive part.

Of course, the bulls didn’t go down without a fight. These bloody shows often resulted in serious injuries for the dogs.

Bulls weren’t the only animals to be pitted against dogs. It was not rare to see bears, horses, and other animals as well.

This practice which lasted for about six centuries became an integral part of English culture.

In some towns, butchers were even required to bait bulls before slaughtering them. A popular belief stated that bull baiting made the meat more tender and nutritious.

At this point, you might wonder what bull-baiting has to do with our lovely couch potato, correct?

Let me tell you!

In the beginning, large dogs similar to Mastiffs were sent to fight against the bulls. However, it became obvious that these dogs weren’t suited for this type of activity.

So over six centuries, breeders transformed the breed to make it more and more efficient at fighting bulls and other animals.

The breed that would later become the old English Bulldog, one of the known ancestors of our little Frenchie.

Luckily this atrocious practice was banned by the British in 1835, even if the practice continued illegally for a while.

After the ban, Bulldog breeders had to find a new way to repurpose the breed.

Some were crossed with terriers to produce exaggerated appearances and breed out their aggressivity.

A smaller version appeared and was called the toy or miniature bulldog.

This breed became quickly popular among the lace workers’ community in Nottingham.

They were easy to care for, great lap warmers, and perfect to keep the rats at bay in cramped spaces.

Around this time, many of these workers migrated to France due to the industrial revolution.

Many brought with them their small dogs, including their miniature bulldogs.

The French Flair

The British were already exporting bulldogs to France from the mid-18th century.

Indeed dog fighting was a popular activity in France until the mid-19th.

Bulldogs, known for their aggressiveness, were imported from England.

The bulldog is a common figure in the Parisian canine landscape, often associated with butchers, for whom he is a companion and a fighter.

butchery in the past
A scene in a butchery

In slang, it is the “boule”; it is also sometimes called terrier-boule, which confirmed that cross-breeding took place with local dogs.

With its job as a gladiator and its temperament reputedly fierce, it did not have a good reputation.

In 1845 the department of the Seine (on which Paris depends) prohibited bulldogs on the public road, including mixed breed. They even prescribed that it is muzzled and tied up in the houses.

So similarly to what happened in England, the aggressive breed of bulldog started to fade out to the benefit of smaller and less aggressive bulldogs.

We usually place the birth of the French Bulldog shortly after the arrival of the lacemakers of Nottingham.

vintage picture of a couple with miniature french bulldogs
A couple with their miniature Bulldogs

The demand for the toy bulldog skyrocketed.

In addition, across the Channel, some small bulldogs had naturally erect ears. This trait was considered undesirable hence English breeders were quite happy to export them in large numbers.

Toy bulldogs, perhaps because of this characteristic, were no longer popular from the 1870s in England.

The slaughterhouses of La Villette in Paris represent precisely the place of origin of the creation of the French bulldog.

This is where multiple cross-breeding took place. Toy Bulldogs were crossed with Doguins (butcher dogs), Terrier-Boules, and other breeds like the Alan or the Pug.

These crossings changed the Toy Bulldog’s morphology, giving him a short-faced head with straight ears, which resemble to our modern-day French Bulldog.

The first time this breed was called: Bouledogue Francais (French Bulldog in French) was in 1867 during an exposition.

Thanks to the dog shows, the breed spreads in high society.

In the last quarter of the 19th century, the French bulldog was still very present among the Parisian working classes.

It also spread among artists and prostitutes who appreciated its unconventional appearance.

A French Writer named Colette and her Frenchie
A French Writer named Colette and her Frenchie

It became a true symbol of the Parisian Life.

In 1880, lovers and supporters of the breed started to host weekly meetings.

However, it was only in 1885 that the two first French Bulldog Clubs were created in France.

They eventually merged into one in 1898 under the umbrella of the Société Centrale Canine.

They propose to encourage the breeding of the French Bulldog by all possible means.

The Committee was composed mainly of breeders and members of the French aristocracy.

Surprisingly though, the president was a rich American passionate about invention and novelty of all kinds, Mr. James Gordon Bennett.

At that time, they fixed a crucial point of the standard; from now on, only bat ears Bulldogs were allowed, in line with the French Bulldog Club of America.

