On the bulldog watch

Three items from Benoit Denizet-Lewis’s 11/27 NYT Magazine piece “Can the Bulldog Be Saved?”, about the plight of the modern bulldog, bred for cuteness but with resulting dire consequences for the dog’s physical well-being.

Item 1: brachycephaly. One of the consequences is that the bulldog is markedly short-snouted — or, as the people interviewed put it, brachycephalic (earlier mention on this blog here):

He argues that we’ve bred dogs like the bulldog (and other short-faced “brachycephalic” breeds, including the pug and the French bulldog) to play up the cute effect.

From NOAD2 on brachycephalic:

having a relatively broad, short skull (usually with the breadth at least 80 percent of the length). Often contrasted with dolichocephalic .

(In between snort-snouted breeds like the bulldog and long-snouted (dolichocephalic) breeds like the afghan hound are mesaticephalic breeds like the golden retriever.)

Short-snouted would have been a more informative wording than brachycephalic — it’s the depth of the skull that’s crucial here, not the breadth — as well as more easily understood, not to mention briefer (3 syllables vs. 5), but technical vocabulary connotes high seriousness in a way that ordinary language does not.

Item 2: colorful wording. Bulldogs are inclined to choke on their food, so:

the dog-food manufacturer Royal Canin has developed a special bulldog formula with wave-shaped kibbles (they look like Fritos) that make it easier for bulldogs to grasp and chew. The food also boasts “highly digestible proteins,” because bulldogs are the most relentless farters in the canine world.

No great linguistic point here; I was just tickled by the phrase relentless farters in the New York Times.

Item 3: the power of appearances. Faced with evidence that the bulldog’s physical characteristics are dangerous to its health, fanciers become defensive. Denizet-Lewis writes:

“But what if the bulldog’s cute, short face isn’t good for its health?” I asked.

“If you change the look of this dog, it’s not going to look like a bulldog,” she countered.

I heard that again and again from bulldog breeders. At Westminster, a breeder from Mexico even conceded that bulldogs would “probably be healthier” with a longer snout.

“So why not breed them that way?” I asked.

“Because if you elongate the face, it becomes a different dog,” he said. “It won’t look like a bulldog anymore.”

Apparently, short-snoutedness is — well, has become — a defining characteristic of the bulldog. A less short-snouted dog just wouldn’t count as a bulldog any more.


3 Responses to “On the bulldog watch”

  1. John Lawler Says:

    As I used to say, brachycephalic falutes higher than short-snouted.

  2. the ridger Says:

    A less short-snouted dog just wouldn’t count as a bulldog any more.

    Of course it wouldn’t. That’s like saying dachshunds wouldn’t be dachshunds if they had longer legs and shorter backs, which would be healthier for them. Being a dachshund includes being short-legged and long-backed. I mean, those short faces with the underslung jaws *are* the characteristics of a bulldog.

    One note: I used to own one; she was a wonderful dog. Couldn’t pick a piece of cheese or a wiener off the floor because of the way her mouth was shaped, though she did learn to roll wieners up the wall. She drooled, and she snorted/snored. She did not, however fart.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Bulldogs have been bred, in relatively recent times, to exaggerate these features. There’s no reason those features couldn’t be ameliorated some.

      It looks like dog breeding constantly drives the animals towards exaggerations of their characteristic features; then at each step the “new” dog becomes the model for the breed. None of this is being done in the interests of the dogs.

      Denizet-Lewis’s article has an illustration of a somewhat ameliorated bulldog. It strikes me as recognizably a bulldog, just not an extreme one.

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