Dognapping Is Surprisingly Common—But What Happened to Lady Gaga Is Unheard Of

We spoke to an expert at the American Kennel Club about the theft of Lady Gaga's dogs and how she might get them back.
Drew Schwartz
Brooklyn, US
February 26, 2021, 8:46pm
Lady Gaga
Photo by Vincenzo Pinto / Getty Images

On a quiet street in Hollywood on Wednesday night, two thieves shot Lady Gaga's dog walker and stole two of the pop star's three French Bulldogs, TMZ reports. The dog walker, Ryan Fischer, is currently in critical condition at an area hospital, according to CNN. Lady Gaga has since offered up a $500,000 reward for the return of her dogs—"no questions asked"—but as of now, they're still missing. 

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Dognapping is surprisingly common in the U.S. According to Tom Sharp, the president and CEO of AKC Reunite, the American Kennel Club's lost pet recovery service, thousands of dogs are stolen every year. But never in his life has he heard of a dog being stolen at gunpoint.

Sharp said that dognapping is almost always a crime of opportunity: Dogs are typically stolen from yards, animal shelters, or pet stores, mostly in the spur of the moment. The fact that someone stole Gaga's dogs while they were being walked is "extraordinary," he said.

Judging from surveillance footage from the incident, it's hard not to wonder if the heist was premeditated. The footage, obtained by Fox 11 Los Angeles, shows two assailants in a sedan pull up to Fischer, shoot him, snatch two of the dogs, and speed away. There's a chance they didn't know the dogs belonged to Lady Gaga, Sharp said, and instead targeted them because Frenchies are an expensive breed that can sometimes be resold for thousands of dollars. But it's also possible they knew exactly whose pets they were after.

The search for the suspects is ongoing. The police haven't released many details about the crime, aside from telling CNN they believe the suspects are between 20 and 25 years old. VICE called up Sharp to get a better understanding of what might have motivated the dognapping—along with how, if all goes well, Lady Gaga might get her dogs back.

VICE: How common is dognapping in the U.S.?
Tom Sharp:
Most of the pets reported to us are just lost: They get off the leash; they break out of a fenced-in backyard. But there are a good number that are stolen—either from a pet store, or from a backyard, or even walking down the street, like with Lady Gaga's dogs, which is just terrible. I would guess that under 5 percent of the dogs reported to us as lost are stolen. But certainly thousands of dogs a year, across the country, are stolen. 

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Why do people steal dogs? What's their endgame?
We know that sometimes people steal a dog because they can't afford to buy one. We also know that some are stolen to be resold. Especially with the higher-dollar small breeds, like French Bulldogs and Bulldogs and Yorkies—we see that. 

Why are those breeds disproportionately targeted by dognappers?
The dogs are relatively expensive to get and they're small, which makes them easy to pick up and run away with. You're not going to steal a dog that you can't resell for very much money, right? And smaller dogs are just plain more convenient. It can be hard to steal a 100-pound dog who can run away from you.

Where do French Bulldogs rank among the breeds that are most commonly stolen? 
They're definitely in the top three of breeds that are targeted. They're small, they're adorable, and they're worth a lot.

How do dognappers actually go about stealing dogs?
We certainly hear of dogs being taken from a front yard or a back yard. It's normally going to be a crime of convenience, where someone's driving by or walking by, and they see a dog that's loose, and they pick it up. Another place that we see dogs stolen is from a pet store, or from a breeder, or from a rescue. A thief knows, I can go here and see this dog, and I can try to take the dog and run. Especially when you're talking about puppies—that's where a lot of thefts occur. Very rarely would it be some brazen attack like what happened [Wednesday] night in Hollywood.

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How do dognappers go about selling the dogs they steal? 
They go to some black-market type of option, something that flies under the radar—like Facebook, or a flea market, or Craigslist. Even on the side of the street. It's going to be cash, and it's going to be sold at a steep discount compared to what you would pay from a legitimate source. Which is a good reminder to everybody: If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Don't get a dog at a steep discount off of social media, because it very well could be stolen.

