Like it was for everyone, 2020 was a long year for dog handler Ryan Fischer. A self-described “nanny to a frenzy of Frenchies,” Fischer had spent the first year of lockdown in a pandemic pod in Los Angeles with his clients and their six pampered French bulldogs. Things had gotten a bit lonely, so it was a relief when, on February 24th of this year, Fischer went on his first date in a long time.
He still gets giddy remembering it. “I had a very good time with this guy,” Fischer, 40, recalls. Afterward, he floated home, where he was watching three of his client’s dogs while their owner was abroad, and gushed about the date to his assistant. “I go back and see the dogs and I’m like, ‘Guess what?! I’m so proud of myself — I got lucky tonight!’” It was time for the dogs’ evening walk, and Fischer, still high from the first intimacy he’d experienced in months, wanted to celebrate. “I’m like, ‘Let’s get a bottle of champagne!’”
Shortly before 9:40 p.m., he wandered down Sunset Boulevard with three French bulldogs in tow: Miss Asia, the flirty one, Gustav, the jokester, and Koji, a roly poly football of a pup. On Sunset, he passed a homeless person, who looked at Fischer and said: “The universe has opened up to you tonight.” He bought that bottle of champagne.
The foursome had just started down a dimly-lit residential drive when a white Nissan Altima that had been trailing behind suddenly sped up and slammed to a halt in the middle of the street. Two men sprang out, yelling “Give it up!” and grabbing for the dogs’ leashes. Fischer screamed for help, batting at his assailants with the champagne bottle while using hand signals to warn Miss Asia, who’d scurried under the bushes, to stay back. (“She’s very good with hand signals,” he says.)
He held tight to the other two leashes, even as one of the men grabbed him by the neck, choking him and muffling his screams. There was a loud crack and for a moment, Fischer says, it did feel like the fabric of the universe had suddenly, violently ripped right open.
Miss Asia trotted up beside him a few seconds later, and Fischer realized he was lying on the sidewalk. He’d been shot. Koji and Gustav were gone.
“My mind started working really quickly,” Fischer remembers. “I really had to weigh my options — do I say who the dogs belong to? Because if I do, it adds more media attention.” That attention could help recover the dogs, but it could also backfire — if his attackers got spooked, they might kill the dogs rather than risk being caught with them. “I was bleeding out and that was the thought that was going through my head,” he says. “What’s the best way to do this so the dogs can be found?”
Within a matter of hours, the news was everywhere: Lady Gaga’s dog walker had been shot, and two of her three famous Frenchies were missing. “My heart is sick and I am praying my family will be whole again with an act of kindness,” the pop star, who was on location in Italy filming the House of Gucci, wrote to her 48 million Instagram followers the next day. “I will pay $500,000 for their safe return… I continue to love you Ryan Fischer, you risked your life to fight for our family. You’re forever a hero.”
In cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York, the past year has been marked by a rash of often violent French bulldog burglaries. In the months after Fischer was shot, Frenchies were stolen at gunpoint from the parking lot of a North Hollywood Target, where the thieves tailed the dog’s owner out of the store, and in Culver City, where the prospective buyer of a blue Frenchie puppy pulled a gun on its seller mid-transaction.
One month before the shooting, a woman was violently mugged in San Francisco’s Russian Hill neighborhood; the thieves took her French bulldog puppy, Chloe, but left her Shiba Inu. In Berkeley, a car was stolen with a five-month-old Frenchie in the backseat; the vehicle was recovered, the Frenchie wasn’t. A different French bulldog that went missing from the Bay Area last year ended up in Tijuana, where he was being hawked on a street corner for $2,000. (That story, at least, had a happy ending: The buyer, who haggled the price down to $1,000, later saw a “missing” poster on Facebook and returned him to his owner.)
The problem is not contained to trendy coastal enclaves, though: Each month, dozens of French bulldog owners nationwide post desperate pleas to the Facebook group Find Frenchies, searching for their lost, or more often, stolen pups.
The French bulldog was not always such a hot commodity. The dwarfish descendants of Old English bulldogs, they were common pets for lace workers in late 19th century Nottingham, England. Later, when the industry relocated to Normandy, bat-eared pups — rejected in the U.K., where floppier ears were in fashion — were shipped to France. The dogs eventually became a fixture in Paris brothels and, by the early 20th century, were firmly established as a status symbol among European elites.
In recent years, the French bulldog’s popularity has shot into the stratosphere. The breed vaulted from the 58th spot on the American Kennel Club’s most popular breed list in 2002, to second place this year, just behind America’s sweetheart for 30 years running: the Labrador Retriever. The rise in French bulldog registrations nationwide has been driven in part by the pups’ popularity on Instagram. French bulldog is the platform’s most frequently hashtagged breed, and Frenchies are often spotted peeking out of pictures posted by some of the app’s most popular users, like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Martha Stewart, and Chrissy Teigen.
“They’re one of the most popular breeds on social media, and that visibility, along with celebrity visibility, makes it more palatable to the public,” says Brandi Hunter, a spokeswoman for the American Kennel Club. “You have the opportunity to fall in love with it because you’re seeing it more often — and they’re not a dog that you can necessarily easily obtain… You have to work with an actual breeder, and a lot of them have very long wait times.” According to Hunter, prices from a reputable breeder can start at $4,500 and stretch to $10,000.
