Smuggling, price-gouging, dognapping: True tales from inside the great pandemic puppy boom
On a Monday afternoon last September, amid a lull between nationwide U.K. lockdowns, I was forced to confront evidence that I had become obsessed.
The clues came in the form of several long email chains: one a correspondence with Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs in London, where I live; another with a specialist pet shipper I had consulted in Calgary, Alberta, my hometown in Canada. Both had led me to the same conclusion. Yes, it was possible to send a puppy across international borders, in the cargo hold of one of a now sparse number of transatlantic flights during a global pandemic that had restricted human movement. It was just a terrible idea—one that would take months and costs thousands of dollars to execute. The paperwork alone would be prohibitive. The red tape involved didn’t sound that different, technically, from trying to import a show pony, or an expensive piece of art.
My efforts were a failed attempt at international arbitrage. Desperate not to go back into lockdown without a dog, at home in the U.K., I was attempting to take advantage of a relative surplus of responsibly bred, reasonably priced corgi puppies in southern Alberta. In the process, I had found myself trying to navigate a fraught market for four-legged friends marked by vicious competition for rescue dogs, sharp price hikes for pups, unscrupulous breeders, European smugglers, conniving scammers, and outright dognappers. And that was just in London.
The pandemic puppy boom is now a COVID-19 era trope around the world, with demand surging from Canada to Sweden to Spain, Brazil, Australia, and Israel. In the U.S., the intense demand initially cleared out animal shelters from Los Angeles to New York, and created a thriving cottage industry of people who will drive or fly puppies across the country on request.
Prices for puppies in the U.S. rose by 36% after the pandemic began compared with the previous year, and are still at roughly those levels, according to PuppySpot, an online listing site for breeders. Goldendoodles were the most popular breed, the site says, and for the priciest breed—English Sheepadoodles—prices have soared by almost 90%. The puppy demand could also exacerbate already mounting problems: The U.S. government, which typically buys German shepherd and Labrador puppies for the military on the open market, must compete with civilian puppy demand. Even before their elite training begins, such pups typically cost upwards of $5,500, according to Bloomberg.
Dog scams and thefts are also on the rise. In February, Lady Gaga’s dogwalker was shot and two of her French bulldogs were stolen off a street in Los Angeles. The dogs were eventually returned, but not before Gaga had offered a “no questions asked” $500,000 reward. It’s not clear if the robbers knew the dogs belonged to the pop star—or if they were simply attracted by the soaring demand for French bulldogs, who, as puppies, can now fetch prices of up to $10,000.
But as reports of dognapped Frenchies grew, the American Kennel Club quickly released guidance for worried owners. The club noted that roughly 2 million dogs are snatched per year in the U.S.—often in order to be “flipped” to new owners—with small, high-priced dogs particularly at risk.
“These types of dogs are easy to grab and run with,” says Tom Sharp, president and CEO of AKC Reunite, the club’s dog recovery service.
Scams, too, have abounded: In November 2020, the last month for which data is available, the Better Business Bureau recorded 337 complaints of fraud involving pets, up more than 400% from the same month the previous year; they estimated that the losses from such scams in the U.S. and Canada likely topped $3 million in 2020. Meanwhile, the puppy scammers of 2020 have also innovated—requesting payment via Venmo and gift cards, or even impersonating real animal shelters, said the bureau. The scammers often used COVID-19 as a pretext for requesting additional “fees” to deliver nonexistent puppies, the Federal Trade Commission warned.
The demand—and the scams—are a product of the same phenomenon. Since the start of the pandemic, much of the world’s relatively privileged, urban populations seemed to have stockpiled the things they thought they needed most: beans, gaming systems, toilet paper—and dogs.
On the way, a passion for dogs frequently and collectively tipped into something closer to a society-wide obsession—and created bizarre and sometimes disturbing distortions of supply and demand along the way. Unlike toilet paper, moreover, this wasn’t a passing phase. I should know. I spent months thinking of little else.
A very cuddly commodity
By the time my boyfriend and I finally found a puppy in the autumn, in a race-against-the-clock dash down empty highways as a second nationwide lockdown loomed, a pattern had been established. We were officially part of the Great Pandemic Puppy Boom.
Griff, a Pembroke Welsh corgi who is passionate about chewing sticks, tackling other puppies, and eating disgusting stuff he finds in the park, is himself part of a historical moment: a generation of dogs who have known only the pandemic era, and so have only known depressed, needy, ever-present humans, whose only hobby or source of social comfort is taking them for walks.