We've mostly focused on the idea of a thief who either keeps the dog or sells it. But do dognappers ever ask for a ransom?
That is very uncommon.

Have you ever heard of that happening?
No. I can't think of a time. It's more that people offer to pay a reward. We generally discourage people from putting out rewards. I'm not going to fault anybody for putting out a reward, but it can be problematic. You may get calls from lots of people who don't have your dog. They may have a dog that looks sort of like your dog, and they're trying to get some money out of you—maybe even before you get to see the dog. If you put your phone number out there and, say, a $500 reward, it's an opportunity for scammers to take advantage of someone when they're in a vulnerable position.

With that in mind, what do you think about Lady Gaga's decision to put out a $500,000 reward for the return of her dogs?
Well, I think she's Lady Gaga, and she can do that. She has security people who are going to protect her, and who won't put her in a vulnerable position. So for Lady Gaga to do it is probably fine.

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I get why a reward  might not be a good idea. But I imagine that if you're a dog owner whose pet has been stolen, you might feel like, How else am I going to get this dog back? I mean, what other options do they have?
It helps to put up lost-pet posters in your area. It helps to do something like our lost pet alert: If a dog is reported lost or stolen to us, and it's enrolled with our service, we will send out an email blast with a lost-pet poster to vets and shelters and people in our reuniters network in the area. That's a proactive way to get the word out to people to watch for the dog. 

It's possible that whoever stole Lady Gaga's dogs didn't know they belonged to her. But to me, that seems hard to believe. Do you think she might have been specifically targeted?
It's certainly possible. But it's also possible that someone was out on the street with the intention of stealing from somebody, and they saw the three dogs and said, "Hey, $10,000 apiece—that's a lot of money." I'm not the police; I'm not an expert on criminals and thieves. But that would be my gut feeling.

The problem with the idea of it being targeted is, Sure, maybe you get a better payout for the reward. But surely they don't think they're going to get away with it, do they? It would be much easier to just resell the dogs on the black market than to try to get the reward and think you're going to get away scot free.

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Fair point. But when there's $500,000 on the table, maybe you're willing to take that risk.
Yeah. She did say "no questions asked." That's the risk/reward that they're going to have to think about—and [the risk of] someone turning them in.

Do you think Lady Gaga will ultimately get her dogs back?
That reward is a lot of money. I could see someone—a next-door neighbor, or someone down the street [from] whoever's got those dogs—turning in a tip that leads to her getting her dogs back. Five thousand dollars is a lot of money, but that might not be enough to rat out your neighbor. Five hundred thousand is a whole different story. And [it's] not just [about] the money, but the news coverage. There's a lot of visibility.

And that puts more pressure on whoever the thieves are.
Right. It would not surprise me if she had her dogs back in under two weeks.

How long does it typically take for a dog that's been stolen to be reunited with its owner?
Sometimes it's pretty quick, because the person who stole them didn't know what they were doing, or they tried to sell them and someone realized they were up to no good and reported it. Other times, we've had instances of dogs being gone for years. Maybe they were stolen and then resold right away to someone who thought that they were buying a dog from a neighbor; they had no reason to think anything was wrong. And then, for some reason, the microchip was finally checked a year, two years, five years down the road. Someone [once] contacted us, and we got in touch with the [original] owner to say, "Hey, your dog is at this place." And they got their dog back. 

If these thieves aren't going to pursue the reward, how quickly might they try to sell the dogs?
In general, people are going to sell them as quickly as possible. In a situation like this, it may be hard for them to do that because of all the attention.

I imagine that anyone buying a French Bulldog on the internet in California right now would probably be like, "I don't know about this."
Yeah. Those dogs' pictures are all over the media. Surely if you tried to sell them right now, that could bring the wrong kind of attention.

Let's say that these thieves get caught. Are there specific criminal statutes in place to punish dognappers?
Generally, no. My understanding is that in most states, dogs, cats—any animal is valued as property. So generally, the courts will look at the value of that animal. In the case of a French Bulldog that's worth $10,000, you're up in felony territory. But it's sort of the same as stealing a car in the eyes of the law. Obviously, in our hearts, it's a very different issue. 

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