Nowadays, Charla Lenarth debates whether she should wear a wire to compete at French bulldog shows. Lenarth, 56, tours the nation in search of top ribbons for Jezebel, one of her several French bulldogs. And ever since Woofstock, a ’60s-themed competition celebrating “four days of peace, music and dogs,” she has been concerned about Jezebel’s safety—and her own. When she and Jezebel turned up in Vallejo, California, for the June 2022 show, the rumor mill had been percolating for weeks with allegations that both mystified and angered Lenarth. Only seven months into campaigning Jezebel (as dog enthusiasts call showing), she was a relative newcomer to the elite dog show scene.
Sitting indoors at the Solano County Fairgrounds amid tie-dye, beads, spectators wielding peace signs, and 1,969 dogs, “these three women came over and stood over me,” she recalled recently. She set down Jezebel, who’d been resting peacefully in her lap, and rose to speak to them. Two of the women were dressed to show their dogs; one was there to watch. “I didn’t like that feeling,” Lenarth said. “One woman said I was an abomination. Another used the F-word and said, ‘You don’t deserve to be here.’ One woman said, ‘I will haunt you until you quit.’?”
Lenarth’s crime, in the eyes of these competitors, was owning a “colored” Frenchie. (And yes, the language may sound disturbing—more on that in a bit.) You’ve probably seen the breed puttering along the street, or in the flowing stream of flat faces on Instagram or TikTok. Known as “a clown in the cloak of a philosopher,” Frenchies are beloved for their wrinkly faces, alert ears, and city-friendly size. They’ve become arm candy for celebrities including Reese Witherspoon, Martha Stewart, Megan Thee Stallion, and Michael Phelps. Lady Gaga’s Frenchies made international headlines when their walker was shot and two dogs were stolen in February 2021. First recognized as a breed by the American Kennel Club in 1898, French bulldogs are the It dog of our moment. This year, according to the group, they surpassed Labrador retrievers, who held the title for 31 years.
Among the most popular Frenchies, though, are the blue ones, which are less blue than light gray, as opposed to those with fur that looks like butterscotch, midnight black, or a marbled meld. More mouse than Smurf. Beloved though they may be (and they make up a large swath of the breed), blue French bulldogs are banned from competing at shows backed by the nonprofit AKC, which promotes and sanctions the annual Westminster Kennel Club dog show. Insiders call them “DQ dogs,” shorthand for their disqualified status. And so, the ongoing “color war” among the upper crust of the French bulldog world has turned into an extraordinary human battlefield.
Blue French bulldog fans may even be condemned by mere association. The Woofstock incident, in fact, had nothing to do with Jezebel but with another of Lenarth’s pups, which stayed home that day. When Lenarth got her first French bulldog, she bought it as a pet. She said that she had “zero interest” in showing dogs, nor was she aware of any type of hue of dog being scorned. Like millions of other dog owners, she saw the pup, fell in love, and soon they were together.
Lenarth is far from the only Frenchie owner to encounter hostility. It is common to online forums as well as to the thousands of in-person competitions that take place throughout the year and across the country. Though incidents like Gaga’s might be rare, the world is rife with controversy, harassment, and sometimes outright violence, according to more than two dozen handlers, breeders, and owners.
Those who feel the need to emphasize tradition feel differently, as dog shows continue to be a gathering spot for impassioned hobbyists seeking to maintain the breed that they love.
“We’re preservation breeders, meaning we breed to a standard,” Patty Sosa, the public relations chairperson and head of judges education for the French Bull Dog Club of America, said. “That’s the basis of the backbone of our club.”
The increase of Frenchie funds and attention has all added fuel to what had been a long-dormant debate among a small, specialized community, now with millions of dollars and lives—human and canine—on the line.
A Frenchie can cost anywhere from $2,000 to more than $20,000, depending on lineage, color, health, and competitive history, which is often discerned by titles won at AKC competitions. “Pink fluffy” Frenchies, a whitish longhaired variation that gives off a Gremlin kind of vibe, the scourge of the American dog show scene, have reportedly sold for six figures. The overall demand, questions about breeding practices, and large price tags have spawned the term “greeder.”
On one side of the battle are the “preservationists,” who adhere to the official AKC-accepted French bulldog colors or color combinations: brindle (a twisty swirl of light and dark colors); brindle and white; cream; fawn (lighter tan, sometimes with a darker mug); fawn and white; fawn brindle; white; white and brindle; fawn brindle and white; and white and fawn. Those colors of dogs, and only those, can be shown at the myriad French bulldog shows backed by the AKC and the French Bull Dog Club of America. The FBDCA determines the breed standard used to judge at Westminster, the actual Puppy Bowl of dog shows.
