Nick Agnew's 10-week-old Frenchie pup, Duke.
I have become the kind of man who stops strangers in the street to talk about their dogs. More than once, I’ve even crossed the street to do so. This has been coming on for a while, ever since I first glimpsed a Boston terrier during a month’s stay in Manhattan.
Three-and-a-half years later, I’m no closer to claiming one of my own, but it’s not for want of trying. I’ve done the research, I’ve spoken to breeders. I’ve been told to take what I’m offered, male, female, blind, deaf or albino. Frankly, there are mythical creatures more easily found than a Boston in Victoria.
Three months ago, I finally heard from a breeder that a litter was en route and one would be spare. Probably. I was told to call back in a month, which I did. Then I was told to call back in two weeks, which I did. Then another month. A fortnight ago, the breeder was decisive. I should definitely call back in another two weeks.
When I call today, I don’t need to give my name. “I might have good news for you,” she says. Alone in my kitchen, I rehearse a happy dance.
“Call back in a month.”
To be fair, I’m one of the lucky ones, sitting at the top of a very long list. Some breeders tell stories of wannabe owners waiting three or four years for a Boston. Alongside French bulldogs, the breed has seen such a surge in popularity that what few breeders there are can’t hope to keep up with it.
Diane Boyle, of the Boston Terrier Club of Victoria, estimates there are only three breeders in Victoria who might have the occasional pup to spare. Add to that small litter sizes – most bitches have litters of only two or three and, thanks to a narrow pelvis, usually have to deliver via caesarian – and a couple of years no longer seems such an outrageous wait.
“I get so many phone calls,” Boyle says. “I’ve been involved with breeding Dalmatians for nearly 30 years and I’d get an inquiry once in a blue moon. With Bostons, I get maybe four or five calls a week.”
This newfound popularity shouldn’t be surprising. There’s something very Melbourne about Bostons and their Gallic cousins. Compact but stocky, as fond of the outdoors as they are of their sofa, both are built for city life. There’s also the hint of something ever-so cosmopolitan about them. And, dare we say it, something ever-so exclusive. At about $2000 a pup, they’re not likely to be found tied on many unfashionable street corners.
Tony John spends his working days in the company of his daughter’s Boston, Luka. His Prahran shop, Kronan Cycles, is full of beautiful, shiny things, but as many people stop to admire his furred friend as they do his fixed-gear bikes. “I had three young women drop in yesterday,” he said. “They said they didn’t want any bikes, but could they come in and play with the dog?”
Luka’s “mother” and John’s daughter, Ruth, says she is used to her little gremlin attracting a lot of attention. Few walks through Fawkner Park pass without a gaggle of groupies descending.
She decided on a Boston after a great deal of research into the sort of dog best suited to apartment living. “I wanted a smaller dog but I didn’t want a yappy one. She was one of the only ones who could do the exercise but didn’t need exercise.”
Although Ruth made contact with local breeders, the thought of waiting years for the perfect pup ultimately drove her further afield.
After a few months of searching, she made contact with a breeder in Queensland who, a few phone calls later, was happy to fly Luka down to her new home.
Such shortcuts are the exception to the rule, however. For most wannabe owners of either Bostons or French bulldogs, the long wait for an available dog is only the first step in a tortuous adoption process.
Growing demand and limited supply means breeders can be extremely choosy about who gets to take one of their babies home.
Melbourne print broker Nick Agnew knows exactly how lucky he is to be the proud master of a 10-week-old Frenchie pup. Like Luka’s family, he was looking for a dog that would be as good company on a working day as on a quiet night in. He had heard stories of massive waiting lists and, on making contact with a breeder, found himself running the gauntlet of probing questions and justifying his suitability as aspiring owner. How long was his working day? Would he lock the dog outside? How much did he know about the breed? When he passed the initial examination, the breeder came to inspect his home. Only then did she give him the thumbs up.
Agnew’s breeder, Samantha Smith, says this is fairly typical behaviour when it comes to deciding on an owner. “I might be a little more over the top but a lot of them do (that sort of thing),” Smith says. “They need companionship and they’re not a dog you could throw out the back. They don’t do well in the cold and certainly don’t do well in the heat.”
If it all sounds more like adopting a child than buying a backyard pal, Smith says that’s how it feels for most breeders. Letting one go can be heartbreaking. She wouldn’t let any of her puppies leave the state, preferring they stay within the Melbourne area.
Adorability aside, the two breeds come with more than their fair share of pitfalls, several stark reasons for wannabe owners to choose their breeder with caution. For starters, Frenchies and Bostons are brachycephalic or “short-snouted” breeds, prone to a range of health issues from breathing problems – both are prodigious snorers – to more complicated, costly perils such as cataracts and heart murmurs.
French bulldogs can also suffer from a form of doggy haemophilia and thyroid trouble. Smith’s first Frenchie had to be put down at 16 months.
“Make sure that you’re getting them for a reputable breeder,” she advises. “See the mother if you can and make sure that her breathing is good. Make sure the breeders are happy to guarantee their puppies if something goes wrong.”
Diane Boyle also warns about unscrupulous types taking advantage of desperate dog hunters on the internet. “There are scams where people claiming to be breeders will send photos and take payment, but never send a dog,” she says. “They’re often selling the dogs at about $800, which is cheap for a Boston, and the money is going into an offshore account, never to be seen again. I know of a few people who have been caught out.”
What with all these internet scams, health issues, tricky questions, a hefty price tag and long wait, finding a new best friend has never seemed so fraught. Boyle is sympathetic but encourages patience.
“They’re really worth the wait,” she says.
It would, of course, be wrong of me to abuse a professional chat for personal gain and ask for a helping hand in my own search. But that doesn’t entirely stop me. Does she have any final tips for this wannabe parent? As it is, Boyle is happy to help and tells me she might know of a litter coming up. I gush gratitude, edging to the furthest reaches of my chair. What can I do to make this happen, I ask. Send character references? A floorplan? Bribes?
“Call back in a month,” she says.