The British Come Back

In 1893, a British breeder named Krehl imported French Bulldogs to Great Britain and presented them to the Kennel Club. Immediately, a quarrel about the paternity of the breed broke out.

The British believed that the breed came from their country and that the French did not respect the English Bulldog standard.

Some supporters of both types were also concerned that their dogs would be interbred to each other detriment.

Yet the English Kennel Club only recognized the new breed as a sub-class of English Bulldogs.

So the supporters of the Breed created their own Kennel Club in 1902.

They held their first show in 1903 with 51 entries.

In 1905, The English Kennel Club officially recognized the breed as “Bouledogue Francais,” It was only in 1912 that the name changed to French Bulldog.

Finally, the French would keep the paternity of the breed!

The American Expansion

Wealthy Americans traveling in Europe often brought back French Bulldogs as souvenirs of their stay.

Back in America, the little dogs were a hit among socialites.

Dog breeders became enthralled by the new breed.

By 1885 French Bulldogs were being brought over from France for breeding purposes.

They remained a breed of the social elite.

Since the social elite often dabbled in dog shows, only a little time passed before the little French dog made its ring debut in the New World.

In 1896 some of the who’s who of society ladies exhibited 19 French Bulldogs as a special attraction at the Westminster Kennel Club.

In 1897, entries doubled.

The poster of the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show of 1897
The poster of the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show of 1897

However, something even more important occurred: all of the judge’s winning dogs had rose ears, in which the ear folded, as were preferred by the English at that time.

So perturbed were the ladies that they called a meeting at which they officially declared the erect bat ear the correct ear for the breed.

The battle between rose ears and bat ears was an international story in 1898
The battle between rose ears and bat ears was an international story in 1898

They drafted a standard for the breed and formed the French Bulldog Club of America.

On February 12, 1898, they held their first French Bulldog specialty show, a high society affair held at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.

It attracted an entry of 50 Frenchies, many exhibited by some of the most prominent ladies of the day.

The breed was finally recognized by the American Kennel Club the same year.

After World War I, the breed’s popularity started declining due to the elitist attitude of Frenchie owners but also the cost and difficulty of breeding them naturally. 

A small number of breeders kept the flame alive in Europe and America but by 1940 French bulldogs were considered a rare breed.

It’s only in the 1980, that they regained popularity thanks to the work of the French Bulldog Club of America.

Wrapping Up

a cute puppy frenchie sleeping in his bed
A couch potato

As you now understand, the French Bulldog history is quite complex as it is the fruit of luck and years of evolution.

The French never intended to create this breed; it just happened to be.

We can really say that we owe the existence of our beloved Frenchies to 3 countries.

First, the British brought the base by breeding smaller bulldog versions and exported them to France.

The French embraced and nurtured this newfound breed and gave them their final look.

The Americans brought them to fame and set the breed standard

Today French Bulldogs are among the most popular breed in the world.

Frequently Asked Questions:

Where did French Bulldogs originate?

French Bulldogs originated in England in the 1800s, where they were bred from a mix of English Bulldogs and local ratters.

How did French Bulldogs become popular in France?

French Bulldogs became popular in France after they were brought over by English lace workers who moved to France during the Industrial Revolution. The breed was quickly adopted by French society and became associated with Parisian culture.

What was the original purpose of French Bulldogs?

The original purpose of French Bulldogs was to serve as companion dogs. They were bred to be smaller and more affectionate than English Bulldogs, which made them ideal pets for city dwellers.

What are some common physical characteristics of French Bulldogs?

French Bulldogs are typically small, muscular dogs with a compact body and a short, smooth coat. They have a wide, flat head and large, bat-like ears. They come in a variety of colors, including fawn, brindle, and white.

Are French Bulldogs good pets?

Yes, French Bulldogs make great pets. They are known for their affectionate and playful personalities, and they are very adaptable to different living situations. However, it’s important to note that they can be prone to certain health issues due to their flat faces, so it’s important to choose a reputable breeder and provide them with proper care.

Photo of author


Alexandre is the owner of French Bulldogs Lovers. He has always been passionate about dogs and more recently about French Bulldogs since he became the proud daddy of Lola, his little Frenchie princess!

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