“Alfred was your typical puppy purchase,” Will McGinnis said. The Frenchie was about 12 weeks old when McGinnis got him from a breeder in October 2020. “I chose a French bulldog for no other reason than their big old heads,” he said.
Alfred, whose full name was Alfred Gregory, was mostly black with little dots of tan above his eyebrows that highlighted his already expressive face. “He was my shadow,” McGinnis said. Alfred slept on McGinnis’ feet while he worked; if McGinnis got up to switch rooms, Alfred would trot along after him.
McGinnis had never had a Frenchie before, but in getting Alfred, he joined an ever-growing number of Americans obsessed with the expensive breed. In 2020, French bulldogs became the second most popular dog breed in America (Labrador retrievers have a death grip on the top spot), despite a price tag that starts around $2,000 and can go up to $10,000.
In September 2021, McGinnis left the year-old Frenchie in his mother’s care while he met up with friends. At the time, his mother lived in what McGinnis described as a “cookie-cutter neighborhood” in Maryland, filled with town houses and single-family homes. She and Alfred were three blocks from her house when a vehicle pulled up behind her with two men in the car. A man wearing a ski mask got out and put a gun to her head. Then he grabbed Alfred. “She was stunned and didn’t let go. He put the gun in her face and said, ‘Let go of the dog now,’” McGinnis said. “‘Please, ma’am, let go of the dog.’” She did. The man took Alfred, jumped back in the car and sped away. There has been no sign of Alfred since.
It’s difficult to know exactly how many dogs are stolen in the United States each year. Since dogs are considered property, their thefts are lumped in with statistics on stolen computers, jewelry and the like. As with so many other goods, the price of all purebred and designer dogs skyrocketed when the pandemic started. This led to an increase in dognappings and other dog-related crimes.
The issue gained significant attention early last year, when two of Lady Gaga’s Frenchies were taken at gunpoint by assailants who shot her dog-walker (who sustained severe injuries but survived the attack). Some dogs have been stolen by happenstance, when they were in the back of a car or van during carjackings, which have been on the rise. Others have been taken in groups from kennels and pet stores. And many owners have stories like McGinnis’ — dogs taken from their carers in broad daylight — often violently or even at gunpoint.
In the U.K., which has similar pet-ownership trends to the U.S., the theft of dogs increased by 170 percent between 2019 and 2020. The seriousness of the problem is such that the U.K. government created a task force to study the issue and how it might be solved. (One of the task force’s recommendations: Making “pet abduction” a separate criminal offense.)
Any valuable dog breed may be stolen, but small purebred dogs that are easy to pick up and purebred puppies are the most at risk. Microchip company AKC Reunite has seen reports of stolen pets increase from 6 percent of dogs reported lost before 2015 to 12 percent now, with more marked increases since 2020. Frenchies are only the fifth most popular dog microchipped with the company, said AKC Reunite President and CEO Tom Sharp, but they’re No. 1 among stolen dogs. Other popular targets include Yorkshire terriers, Labrador retrievers, Siberian huskies and golden retrievers.
When McGinnis sees people walking their dogs while wearing headphones, blissfully unaware of their surroundings, he can’t help but worry. “I don’t walk anywhere now with my headphones in,” McGinnis said. He doesn’t think his mother took another walk in her neighborhood after Alfred was taken. She moved a few months later.
Before purebred dogs came into existence in the Victorian Era, people chose dogs based on how well they fulfilled certain tasks, like running, hunting, digging or sitting on laps. Individual dogs or well-respected lines might be sought after for their skills, but dogs weren’t a commodity the way they are today. We’ve long known that purebred dogs that come from limited gene pools are predisposed to a number of health problems: breathing and overheating in flat-faced dogs like Frenchies, cancer in golden retrievers, or hip issues in German shepherds and Great Danes, just to name a few.
Breeds that become the it-dog of the moment are often produced by the high-volume breeders known as puppy mills. There’s little regard for the welfare of the mother or her puppies, to the extent that many states have enacted “lemon laws” allowing owners to get their money back if a purchased puppy gets sick or dies soon after being brought home. Before the “adopt, don’t shop” movement started in the 1980s, mutts languished in shelters or were euthanized at very high rates. Many consumers saw them as inferior to purebred dogs. (In recent years, euthanasia rates have dropped further, from approximately 1.2 million dogs in 2011 to 390,000 in 2019, according to data from the ASPCA and the Shelter Animals Count.)
The commodification of dogs has been bad for the dogs that are in demand as well as the dogs that aren’t. Now, it’s becoming a nightmare for owners as well.