Some preservationists argue that those who merely own—and aren’t actively campaigning—unofficial colors of Frenchies are guilty of sullying their beloved breed, like Lenarth. The nonprofit FBDCA’s website features a “NO FAD COLORS” logo with a blue dog struck through with a red line.
“You take your standard as a blueprint and you try and stay as true to that blueprint as you can,” Sosa said. “It’s not just the physical, it’s the health. We require eyes to be certified so there are no eye problems. We want dogs to have a long, healthy life. And this is not just for show dogs, but for pets also. That’s where the word preservation comes in.”
The opposing political camp is that of the “inclusive” breeders. They believe that “colored dogs,” as non–brindle/fawn/white dogs are known, including the popular blue, have a place in the French bulldog community. Often, these breeders focus also on health testing and fitness—that is, metrics to measure a Frenchie beyond color that didn’t exist a century ago when the standards were established. (The relationship between color and health is a debate of its own.) Critics argue that preservationists are also trying to control supply and demand.
“When we have systematic exclusions based on color, they really serve to make the breed more exclusive and increase demand,” said Cameron T. Whitley, a sociology professor at Western Washington University who studies how people make decisions tied to animals. “And then, of course, there’s also infighting because of that situation.”
The economic engine of the purebred world is a constellation of dog shows, dog care, and breeding. On any given weekend in America, thousands of canines and their support humans pour into fairground lots, high school fields, convention centers, or other venues for AKC-backed dog shows, all part of the year-round circuit toward Westminster. You’ll find as much hairspray as you would backstage at a beauty pageant; women in Sunday church hats and men in suits pushing crates of furry creatures to and fro; and handlers who may earn upwards of five figures on a given weekend trotting canines around makeshift rings. The sidelines are ideal gossip pulpits, as one may be waiting for hours for a few minutes of showtime. The wild tides of subjectivity in judging are a topic of discussion. The only thing missing is Christopher Guest.
“In lots of cases, these dogs are being treated like an accessory, like a Prada bag,” Whitley added. “And I think the evidence for that is we have such disregard for the health and well-being of this animal.”
Even owners who don’t care about showing their dogs may be contributing to AKC coffers. Although the AKC bans colored dogs from its competitions, the organization does permit dog owners to register a dog for a fee ranging from $35 to $86.99. The AKC earned $59.4 million in 2021 from dog and litter registration, roughly half of its total $116 million revenue that year. (The AKC does not break out registration revenues earned by breed, according to a spokesperson.)
“Registration is not dependent on participation in dog sports,” she said. “We are a pedigree registry. A purebred French bulldog, regardless of color, can be registered as long as it is from an AKC litter, and it will be listed on the pedigree. Many owners who register their dogs never go to a dog show, but they do want to know the lineage of their dog, which is where registration comes in.”
Of course, many animal rights organizations, notably People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, object to the existence of dog shows and Frenchies alike, seeing them as an extension of the now shuttered circus circuit. They argue that purebred dogs like Frenchies feed an industry that diverts resources from the estimated 70 million rescue dogs and cats that need homes, only 10 percent of which end up in an animal shelter, according to PETA. Flat-faced breeds like Frenchies, they argue, are suffering. If not for humans, French bulldogs would be extinct in a generation, as they generally have to be artificially inseminated and mostly only deliver puppies via cesarean section. Blue Frenchies can be even more rare and difficult to breed. Some countries, including Norway and the Netherlands, are pushing regulations that would curb the breeding of flat-faced dogs, including Frenchies, citing health concerns.
As for the color wars, “they are absurd,” Daphna Nachminovitch, PETA’s senior vice president of cruelty investigations, said. “And really discriminatory and frankly, a little bit twisted. These are dogs. Dogs don’t know what color they are. It’s a bizarre way of categorizing them and making them pieces of meat.”
“We have a global animal welfare crisis” she added. “The world needs to wake up.”
The AKC sees things differently.
“People are entitled to their opinion and their preferences,” said Brandi Hunter Munden, an AKC spokesperson. “For centuries they have provided more than just companionship. Purebred dogs have assisted humans in hunting, medical care, service, and protection. Their predictability has long been touted among owners as a virtue and desired trait among people who are seeking a dog to fit their lifestyle.
“Ensuring that owners are educated on how to properly own a dog and what measures should be taken to prevent unplanned or unwanted litters is something that the AKC consistently advocates for,” the statement continued.