Of course nobody, least of all me, likes to think of their beloved dog as a commodity. But during the pandemic, for better and sometimes for worse, that’s often what puppies were: not just a commodity, but a hot one.
The U.K., a dog-obsessed island nation—which has spent half of the past year in nationwide lockdowns, and now finds its borders constrained by both a pandemic and Brexit—is the perfect petri dish for this obsession.
Over the course of the past year, British puppy prices on the poorly regulated open market rose and rose, in an eerie mirror of the frothy stock market. In May 2020, as the first British lockdown ended, one online site, Pets4Homes, saw serious inquiries rise to 420 per listed puppy. By November 2020, the last month for which full figures were available, puppy prices were 2.3 times as high as the 2019 average, the site said, vaulting into the thousands of pounds—not quite Bitcoin levels, but significantly outperforming the S&P 500.
Meanwhile, a league table of poodle mixes, terriers, and bulldogs proved the frantic demand for buzzy breeds: cavapoos took first place, with 1,882 interested buyers per puppy, while the most expensive breed— appropriately enough—was the English bulldog. By mid-2020, the breed closely associated with Winston Churchill would set you back, on average, about £3,000 ($4,100).
There have been lulls, of course, but they tend to be closely linked to the restrictions Britons are facing. When those restrictions are loose, people buy dogs; when they are tight—as they are now—people look for them. (By mid-January 2021, with the U.K. in lockdown for the third time, inquiries per puppy were down from the heights of 2020, but were still hovering above 200.) When Lee Gibson, Pets4Homes’ U.K. managing director, looks at the site’s viewer numbers, he says the pattern looks almost like three peaks—one for each national lockdown.
It hasn’t just been pedigree dogs bought online—adoptions, too, have surged. As the U.K.’s first lockdown loomed last March, Battersea, the famous London dogs and cats home, saw applications to rehome animals spike. In one week in May, the adoption center saw 5,000 applications to rehome a dog, according to Becky MacIver, Battersea’s rehoming and welfare manager. Lately, the dogs the center does receive get adopted more quickly, she added, and puppies can usually be rehomed in a matter of a days.
The power of ‘puppy dog eyes’
Throughout history, dogs have held many roles for us, says Brian Hare, an evolutionary anthropologist at Duke University and coauthor of The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs Are Smarter Than You Think. Dogs have been bed warmers, hunting buddies, “and when not much else was around, we ate them.”
So what is it about them that now seems to so overwhelm us? While humans hardly need much encouragement to enter a buying frenzy—see the GameStop rally of early 2021—it would be cynical to pretend there wasn’t something special about our relationship with dogs.
In fact, that bond is often attributed to a stroke of evolutionary genius. The development of eye muscles, which allows dogs to raise their eyebrows and make their eyes look particularly large—i.e., “puppy dog eyes”—is powerful because it mimics the expressions of human babies, who use eye contact to bond with adults before they can speak or otherwise communicate. The eye contact produces oxytocin, encouraging your brain to feel loving and nurturing, and extending and deepening your own eye contact—sending oxytocin right back.
“When your dog stares into your eyes, they are hijacking the oxytocin loop usually reserved for parents and their babies,” Hare says. “Your dog is hugging you with their eyes.”
Our modern-grade obsession with dogs—with its attendant Instagram accounts, custom clothes, doggie day cares, and high price tags—has often been dismissed as a side effect of lonely societies, or a harsh outcome of falling fertility rates and delayed childbirth. (The pandemic, which was initially touted as an opportunity for a baby boom, seems to have had the opposite effect on American couples.) But Hare also offers a pragmatic, pre-pandemic theory.
“Anyone who remembers owning a dog before the turn of the millennium would be familiar with the ‘bath and a prayer’ method of flea control,” he says. Until the 21st century, when modern veterinary medicine reduced flea control to a couple of pills hidden in some peanut butter, dogs—out of necessity—were frequently relegated to the outside world. But once we had successfully banished the fleas, they were suddenly welcome on the couch—even the bed. We were entranced, he argues: besotted with their personalities, prone to marveling at their ingenuity.
The parallel to children, however, is hard to miss. In a May 2020 story on the lucrative pet industry, Fortune writer Phil Wahba reported on the business impact of Americans’ instinct to “humanize” their dogs. These dogs are part of the family: They often eat high-priced, “human grade” dog food; and pet executives universally refer not to “owners” but to “pet parents.” This has elevated dogs not just into our families, but often made them their beating heart.
