puppy; photo by karsten winegeart via Unsplash

Animal Magnetism, Pandemic Puppies, and Canine Crime

April 21, 2021

When two of Lady Gaga’s dogs were stolen in February, the world noticed. Long before this violent dognapping, however, pandemic puppy crime was already on the rise. “It’s definitely a crime of opportunity,” said Professor Mary Dodge, PhD, who teaches criminal justice in CU Denver’s School of Public Affairs. During the pandemic, the desire to get a pet has increased—and puppy scammers are taking advantage.

Besides dognapping, scammers are selling puppies that don’t exist (often via Craigslist), selling shelter dogs as registered breeds, price gouging, and extorting money. “There’s nothing that makes us happier than puppies,” Dodge said. “It’s such an important commitment and then to have someone scam you, the emotional toll on the victim is terrible.”

Rise of the Pandemic Puppy

According to Athena Baca-Chieza, PsyD, who coordinates clinical training in the Clinical Health Psychology PhD Program and directs its student-run psychology clinic, there is a very good reason for the pandemic pet boom: “The pandemic has impacted the human race at one of our most primal levels. It’s taken away our ability to socialize. So naturally, millions of us did the next best thing—we acquired a pet!”

University of Colorado Regent Heidi Ganahl, who founded Camp Bow Wow and is active in animal welfare, discussed the complex reality of pandemic pets: “Pandemic puppies are all the rage, but with the good it brings to give so many pups a good home, there is a dark side. Make sure you adopt from a reputable rescue or shelter and and ask the rescue where specifically they got the dog and how long they have had it.”

The proud parent of a pandemic puppy herself, Baca-Chieza believes there is a strong psychological benefit to getting a pet during the era of social distancing. “Pets are safe from the pandemic risks, we can have them in close proximity to us, we don’t have to wear a mask around them, and when we hug and hold them, we don’t have to worry about infecting each other with COVID.”

Athena Baca-Chieza and her children with puppy
Athena Baca-Chieza with her children and their pandemic puppy, Fiona Rona Chieza the Chihuahua

The Benefits of Pets

Baca-Chieza points out that the pandemic negatively affected our collective mental health. “It brought with it immense uncertainty, illness, loss, and grief. All of these are emotional experiences that research has shown can be alleviated by the support and comfort of animals,” she said. Many studies have shown that pets and support animals can help people with everything from PTSD to major depression, panic disorders to autism spectrum disorders. “Animals can even help patients with neurological disorders predict oncoming seizures,” she added.

Dodge, who studies crime and victimization, said that crimes have increased during the pandemic, and she advises everyone to be on guard. She did note that dogs offer a practical benefit: “Research has shown that for people intent on committing a burglary, any dog is a deterrent—even small dogs.”

Can You Transport a Puppy Across States Lines?

Yes, yes you can. Puppies can be legally sold—and therefore transported—across state lines. Many breeders sell dogs to out-of-state buyers, but this practice is dangerous during the pandemic. “It may be you live in Colorado but the scammers are in California,” Dodge said. “When several different jurisdictions are involved, that makes investigation and prosecution almost impossible.”

What exactly is the crime? That is tricky. “Some of this pandemic puppy crime doesn’t quite fit into cybercrime, even though a lot of it is done over computer. It boils down to theft and fraud,” Dodge said. “If they [the scammers] use the mail in any way, then it’s mail fraud.”

The desire for pandemic puppies probably won’t wane until things get back to normal (or near normal). “Because of our inability to reach out to our human social circles at this stressful time, it is no wonder the rate of puppy adoptions/purchases has skyrocketed,” Baca-Chieza said.

Ganahl, who sold Camp Bow Wow several years ago but advocates for the ethical treatment of animals, provided some practical advice. “Check with PACFA, the organization that oversees rescues to find out if the rescue you are considering has complaints or issues,” she said. “Also, make sure the pup you are adopting has had a veterinary health check.”

Dodge, who said that only 10% of dog fraud cases are believed to be reported, does not view pet fraud as benign. “When you decide to get a dog, that becomes one of the most important things in your life,” she said. “For people who are expecting their puppy, it’s serious.”