There’s a darker human toll. As the monetary value of French bulldogs, including blue dogs, has increased, so has concern about their theft. The highest-profile example may be the Gaga incident, which resulted in a 21-year prison sentence for the man who shot the dog walker. But it was not an isolated case. Vanity Fair counted at least 40 incidents in the United States of Frenchie-related violent crime since the Gaga shooting in 2021. Across the country, Frenchies are going missing from porches, yards, and homes or stolen on the street.
The theft of one French bulldog at gunpoint in Orange County, Florida, in 2021 led local law enforcement to a larger dog-trafficking ring, where suspects would cut microchips out from under the dog’s fur and flesh so the dogs could then be bred or sold for cash. Last year, Pennsylvania’s attorney general announced the arrests of five people who conspired in a similar scheme to steal puppies, often from the Amish, then sell the dogs via social media platforms, resulting in a loss of more than $430,000 in dogs. In May, a French bulldog named Pablo was held for ransom in Maplewood, Minnesota. Prosecutors have charged two individuals in the matter, and as of September 20, the case is still active, according to a representative with the Maplewood Police Department.
Frenchies have been involved in high-speed chases in Louisiana and Southern California. In the United Kingdom, some crime syndicates have shifted from drugs and cigarettes to dogs, with an estimated 100 dog-smuggling gangs operating in the country.
Frenchies have “money on their paws,” said Karin TarQwyn, a private investigator focused on animal cases since 2005. In the more than 5,200 dog cases she has worked over her career, she said that Frenchies are also some of the hardest to return to their owners. “They’re an elite dog,” she said. “Then, all of a sudden, they became popular. And like everything else in the US, our culture overdoes it.”
The climate at dog shows has also raised alarm. In October 2021, a brawl at a bulldog show in Miami went viral. While no one reported serious injuries, a chair and fists flew. Last year, a Georgia teenager’s puppy was stolen from his arms at a local dog show. In March, a gun was fired at a French bulldog show in Oxnard, California. (The Ventura County sheriff has still not caught the suspect.)
And tragically, in February, Lonnie Ray, 76, a South Carolina dog breeder, was fatally shot at a planned meeting to sell a French bulldog in a KFC parking lot. Two men have been charged with the murder.
This all began in a different scandal-soaked Gilded Age.
Aimée Crocker, a railroad heiress known as “the Queen of Bohemia,” became the first known American celebrity Frenchie owner in 1896 when she acquired Pinko, a brindle from Paris. The snub-nosed companions had by then become accessories to sex workers in the brothels of Montmartre and made their way onto risqué postcards and some post-Impressionist paintings.
Crocker had established her own brand of stardom; she sported tattoos, snakes, an assemblage of lovers (she married five times), and proudly strutted Pinko down Fifth Avenue. A year after Pinko’s arrival, the FBDCA was established. Crocker had become not just the most famous Frenchie owner but the breed’s greatest advocate; she was among those who campaigned to have Frenchies included at Westminster, which was founded in 1877. When she and her Frenchie coalition members objected to the judges that Westminster had selected, they staged a protest show at the sun parlor of the Waldorf Astoria. (The New York World published a screed comparing the posh lifestyle of Crocker’s Frenchie assemblage with the plight of the city’s poor.) Nonetheless, by 1899 Westminster had added a French bulldog class to its program. Crocker’s dog, Dimboola, took best in class for three consecutive years.
Enter Samuel Goldenberg, who may have been the first Frenchie capitalist—and a color purist. Goldenberg, a New York lace magnate who spent much of his time in France, realized that a fortune could be made importing the trendy new breed. He began selling them for $5,000 to $10,000 apiece at the turn of the century (roughly $150,000 to $300,000 today), according to Heather MacPherson, a Frenchie breeder who is working on a book about the dog’s history. In addition to breeding and brokering, Goldenberg positioned himself as a powerful judge.
Goldenberg “used his politics and extreme wealth” to change the standard, MacPherson said. The owner of a blue dog herself, MacPherson said she has experienced harassment both online and in person at Frenchie events, which fueled her interest in researching the origins of color in the breed standard.
Goldenberg helped craft a standard that allowed him to control supply and demand as well as stereotypes about the breed. Blacks and tans, for example, were banned because they were deemed by Goldenberg to be “low rent,” MacPherson said, as they were associated with French sex workers. By entrenching brindles as the exalted and accepted class, Goldenberg stood to make more from breeding them. The craze also afforded Goldenberg the chance to defeat competitors who were showing blues, grays, and browns in the show ring (and beating his dogs).
