ELK GROVE, California – The French bulldog business is booming for Jaymar Del Rosario, a breeder whose puppies can sell for tens of thousands of dollars. When he leaves the house to meet a buyer, his checklist includes veterinary papers, a bag of puppy food, and his Glock 26.
“If I don’t know the area, if I don’t know the people, I always carry my gun,” Del Rosario said one afternoon recently when showing Cashew, a 6-month-old French bulldog of a new “fluffy” variety that can fetch $30,000 or more.
With their cocky ears, their please-pick-me-up-and-cradle-me gaze and their short-legged crocodile waddle, French bulldogs have become the “it” dog for influencers, pop stars and professional athletes. Loyal companions in the work-from-home era, French bulldogs always seem ready for an Instagram upload. They are now the second most popular dog breed in the United States after Labrador retrievers.
They are also violently stolen from their owners with alarming frequency. Over the past year, robberies of French bulldogs have been reported in Miami, New York, Chicago, Houston and — especially, it seems — throughout California. Often the dogs are taken at gunpoint. In perhaps the most notorious theft, Lady Gaga’s two French bulldogs, Koji and Gustav, were ripped out of the hands of her dog walker, who was hit, strangled and shot in last year’s attack on a sidewalk in Los Angeles.
The price of owning a Frenchman has for years penalized the household budget — puppies typically sell for $4,000 to $6,000, but can go for multiples more if they’re one of the new, trendy varieties. But owning a French bulldog increasingly also comes with non-monetary costs: the paranoia of a thief reaching over a garden fence. The hypervigilance while walking your dog after reading about the latest abduction.
For unfortunate owners, French bulldogs are at the confluence of two very American traits: the love of canine companions and the ubiquitous firearm.
On a chilly January evening in the Adams Point neighborhood of Oakland, California, Rita Warda walked with Dezzie, her 7-year-old Frenchman, not far from her home. An S.U.V. pulled up, and its passengers went out and threw themselves at her.
“They had their gun and they said, ‘Give me your dog,'” Ms. Warda said.
Three days later, a stranger called and said she had found the dog wandering around a local high school. Mrs Warda is now taking self-defense courses and advising French bulldog owners to wear pepper spray or a whistle. Mrs Warda says she doesn’t know why Dezzie’s captors abandoned him, but it could have been his advanced age: French people have one of the shortest lifespans among dog breeds, and 7 years old was already long in the tooth.
In late April, Cristina Rodriguez drove home from her job at a cannabis pharmacy in the Melrose section of Los Angeles. As she drove up to her home in North Hollywood, someone opened her car door and took Moolan, her 2-year-old black-and-white Frenchman.
Ms. Rodriguez said she didn’t remember many details about the theft. “When you have a gun in your head, you kind of go black,” she said.
But CCTV footage in her neighborhood and near the pharmacy appears to indicate the thieves followed her for 45 minutes in traffic before jumping.
“They stole my baby from me,” Mrs. Rodriguez said. “It’s so sad to come home every day and not have her greet me.”
Patricia Sosa, a board member of the French Bull Dog Club of America, said she was not aware of any count of annual thefts. Social media groups created by Frenchie owners are often peppered with warnings. If you own a Frenchman, a post on a Facebook group dedicated to missing or stolen French bulldogs says, “don’t let it get out of your sight.”
Criminals make more money from stealing French people than from grocery stores, the post said.
Ms. Sosa, who has a breeding business north of New Orleans, said the lure of taking advantage of the French bulldog craze had also created an industry of fake sellers demanding deposits for dogs that don’t exist.
“There are so many scams going on,” she said. “People think, ‘Hey, I’d say I have a Frenchman for sale and make a quick five, six, seven thousand dollars.'”
Ms. Sosa said breeders were particularly vulnerable to thefts. She does not give her address to clients until she thoroughly examines them. “I have surveillance cameras everywhere,” she said.
French bulldogs are, as the name implies, a French offshoot of the small bulldogs that were bred in England in the mid-1800s-1800s. A previous iteration of Bouledogue Français, as it is called in France, was favored as rat catchers by butchers in Paris before becoming the toy dog of artists and the bourgeoisie and dog mice, appearing in the works of Edgar Degas and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
Today, the American Kennel Club defines French bulldogs as having a “square head with bat ears and roach back.”
In the world of veterinary medicine, French people are controversial because their beloved traits — their big heads and bulging puppy dog eyes, recessed noses and skin folds — create what Dan O’Neill, a canine expert at the University of London’s Royal Veterinary College, calls “ultra-dispositions” for medical problems.
Their heads are so large that mothers have trouble giving birth; most French bulldog puppies are delivered by cesarean section. Their short, muscular bodies also make it difficult for them to become naturally pregnant. Breeders typically inseminate the dogs artificially.
Most worrisome for scientists like Mr. O’Neill is the dog’s flat face, which can process its breathing. French bulldogs often do snorkeling even when they are fully awake, they often tire easily, and they are susceptible to the heat. They may also develop a rash in their skin folds. Due to their bulging eyes, some French bulldogs are incapable of a full blink.
Mr O’Neill leads a group of vets and other dog experts in the UK who urge potential buyers to “stop and think before buying a flat dog”, a category that includes French bulldogs, English bulldogs, pugs, Shih Tzus, Pekingese and boxers.
“There’s a flat dog crisis,” O’Neill said. French bulldogs, he concluded in a recent research paper, have four times the level of ailments in all other dogs.
These prayers and warnings haven’t stopped French bulldogs from soaring in popularity, driven largely by social media. As in the United States, the French bulldog in the UK has been neck and neck with Labrador for the title of the most popular breed in recent years.
Mrs. Sosa blamed poor breeding for poor results. “Well-bred dogs are relatively healthy,” she said.
Del Rosario, the breeder in Elk Grove, a suburban town just south of Sacramento, says professional football and basketball players have been some of his most loyal customers. He has sold puppies to players for the Kansas City Chiefs, Cincinnati Bengals, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Houston Texans, New York Jets and Arizona Cardinals. Four years ago, san Francisco bought the 49ers Zoe, a black brindle Frenchie who serves as the team’s emotional support dog. Two years later, the team added Rookie, a blue-gray French bulldog puppy with hazelnut eyes, to its dog list.
Mr. Del Rosario’s most expensive Frenchie was a “purple” with a purple-gray coat, bright eyes that glowed red and a pink hue on his nose. It sold for $100,000 to a South Korean buyer who wanted the dog for its rare genetics. The dog was one of several hundred puppies that Mr. Del Rosario has sold over the past decade and a half.
He has retained seven Frenchmen for his extended family, including his two daughters, 9 and 10 years old. The girls play with the French at home, but Mr. Del Rosario is strict about not letting them walk alone with the dogs.
“I don’t care if you go to the mailbox,” he said. “No, they just can’t take the dogs out of themselves.
“With all these things going on with these dogs, you just never know.”