“As the 19th century was for human children, the 21st century is for the dog,” Hare wrote, in a 2019 piece for the New York Times with his coauthor, Vanessa Woods.
“Most dogs are not required to work long hours. Most are required not to do anything at all, except love us. And this they do very well.”
Price hikes and adoption interviews
As soon as our puppy was fully vaccinated, we brought him to our local park, where he joined the ranks of the local morning Puppy Rumble—an informal, socially distanced meeting of rowdy, wrestling, humping pups, and their socially starved new owners.
We had plenty of company: There were so many “pandemic puppies” that the younger dogs in our local park are informally divided into generations, linked to the particular lockdown in which they spent their formative puppyhood. The youngest are just quivering puffs of fur; the oldest are already naughty, fully grown adolescents.
It quickly became clear the community element did not extend to merely an hour’s exercise on rainy London mornings. Shortly after, we were invited to join the inevitable WhatsApp group, where training tips, weather reports, and funny dog photos are blissfully prioritized over any hint of politics or news.
But when I thought to ask the group for stories of their dogs’ origins, the cathartic outpouring lasted for hours. One owner of a poodle mix recounted being instructed to call the breeder at exactly 7 p.m.—as if for a hot concert ticket. By the time they got through, seven or eight minutes later, there were only two of the 12 puppies left. Another owner of a dachshund mix confessed she’d made the trip across London with a wad of cash to collect her puppy, only to be told—once she had the dog in her arms—that the price had suddenly been raised by £250 ($341).
Many in the group had also attempted to rescue a dog, and most had been unsuccessful. One was told by a shelter that she wasn’t “confident” enough; others received invasive questions on whether they planned to start a family, and if so, when.
For one local dog owner who did get a rescue dog brought over from Romania, the process—fairly typically—involved two phone interviews, a video house inspection, and a meet-and-greet before they could take the dog home. Others said they had gone through pre-adoption quizzes to test their knowledge of dog training; after rounds of interviews, one couple found their emails simply stopped being returned.
My story, of briefly but seriously trying to import a puppy from across the Atlantic, turned out not to be surprising at all.
“Goes into a bank account—gone”
Two or three times a week, Andy Symons, the director of a small family-owned West Sussex pet relocation company called Transfur, gets a call from someone who is expecting him to deliver his or her dog. The conversation rarely ends well.
“When you get talking to these people, it becomes very apparent they have been the subject of a scam,” he says. “They’ve been asked to pay with Amazon vouchers or by Western Union, and it’s just money down the drain. Goes into a bank account—gone.”
The company’s details have typically been lifted off its website and handed out to would-be owners. The puppy, needless to say, does not exist.
The calls also increasingly come from people who are trying to arrange transit for a puppy, typically from Eastern Europe, he says. “My suspicion is these are people buying from puppy farms and now find themselves…with no means of getting them to the U.K.,” says Symons. Transfur is not in a position to do these jobs, he notes; typically, the company only sends pets out of the country, usually when families relocate, rather than bringing them in.
The increase in outright scamming, though not novel, is one predictable side effect of the enormous rise in puppy prices. The transport problems, however, are something new. The concentration of dog lovers in the U.K. has long attracted imported dogs—both rescued street dogs from countries with large stray populations, and puppy-farmed dogs typically reared and transported in horrendous conditions. But the combination of a crackdown on puppy smugglers, COVID-19 border restrictions, decreased flights, and hopelessly muddled customs policies for imported dogs under the U.K.’s messy new Brexit trade rules, seem to have made it newly difficult to meet British puppy demand through shady imports.
Alongside the huge price spikes, that shutdown of outside supply may have led to a wave of domestic dognapping. Though it’s difficult to tell how common dognapping is—the Metropolitan Police don’t distinguish between dog theft and property theft of other kinds—one charity, Lost Dog, called 2020 the “worst ever” year for dog thefts, with reports up 250%; a retired police officer who now works as a dog detective has more work than he can possibly take on. A BBC TV spot in December, meanwhile, called the spate of British dognappings an “epidemic” and quoted an unnamed intelligence source who said that at least two criminal organizations had pivoted their operations from drug dealing to dog theft. After all, the financial rewards were larger, and the penalties tend to be surprisingly small.
