The Lady Gaga Dognapping: NYC’s Dog Walkers React

Manhattan dog walker Amber Zachwieja gets a kiss from Pawlie during their trek. (Photo courtesy of Amber Zachwieja)

Scarlett Clark, a full-time dog walker based in Brooklyn, said she would put her life on the line for the dogs she walks. “If I’m gonna go, that’s how I’m gonna go,” Clark said, “kicking and screaming for someone’s dog.”

And in the wake of the news from Hollywood about Lady Gaga’s French bulldogs, Clark is not the only New York City dog walker who said she’d fight to the end for the dogs she walks.

Clark, owner of Pawfect Angels Pet-Sitting and Photography in Brooklyn, said her heart dropped when she heard the news that Gaga’s dog walker, Ryan Fischer, was shot last Wednesday when thieves kidnapped two of her dogs, Koji and Gustav, People reported. Gaga’s third dog, Asia, was left behind by the kidnappers and ran to Fischer’s side after the shooting, surveillance video obtained by TMZ shows. The video also shows how hard Fischer fought to save the dogs before taking a bullet to the chest.

The dogs have since been returned to Gaga, after being dropped off at a police station in Los Angeles by a woman who appears to be uninvolved with the crime. Gaga is calling Fischer, who is expected to make a full recovery, her hero. 

Clark is just one of the city’s many dog walkers who want their clients to know that they would react the same way as Fischer: by trying to protect the dogs in their care. “I treat them how I would want someone to take care of my pet,” Clark said. “If someone was going to take my dog from me, I would have to be dead before I let that happen.”

Dog walking is a $1.1 billion industry in the United States, according to IBIS World, a market research company. As in other cities, a lot of New Yorkers rely on dog walkers because they work all day and don’t have backyards where they can easily let their dogs outside to roam about and relieve themselves, said Cheryl Cardran, a dog walker who has owned Inwood-based Mostly Mammals Petcare since 1994. D0gs, she said, are “always happy greeters, and that makes my day.” 

But as the incident with Gaga’s dogs makes clear, dog walking is not always peaceful. Miguel Rodriguez, owner of City Dog Pack, has been walking and training dogs for 11 years. He still recalls an incident a few years ago when a man tried to take one of the four dogs he was walking on the Upper East Side, by St. Catherine’s Park.

Rodriguez says he threw himself between the man and the dogs, before ultimately shoving the man away and running off with the dogs.  “You’d have to kill me to get one of my dogs,” Rodriguez said.

He didn’t feel  he needed to file a police report at the time, he said, and Rodriguez is confident in his ability to defend himself in such a situation, considering his background as a former U. S. Marine and someone who enjoys boxing and Jiu Jitsu. He recommends other dog walkers learn martial arts or some other type of self-defense training, especially after hearing about Fischer. Rodriguez also allows clients to GPS monitor their dogs’ walks with him, using his phone’s location. He said others should do the same, so someone will know where they are in case trouble arises.

Luckily for the pets and owners who rely on the service, local dog walkers who spoke to NY City Lens all said they are ready and willing to safeguard dogs from potential threats. Amber Zachwieja, owner of Manhattan’s Big Apple Pet Sitting, said that, like Fischer, she would’ve done everything in her power to protect the dogs. When she pet-sits and walks other people’s dogs, Zachwieja said she cares for them as her own.

“Some of these dogs… I’ve had them longer than my dog,” Zachwieja said. “I’ve been walking these dogs every single day for four years. My gosh, they’re my babies just as much as they’re their babies.” 

Pawlie and Elsie on a walk in Washington Square Park. (Photo Courtesy of Amber Zachwieja)

Zachwieja grew up surrounded by dogs  because her mom owned a pet-sitting business. She started taking over some of her mom’s clients when she was in high school. Before starting her own business, as a college student, she walked pit bulls at an animal shelter in the Bronx.

Most of the dogs Zachwieja walks these days are larger breeds that she said would seem intimidating to passersby, and less likely to be stolen, even though pit bulls do sometimes get taken for dogfighting rings.

According to the Progressive Animal Welfare Society, an animal rescue and advocacy organization, purebred dogs are the most sought after by thieves, since their street value can be thousands of dollars. 

A spokesperson for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals said that while the society doesn’t keep data on pet theft, the organization recommends certain preemptive measures. They said implanted microchips paired with visible ID tags on a pet’s collar is the most reliable system for the recovery of lost or stray pets. 

All dogs in New York City are required to be licensed and wear their license on their collar, according to the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. The licenses, which can be valid for one to five years, can help people locate their lost pets through an online locator system.

Even before hearing about the recent Hollywood dognapping that made national news, the dog walkers said they’d been prepared for the worst because they understand the threats of trekking through a big city. 

Zachwieja said she’s always been aware of the possibility that someone can threaten her while she’s walking dogs. She said she’ll usually wear a tiny backpack or puts her belongings in large coat pockets, so she doesn’t draw attention from thieves. She also avoids walking several dogs at once, she said, so that she can give one dog all of her attention. 

Blanca wears her coat during a damp stroll with Big Apple Pet Sitting’s Amber Zachwieja. (Photo courtesy of Amber Zachwieja)

Similarly, Clark doesn’t walk dogs in packs. And as another precaution, she said she’d never leave a dog alone to go into a store. Clark said she’s taking the same safety measures she’s always taken to keep dogs safe, not only because it’s her job, but because she’d be “beside herself” if anything happened to a dog on her watch.

“If anybody gives me a dirty look, I’m going to give them a dirty look back,” Clark said. “I might be 5’1” but you can’t push me over, and you’re not getting this dog.”