Goldenberg’s stronghold on the breed worked. As demand for Frenchies swelled at the turn of the century, so too did a spree of dog thefts and poisonings. In October 1900, Westchester County had multiple reports of thefts, poisonings, and untimely and suspicious deaths. Four dogs in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, were found dead later that month. And in December 1900, no fewer than 15 dogs were murdered in Hicksville, New York.
Just when the first wave of Frenchie warfare heated up after Goldenberg changed the standard, and prices and the frenzy for Frenchies continued to soar, he and his wife, Nella, boarded the Titanic in 1912. They were en route to judge at the FBDCA show to be held on April 20 at New York’s Waldorf Astoria.
At least one French bulldog aboard the Titanic perished, but Goldenberg and his wife survived, rescued by a lifeboat and then by the Carpathia. He is believed to be the only known Titanic passenger to have survived with his luggage. He made it to the dog show and was heralded as a survivor, his notion of Frenchie color standards cemented.
Goldenberg died in 1936, but his breed standard has lived on. While revised from time to time by the committee of the FBDCA, it entrenched the idea that color is paramount to competitive French bulldog showing. And it fortified the FBDCA’s power in determining those standards.
“The main theme is there’s extreme racism and discrimination,” MacPherson said. “And the attitudes of people where they have transferred the kind of discriminatory behaviors that were once toward people of the wrong color.”
Around 2008, the FBDCA began its “No Fad Colors” campaign. That same year, Terry Huntley began breeding French bulldogs, and he started to compete with them in shows. As a relative newcomer, “I was told that I would probably never win,” he said.
At first, Huntley, who enjoyed the competitive thrill of showing dogs and learning about the breed, didn’t think much of the color standard. He’s owned and bred blue dogs. But for Huntley, who is Black, he grasped that the fissure in the Frenchie community “is not the color of the dogs, it’s the color of the people.”
Determined to win titles for his dogs, Huntley said he began to hire handlers who were white and seen as popular with judges to present his dogs in the ring. “It’s pretty much giving your dog to a person and saying, ‘Hey, take this dog in for me.’?” He said the same dogs he had shown were now getting ribbons from judges when they competed with a white handler. “Just because they’re a popular person and you hope that their popularity rubs off on your dog and you get to win. Sometimes, it’s not about who you are, it’s about who you can pay to champion your dog out.”
For Sean Thomas, a Black dog breeder based in Colorado who works with non-AKC shows, the color wars surrounding Frenchies “is a witch hunt,” he said. “It’s laughable to me.” Thomas said his focus is on health testing and creating show environments that are family-friendly.
The AKC’s demographics are internal only, but the organization emphasizes it “does not condone any form of discrimination. We thoroughly investigate any reports of alleged discrimination that we receive. We cannot investigate instances of alleged discrimination that are not reported to our organization. AKC clubs have the responsibility of handling reports of alleged discrimination that are reported to them at their events.”
The FBDCA did not respond to questions about discrimination at dog shows.
In 2020, Huntley started his own registry, the Innovative Canine Breeders Registry. “With me being the underdog,” Huntley explained. “I said to myself, ‘Why not open up a platform for someone like me, or anybody that can come into the ring and win honestly?’?”
The registry, which declares “no drama or negativity tolerated!,” now has 17,000 members and runs 60 shows annually.
Huntley describes a landscape of French bulldog breeding run amok, with “exotic” breeders peddling dogs that may be groomed without health in mind. To him, color is irrelevant. The problem, Huntley said, is that preservationists jump to lump anyone with a blue dog, or anyone who is different, into that category. As a Black man at elite shows, he said, “you’re an automatic target as an exotic French bulldog breeder because of the color of your skin.”
Others have seen the color wars manifest in what they describe as pregnancy discrimination. As a veteran who served with the Army’s 82nd Airborne and is now licensed to fly helicopters, Amanda Roberts wasn’t one to shy away from a challenge.
Yet she said that she was surprised to find veterinarians refusing to schedule a C-section for her French bulldog, Claire, for the pup sired by her dog, Dirty Martini. Dirty Martini had made waves in the French bulldog world when videos of him working out on a treadmill surfaced, part of what Roberts says is her commitment to breeding for health over color.
Roberts said she called five veterinarians in her home state of Washington before finally getting one who agreed to take her. She said that she was turned away because Dirty Martini is a lilac pied. At least one would only take her under the emergency fee, which is more than double the standard rate. The vets told her, “We don’t participate in the reproduction of colored dogs,” Roberts said. “We won’t accept you.”
She added, “Honestly, it made me very sad because I was bullied as a kid. My dad was Native American. We didn’t go to the right church, stuff like that. I felt helpless and powerless. I ended up leaving the rescue [dog] world, and now it’s happening again because of the color. I’m 40 now and handling it better.”
