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The rise of dognapping: How sky-high prices for purebreds have led to pet scams, predatory leases and violent robberies

How do we stop the dognapping epidemic?

“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.

Hear more from the conversation between Serena Golden and Tove Danovich about this story:

Alfred and Will McGinnis at home before the dognapping.

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.

Singer Lady Gaga is seen with her dogs Miss Asia and Koji in Midtown on February 19, 2016, in New York.

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.

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.

Alfred at home in his bed before the dognapping.

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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