Even Eliot Higgins, the founder of legendary investigative journalism site Bellingcat, has gotten involved. While best known for exposing war crimes in Syria, Higgins recently told the Financial Times he had helped find a stolen dog through a deciphered license plate.
These reports, paired with anguished posters circulating on social media of dog owners whose pets have sometimes been wrenched from their arms, have raised fears of a crime that harkens back to Victorian England, when posh puppies were held for ransom; one such case helped inspire the Virginia Woolf novel Flush.
In our local park, fellow dog walkers began spotting nondescript, dog-less men standing nearby and filming the dogs for long stretches; in a Bellingcat-style move, my boyfriend found blurry pictures of one dog-filmer lurking in the background of candid shots of doggy playtime. (In a non-Bellingcat move, nobody could make out his face.)
Of course, the filmers could simply be socially awkward dog lovers, or just bored Londoners, out for yet another lockdown walk. But in this atmosphere of fear, no one wants to take any chances. Many conversations revolve around dog-walking buddies, collar alarms, and potential confrontations. Members of the group have papered the local cafés with printed signs. They show a gloved hand reaching for a cowering puppy and the words “WATCH OUT!”
The pandemic puppy backlash
Getting a dog has, undoubtedly, been a rare bright spot in a trying 12 months. I grew up with multiple corgis and had wanted a dog for years. My wardrobe had come to be, for a 31-year-old woman, embarrassingly corgi themed; the problem was not just the novelty socks and T-shirts, but the tote bags, hats, and salt and pepper shakers, often presents from my dog-obsessed family back home.
Before we got our dog, I used to jog, sadly, past the other dog walkers, dreaming of when I’d have one of my own. Once he arrived, I found the manic yapping and constant pooping a fair price to pay for the cuddling, the walks, and the sheer distraction from a global pandemic.
In a year that has been so brutal, so tiring, for so many, pandemic puppies broke down people’s shells. In London, where small talk with strangers is not the norm, joggers, workmen, and shy schoolkids would all stop on morning walks to cuddle Griff. In the month after we got him, despite masks and social distancing, I talked to more people, smiled at more strangers, than I had in years. Saying hello to a puppy made people visibly, irrepressibly happy—at a time when happiness was so clearly in short supply.
And yet, when reporting this story, I found myself frequently fielding twinges of alarm, discomfort, even shame. Surely, puppy love was one thing that should remain pure. How could this collective obsession have produced an apparent bubble so fizzy, so distorted, and so scam-ridden? Shouldn’t puppies be the one thing that is just good?
And yet, the surge in demand has openly horrified the various dog charities and kennel clubs, which have collectively warned of the scale of the scams, the incentives for puppy farmers, and the prospect of eventual abandonment, painting a fickle and uninformed picture of this new wave of dog owners.
The U.K.’s Kennel Club provided me with results of a study from July 2020, which found that more than a third of new London dog owners were not confident they could have spotted a rogue breeder or a scam, and about 45% had done no planning on what would happen to their new dog after they went back to “normal” life post-pandemic.
Neither Pets4Homes nor Battersea has so far seen a notable upward trend toward more young dogs being either turned over to the center, or advertised, since the pandemic began. But MacIver of Battersea warns me that the U.K.’s furlough scheme to keep workers earning wages during lockdowns had only delayed the expected surge. The center expects a 27% increase in stray or abandoned dogs if the U.K. enters another recession as a result of the pandemic, she says. (The country already entered a technical recession once last year.) Battersea, and other centers across the U.K., are “quietly preparing,” she says.
Vets, charities and breeders, too, are warning that dogs may have much more trouble adjusting to a return to “normality” than the humans who have spent much of the last year desperate to get out of the house, even just to go to the office. They warn that they expect an epidemic of separation anxiety and behavioral problems when the dogs no longer have constant company and attention. Brian Hare, among others, offered strict advice to start providing pandemic dogs and puppies plenty of practice of being alone.
But I can’t regret getting Griff, even during a pandemic. Like most of the devoted dog owners I know, my feelings aren’t even rational anymore. I know he’s not my child, and I know, objectively, that he cost money: double, if you must know, the pre-pandemic going rate.
But whenever I cradle my barking, nipping, farting ball of big-eared fur, I look deep into his eyes. I get lost in a one-sided oxytocin loop as he stares right back at me, transparently wondering whether I’m about to give him a cookie.
“Griffy,” I sing, waltzing him around the room. “Do you love me as much as I love you?”
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