“I don’t know what the market is for stolen French bulldogs,” McGinnis said. “I truly don’t.” He does what he can to keep Alfred’s face out there just in case someone spots the dog but said he has reached a point of acceptance. It’s been nine months since Alfred was taken; a portrait of him hangs in McGinnis’ living room. “I have his dog bed set aside to donate to a dog rescue,” McGinnis said. He just hasn’t quite gotten around to it yet.
When Alfred was stolen, McGinnis said, he made the hourlong drive back to his mom’s house in a panicked 35 minutes. Because a gun was involved, a detective was put on the case, but not much came of it. Alfred hadn’t yet been neutered, but he was microchipped. If someone brought Alfred to a veterinarian’s office and the vet scanned him, the chip information would point to a different owner. “From a conversation with a local veterinarian, I don’t think a lot of vets scan new dogs the way you’d hope,” McGinnis said.
McGinnis spent a few thousand dollars on fliers and even ads on Facebook and Instagram. With the help of a GoFundMe, he offered a $1,300 reward for Alfred’s return. In short, he pursued all the options available to the owner of a stolen dog.
With rewards for stolen dogs often exceeding the value of the breed, some thieves may be in it to collect on the rewards. Others list and sell the dogs through sites like Craigslist. “We definitely know of some that have been tracked down that were being offered for sale through local classifieds,” said Kathleen Summers, director of outreach and research for the Humane Society of the United States’ Stop Puppy Mills campaign. Stolen dogs have also turned up in raids on commercial breeding facilities.
“Spaying or neutering always helps,” Summers said, noting that while a thief has no way to tell if a female has been spayed, it’s apparent whether a male dog could be used for breeding.
“[Dog breeding is] easy money, but it’s not easy on the dog,” said Natalie Sampson, one of the passionate administrators behind the Find Frenchies Facebook group. She’s rescued two Frenchies, one from a puppy mill and another from a backyard breeder. “I’ve seen what it does to them, and it makes me want to fight harder for all of them to get them back home,” she said.
Summers, of the Humane Society, noted that by the time mother dogs in puppy mills are 4 or 5 years old, “they’ve had half a dozen litters, lost many teeth and have brittle bones.” Dogs like Frenchies and English bulldogs endure repeated C-sections; the wide heads and narrow hips we’ve bred into them have made natural births rare. “They’re bred repeatedly until their bodies wear out,” Summers said.
When Sampson first started the Find Frenchies group in 2018, most of the posts were from people looking for lost dogs. “Now it’s ‘my dog got stolen out of my backyard,’” Sampson said. She once had a Doberman stolen from her and knows firsthand how the owners of stolen Frenchies feel.
“The fad needs to wear off on these little guys,” she said. “Until the demand for the dogs slows down, it’s not going to stop.”
Both Sampson and Summers noted that the early-pandemic spike in shelter adoptions has reverted. “The shelters are full, and they’re killing thousands of dogs every day,” Sampson said. “That’s including breeds like Frenchies.”
With the increased media attention around stolen dogs and Frenchies in particular, some owners are guarding their dogs like crown jewels. Shelly Youngwirth, another administrator of Find Frenchies, has seven of the dogs. She compares her home in San Diego to Fort Knox. Despite the tall fences and the cameras trained on the yard, the dogs are never allowed out alone. She doesn’t board them because she’s heard of dogs being stolen from kennels. Youngwirth also doesn’t walk the dogs in her neighborhood so no one can follow her back home to see where she lives. “We always walk them in different places and take different routes home,” Youngwirth said.
Dog thefts aren’t so common that owners need to live in fear, but the possibility is terrifying.
Dognapping is not the only way for bad actors to take advantage of skyrocketing prices for purebreds: Some would-be pet owners are being “robbed” of dogs that never actually existed.
The second time someone showed up at Sara Breuer’s house in Austin, Texas, asking to pick up a puppy, she got suspicious. Once was a wrong address, but twice? And that was just the beginning.
From 2019 through the end of 2020, strangers appeared at Breuer’s door on 15 separate occasions asking for corgis, labs and pugs they’d bought online. “Sometimes when they’d come, they’d start crying or blaming each other,” Breuer recalled.
Entire families even showed up, sometimes after an hourslong drive, to bring home the newest member of their household. Told that Breuer had no dogs to sell, the women often started crying. Once, a teenage girl who was translating for her Spanish-speaking family knocked on the door. Her face fell when she realized there had never been a puppy. “She was like, ‘I have to go tell my dad,’” Breuer remembered. “It was heartbreaking.”
