Donut the French bulldog was sitting outside Starbucks. Romeo was perusing the produce at the Korean market down the street, and Jack was going to see Oskar for a play date. Oh yes, Oskar was in his usual spot, sunning himself on his little red bed in the window of the Jumping Bulldog, the chic dog and cat boutique named after him.
Stroll the streets of the Ditmars area of Astoria, Queens, and you’re bound to run into a French bulldog or 32, which was where the unofficial tally stood at last count.
“Last year, there were only eight,” said Tanja R. Firrigno, Oskar’s “mom” and the owner of the Jumping Bulldog. “There are several more that I haven’t met, but I’ve seen them in the neighborhood. I see far more of them here than I do of any of the designer breeds.”
With their rabbit ears, punched-in faces, squeaky-toy voices and wrestler’s bodies, French bulldogs are a noticeable curiosity in Astoria, where the dog of choice still runs to pound, not pedigree.
“They attract more attention than any other dog,” said Erin Mara, owner of Donut, who is white with a black mask face. “I can’t walk two steps without people stopping us. I walk dogs in my spare time, and no other breed brings this type of response.”
It’s hard not to fall for Frenchies, which were popular lap dogs in wealthy households in 19th-century France, but it’s not easy to understand why working-class Astoria has succumbed so suddenly. Often conceived via artificial insemination and delivered via Caesarean section, French bulldogs can sell for $2,500 to $5,000. According to the Web site of the French Bull Dog Club of America, the dogs are difficult to breed and the C-sections are made necessary by the mother’s narrow hips and the puppies’ large heads.
“For decades, Astoria has been waiting in the wings to become the next Manhattan,” said George Halvatzis, a real estate agent whose Ditmars Boulevard office Donut passes during his daily constitutionals. “We have been getting trendy restaurants and trendy shops, but more than anything, the Frenchies, which are so Manhattanesque, may be the signal that this is finally starting to happen.”
Mr. Halvatzis, who owns a shar-pei named Chopper, said the breed was perfect for apartments. “Because of the weak economy, landlords have gotten more lax about taking dogs,” he said. “And French bulldogs are just the right size and temperament for smaller spaces.”
The dogs have another landlord-endearing quality: “They don’t bark,” said Luke Herman, who, with his wife, Natalia Lyons, owns Jack. “They have their own language of yodels, screams, chirps, warbles and what can best be described as snorfles.”
JoAnn and Matt Franjola, owners of Romeo, say he is the perfect companion for their 3-month-old son, Chase. “They’re fabulous together,” Ms. Franjola said. “Romeo licks his toes, and if the baby cries, Romeo runs up to me and stares as if to say, ‘Are you going to get that?’ ”
The only thing better than one Frenchie, say Givanni Ildefonso and Jose Sandin, is two. Coco and Samantha, sisters whose fall wardrobe includes matching brown and pink hoodies that complement their fawn bodies and black masks, have turned their owners into celebrities. “We meet new people every night,” Ms. Ildefonso said. “And people always say: ‘Wow! They’re twins. How do you tell them apart?’ ”
Astoria Frenchie owners dismiss the idea that the dogs are status symbols and emphasize that they require as much tender loving care as children. They can develop breathing and respiratory problems because of their short, pressed-in faces, and are prone to joint diseases, spinal disorders and heart defects.
“There’s an immense commitment, financially,” says Josh Flanagan, whose 2-year-old George Clooney is among the original Astoria Eight. “I’ve heard that over the life of the dog, it could cost $40,000 in veterinarian bills, premium food and general upkeep. My wife, Lindsay, and I love ours to death, but I don’t know if we’d get another.”
Astoria’s fascination with the breed can be traced back four years to the first Oscar, a high-fashion fawn who wore a red bandana around his neck. His owner, a tall, ponytailed man who was said to have been an opera singer, taught Oscar to walk at his side, leashless, and to wait for him outside the shops on 31st Street.
Oscar moved to the West Coast, Donut has since taken up the golden leash, and the new Oskar, with his darling doggie-in-the-window routine, has turned the Jumping Bulldog into a French bulldog franchise.
Dogs and owners have become fast friends, so much so that Ms. Firrigno was considering holding Frenchie Fridays at the shop for some off-leash playtime.
“You can’t be a Frenchie owner and be antisocial,” Ms. Mara said. “There’s a special bond between Frenchie owners. It’s like a club.”
Mr. Herman agreed, adding that those in the Frenchie fraternity “recognize the dogs but sometimes not the people. But we have developed social relationships with some of the owners, and sometimes we even hang out without the dogs.”
There is also a special bond between the pets. Jack, Oskar and Donut, for instance, have become fast friends.
“I can’t imagine not ever having a Frenchie,” Ms. Lyons said. “Someday, I would like to get a little sister for Jack.”
Jack looked up at her and smiled like a clown. On command, he gave Mr. Herman a high-five with his petite paw, and they continued down the street.
“Oh, that’s so cute,” a woman cooed as she knelt to pet his head. “What kind of dog is that?”