Oh, for a dogs Life…


In Paris – a city not renowned for its friendliness – they say, if you want to meet people, it’s easy: get a dog.

The Parisian dog population is estimated to be around 500,000, but the Capital is not alone when it comes to canine affection – the whole country shares its feelings. The French truly love their dogs.

To accurately estimate the number of dogs in France is difficult. The unofficial figure is around 10 million, which equates to 17 dogs for every 100 people. There is no doubt, however, that France leads the world in dog ownership. Each of those millions of dogs is adored and doted on by its owner, 40% of whom claim their dogs are the most important things in their lives – even more than their lovers.

I recall a trip we took from Paris to Toulouse last year – the person opposite us on the train happily allowed her dog to sleep on her lap for the entire 4-hour journey. When we arrived at our hotel we giggled at the tariff list behind our door – “Avec le chien – €8.00 par nuit” (with dog – €8 per night). Later that evening, we saw the behind of a little “€8.00 extra” trotting into the room next door. The same dog was at breakfast the following morning, its doting owners fussing over it as if it were a baby.

Yes, dogs are welcome in most French hotels and they’re hardly ever discriminated against when renting accommodation. They’re also permitted on public transport, in hairdressers, shops and museums, even in doctor’s surgeries. It’s not unusual to see a dog in a supermarket, sitting up in a shopping trolley, while in restaurants they are fed, watered and sometimes sit beside their owners at the table. “No Dogs” signs are rare, and, even if they do see one, the French are apt to ignore them; dogs are part of the French way of life – after all, they’re family.

In her book Almost French, Sarah Turnbull recalls her first visit to a restaurant with her puppy, Maddie, where waiters “performed a pantomime of fussing and pampering

“Out comes a bowl of water – the same dish which will later contain someone’s soup or chocolate mousse. A few minutes later they slip her a sliver of pork terrine. A saucer of fragrant rosemary lamb – cut into tiny bites – lands under the table…Maddie has had apéritif, first course and main before Frédéric and I have even glimpsed a menu”.

Exclusively canine restaurants can be found throughout France and the lucky dogs of Paris even have their own patisserie – Mon Bon Chien – where they can enjoy a snack while being fitted out in the latest canine haute couture.

In a country where vets are reputed to earn more than doctors, canine fashion, toys and grooming – or toilettage - are big business. The French spend a staggering €3 billion annually on their dogs, whose appearance they consider to be just as important as their own. Records show that the first dog-grooming parlours date back to the time of Louis XV and today most towns have at least one dog-grooming salon.

In Paris, toilettage is a serious business indeed. Here you’ll find the world-renowned Marie Poirier salon, its walls covered with photos of the rich and famous, its clients awaiting their treatment on low leather armchairs. When you step inside this luxurious establishment, you could be forgiven for thinking you’ve walked straight into a stylish fashion boutique. But that, of course, is exactly what it is – not for people, but for canines.

The notorious Madame Poirier, who has outraged many pedigree associations with her unconventional styling, not only provides every beauty treatment imaginable, from hairstyling and nail buffing to plucking and waxing, but also sells accessories such as bejewelled collars, silk bed canopies and the latest chic fashions from the new season’s dog “catwalk” collection.

One unpleasant aspect of France’s vast dog population is abundantly evident on the pavements of towns and cities, where thousands of dogs leave their “calling cards”. Many city councils have decided to take action by introducing hefty, on-the-spot fines and I must attest to seeing a noticeable difference in the streets of Paris during my recent visits. I know it’s considered good luck to step in something unpleasant, but this is of little consolation when you do.

In France, as in many countries, breeds go in and out of “mode” and the fickle finger of fashion has a great deal of influence over one’s choice of dog. However, the National Dog of France – the Poodle – has remained a fashionable accessory among the aristocratic, rich or famous for centuries.

Often wrongly referred to as “French Poodles”, their origins can be traced back to Germany and Russia in the 1500’s. Although they have a reputation for being “all beauty and no brains”, devotees claim they’re actually highly intelligent, easy to train, energetic and adorable pets. Throughout the centuries, Poodles have been used by the French for a range of purposes – as guide dogs, gun-dogs, hunting dogs, duck-retrievers, truffle dogs, for military work and as performers.

The famous “Papillon” poodle, so named for its distinctive, butterfly-shaped ears, can be traced back to the time of Louis XlV and appears in many royal family portraits. The drop-eared variety, known as a “Phalène”, was the dog of choice of such figures as Madame de Pompadour and Henry III of England while Marie Antoinette is said to have walked to the guillotine clutching her beloved Phalèn, “Thisbe”. (The pup was spared and lived out the rest of its days in a house in Paris which is still called the “House of the Papillon”. )

Today, this cute little dog’s petite size makes it a popular choice among city apartment dwellers while Poodles of all kinds are considered the ultimate fashion accessory – conveniently available in a variety of colours and sizes from the large or “standard” to the tiny, fragile “tea-cup”.

Yet there is another, very different, breed of dog that can almost claim to equal the Poodle as a national symbol of France – the French bulldog or “Bouledogue”, commonly known as a “Frenchie”. These dogs are thought to have originated from the miniature or “toy” bulldogs brought to France by Nottingham lace weavers during the industrial revolution. They often belonged to the butchers and coachmen of Paris’s “Les Halles” markets.

Later, the Frenchies’ funny faces and lovable characters began to appeal to members of high society and the artistic community. Nowadays, these powerful, muscular, compact dogs are still a popular choice. Energetic, intelligent, “one-owner” dogs, they have an irresistible, expressive gaze but are known to be prone to jealousy.

In a country like Australia, where a dog is simply a dog, with simple needs and pleasures, we cannot help but be amused by the over-indulgent French dog owners. I’m certain of one thing, however – next time round I’m hoping for a dog’s life in France.

Fran Stephenson



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