On July 11, 2023, Claire had a C-section and delivered a female puppy, named Olive. “I definitely feel that they’re holding on to that tradition,” Roberts said of the preservationists. “I could be completely wrong. I hate to say that because everyone wants the world to be fair.”?
What does fairness look like in a “sport” (and yes, enthusiasts insist it is one) that is built on subjectivity? Many are looking to the GOAT for guidance. That’s Winston, a fawn-colored Frenchie co-owned and co-bred by Perry Payson.
On a recent Saturday morning in Santa Barbara, California, Winston rested under a cooling blanket next to a carefully positioned fan. The four-year-old Oklahoman claimed top honors at the 2022 National Dog Show, a first for the breed. The win marked his 78th best in show, making Winston the number one ranked all-breed canine in America. “He was like Secretariat,” said Payson, whose co-owners include NFL player Morgan Fox.
Payson has bred French bulldogs since 1987, but with Winston, now he and the dog are flanked by fans when they enter arenas. Most competition folds in Winston’s presence, merely hoping for runner-up. (Winston did indeed finish near the top for his breed at the Santa Barbara show.)
Although Winston is a textbook fawn, Payson takes a more inclusive view. He promotes health testing (over color) through the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals’ Canine Health Information Center. In a bold move, he made Winston’s OFA testing public, revealing that Winston’s hips are imperfect, a level of transparency that previously had not permeated the upper crust of the sport. Winston has a rigorous exercise regimen both at home in Oklahoma and when they’re on the road.
“You gotta be a responsible breeder,” Payson said. “It’s frustrating,” he said, shaking his head as he fed Winston dog treats. Winston seems to exist above the color battle, a Dolly Parton figure who unites the left, the right, and everyone in between. Part of Payson’s crusade is also to make all dogs, including rarefied champions, more accessible beyond the show ring. When Payson flies with Winston, he makes a point of letting passengers pet him and take selfies. He recently took Winston on a tour of the US Capitol to lobby for legislation that would provide funding for veterans to have emotional support dogs, including mutts.
“Then, that becomes a best friend to that person,” Payson said. “And you know what that does to somebody? It’s huge.”
For preservationist leaders in the breed, the fight to exclude blue Frenchies from competition has been a concerted campaign, online and in official communications to members.
“It is very important that we as member/exhibitors in conformation become more ‘proactive,’?” Becky Smith, the FBDCA president at the time, wrote on the group’s Facebook page and in a letter to members on May 27, 2019. “We must report DQ colors at show venues…. We are seeing an infiltration of DQ-color French Bulldogs. This is nothing new; however, slick tactics are taking place from color breeders.” The letter also encouraged people to write their complaint to the FBDCA Judges Education Committee and “IF YOU CAN GET A PHOTO, do so!”
The FBDCA code of ethics states that its standard is “the only standard by which French Bulldogs shall be judged” and that members will not “breed any French Bulldog whose owner is directly involved with any purposefully bred non-standard color breeder.”
Smith posted that she believed disqualified dogs are “tough to monitor BUT we must” and suggested that in a private group on the Frenchie Talk Facebook page, individual names of kennels “should be shared IF it is known that breeders are putting titles on dogs that are then bred to [disqualified] colors.” Others call this “the blacklist.”
“You have many walks of people that don’t wanna breed to a standard,” Sosa, with the FBDCA, said. “People can do what they want. We choose within the club to breed the way we do. And they might choose whether they like the different colors or coats. That’s fine. We don’t try to convert them. They don’t try to convert us. And that’s how I look at it.”?
On a Saturday summer morning, cars, dog strollers, and crates congregated in the parking lot of North High School in Torrance, California. Roughly 1,000 dogs had shown up for the South Bay Kennel Club show, 44 of them Frenchies, the largest group competing.
Among them was Jezebel. Charla Lenarth and her husband, Dean, had risen at 4 a.m. to make the trek from their home in Riverside County. Jezebel rested in a canvas wagon underneath a cooling jacket, waiting for the judge to call her number.
Lenarth has avoided showing as much in Northern California since Woofstock. For now, she continues to compete with Jezebel in dog shows as far away as Ohio and Puerto Rico, determined not to let the color controversy dampen her joy. She says she has had a lawyer send a cease-and-desist order to the harassers at Woofstock and has made her social media private. A colleague suggested wearing Google Glass to competitions, but for now she’s holding off.
“It could either be a shooting or a bunch of old ladies knitting,” Lenarth says. “You never know.”