Breuer had never heard of pet scams before victims started showing up at her house. She soon realized just how common they are, particularly in the United States, where it’s become normal to buy a dog over the internet, sight unseen. Such scams existed before the pandemic but increased during lockdown. Once people were buying houses without ever setting foot in them, many thought little of having a dog shipped to them or prepaying before picking it up from the “seller.”
A keyword search for “puppy” in Better Business Bureau’s Scam Tracker pulls up roughly 8,000 complaints between March 1, 2020, and the end of last month. A few are simply reports of potential scams where no money changed hands. Most involve losses from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. “The way the scam works is the initial deposit you pay on the pet is just to get the victim hooked and is not where the bulk of the money is made,” said Jack Whittaker, a Ph.D. candidate in criminology who is the co-admin for Petscams.com.
The “breeder” advertises in-demand puppies that might regularly go for a few thousand dollars for a few hundred. The websites are often convincing, and scammers have created thousands of them. People even create fake American Kennel Club documents and registrations to add to the illusion that there’s a real dog.
After offering a low initial price, scammers follow up with surprise fees for vaccinations, testing, shipping and anything else they can think of. “If at any point you decide enough is enough, they’ll tug at your emotional heartstrings by saying you’ll be charged with puppy abandonment,” Whittaker said. Or they add insult to injury by telling would-be buyers they can have their dogs if they make the drive to pick up their puppies from the address listed on their website — which is how victims up at random homes like Breuer’s.
In the past, Whittaker said, victims of pet scams often had low incomes or were vulnerable in some other way that made them willing to seek out a low-price purebred online. But once the demand for lockdown companions soared, desperation changed the game. Anecdotally, during the early days of the pandemic, people who might have otherwise adopted a dog from a shelter turned to online sellers or backyard breeders, even if they suspected the dogs were raised in puppy mills. Others got scammed.
“What’s endemic in U.S. culture is that animals are treated like commodities which can be bought online and shipped to your address,” Whittaker said.
Purebred dogs used to be available only to the upper classes, Kim Kavin wrote in her 2017 book “The Dog Merchants.” In the mid-1900s, commercial breeding operations became more popular. Suddenly, dogs were mass-produced. “The purebred dog, as much as the suburban houses, became a middle-class lifestyle symbol,” Kavin wrote.
Adopting a dog might be its own kind of ethical status symbol, but people are still buying dogs — a lot of them. Purebred dogs, which are falsely marketed for their predictability like a can of Campbell’s soup, remain popular. The Humane Society of the United States estimates puppy mills sell 2.6 million dogs every year. Smaller, more ethical breeders can’t churn out the same volume of dogs. They have fewer females to begin with, and they limit breeding to account for the dogs’ physical and mental health.
Even as more people consider their pets to be members of the family, we treat purebred dogs more like commodities: Their price is dictated by the market and the perceived value of their “brand.” In many states, you can now lease a dog as though it were a mattress or a car.
It’s difficult to say how common pet leasing is today, but it’s enough of a concern that eight states have banned the practice. Unlike loans, leases do not have capped interest rates. “Because [leases] are not a financial product, it’s not subject to a state’s usury laws of how much they can charge for interest,” said attorney and animal advocate Peggy Hoyt. And leases are available to people with bad credit — at even higher repayment rates. As a result, people can end up paying two or three times the value of their pet by the time the lease is paid off.
In 2017, Bloomberg called dog leases “a new way for subprime borrowers to buy things they can’t afford.” Since the practice began around 2013, there have been numerous complaints from consumers who say they were talked into signing pet leases without understanding the terms or just how much it would cost. For some, the first time they learned they’d signed a lease and not a loan was when a collections agent called and threatened to repossess their pet.
The crazes for various kinds of purebred dogs have created a minefield of thefts, scams and predatory payment arrangements. It can be easy to get caught up in all the ways to avoid these pitfalls, but we should also look hard at the systems that have allowed them to flourish. Dogs go for thousands of dollars because they are a commodity and people have run up the prices on certain breeds, not because there’s anything inherently more worthwhile about one or another. “Hyping up the value of dogs doesn’t make a dog more valuable — just more expensive,” said Russ Mead, professor of animal law at Lewis & Clark Law School.
“Designer dogs are not inherently good. Non-designer dogs are not inherently bad. Every dog is uniquely themselves,” Mead added. He compared the craze for certain dog breeds to NFTs: The value is whatever people will spend on it.
Unfortunately, with high prices come high stakes. Every dog can be a good dog, but even the most beautiful, well-behaved shelter mutts are rarely stolen at gunpoint. The rise in dog crimes isn’t about the dogs — it’s about how much we’re willing to pay.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.