That steep price tag is driven, in part, by the exorbitant costs associated with breeding. They require artificial insemination, and because the breed’s heads are so large relative to their small bodies, they are almost always delivered by Cesarean section. Litters are relatively small: just two to four pups per pregnancy, and medical problems like spine deformities and breathing difficulties are common and require breeders to pay for additional screenings.
The Frenchie’s peaking popularity happened to coincide this past year with a rabid, pandemic-driven appetite for dogs of any kind: shelters, rescue organizations, pet stores all reported surging demand. But the hunger for Frenchies seemed especially acute. Fischer remembers experiencing it firsthand. “People just shout out of the car — many times a week — ‘How much are those dogs? Are they for sale?’” He remembers. “It was shocking the first time, like, You can’t be serious? But then it happened again. And again.”
On February 24th, Elisha Ault, Fischer’s assistant, watched the dogs while he was on his date. She left around 9:30 p.m. A few hours later, she awoke to a phone call alerting her to a shooting in Hollywood. “I got a call at about 12:30 at night from the team in Italy saying, ‘Hey, we got a tip that this might be Ryan.’” (By that time, a police officer with the LAPD had driven Miss Asia back to her Hollywood Hills home.)
Ault rushed to Fischer’s apartment — it was empty — then to the scene of the crime a few blocks away. The police were there, and a news helicopter was hovering overhead, but no one would give Ault any information. She tried, unsuccessfully, to trail a police car before she remembered Fischer had Find My iPhone turned on. The app told her he was at Cedars Sinai Medical Center, a few miles from the site of the attack.
Fischer had remained conscious throughout his transport to the hospital. “In the ambulance, on the table, as they’re putting chest tubes in and doing repairs on me, I could hear my blood pressure drop. And I saw their faces just drop,” he remembers. “I was totally aware and totally cracking jokes, like, ‘That sounds bad’ … When I’m in an absurd situation, I do better finding humor in it. And this has got to be the most absurd situation.”
When he arrived in the hospital, the extent of his injuries became clearer: The bullet entered just above his clavicle, sailed past a bundle of nerves, pierced his lung, and exited under his shoulder blade. He had cuts on his arms and legs and several broken ribs from being slammed into the ground. When Ault finally located Fischer inside the ICU, he was on a ventilator, but lucid. She held up a paper for him to write on. He scrawled: When do they do the bloodletting? “He literally almost died — he’s still kind of on the edge… and he writes down a joke,” Ault says, laughing.
“I was bleeding out and that was the thought that was going through my head. What’s the best way to do this so the dogs can be found?” – Ryan Fischer
By the next day, footage of the attack captured by a home’s Amazon Ring camera had been released. “Every white Nissan sedan that I would see on the road, I would have a mini- breakdown and angrily follow them for a while,” Ault recalls.
She wasn’t the only one invested in the crime. For weeks after Fischer was shot, Ault says, media trucks were parked outside his apartment, interviewing anyone willing to speak with them. Several neighbors were happy to oblige: Ault remembers one distant acquaintance giving an interview where he characterized his relationship with Fischer as so close they were almost brothers. “It really was a frenzy,” she says.
Up until the moment he was shot, Fischer had lived a relatively solitary life in L.A. He moved there from Hudson, New York in 2019, when he was offered a job as a full-time caretaker for the posse of French bulldogs belonging to Lady Gaga and the members of her creative team, popularly known as the Haus of Gaga.
The relationship started years earlier in New York City. After college, Fischer managed street promotions for companies like PetCo. “I had to hire dog walkers along with my brand ambassadors, and I would pick up the dog walkers and their dogs and take them all around the city,” he recalls. “And the dog walkers just seemed so much happier than I was. And the dogs themselves — I just loved being around them.” One of the walkers invited him to help her out. When she left the city for good on a whim weeks later, her roster of clients landed in Fischer’s hands.
“In the ambulance, on the table … I could hear my blood pressure drop. And I saw their faces just drop” – Ryan Fischer
Over the next several years, the doe-eyed, effervescent Fischer built those relationships into a thriving business he called Valley of the Dogs, after the Jacqueline Susann novel. He’d post photos of the pups on Instagram along with vignettes imagining their inner monologues and interpersonal dramas.
Then in 2016, Fischer attended a shamanist retreat in upstate New York where he was struck by a powerful vision. “There were three beams of light next to me, and I was looking over a river with mountains in the background,” he says. “And then all of a sudden a deluge of water comes by, sweeps part of the mountains away and it becomes an ocean behind it.” The vision inspired him to move to Hudson, a small town a few hours north of New York City, though he continued to work with clients like Gaga’s friend and stylist Brandon Maxwell. He was convinced to move to L.A. three years later, when, one day on a hike in Malibu Canyon, he witnessed the completion of that same vision from the retreat upstate years earlier. (The decision was characteristically impulsive. A Provincetown astrologer who did his chart once told him: “The only person I’ve seen less grounded than you is Joan Crawford.”)
Fischer unfailingly describes his clients as dear friends, but even so, transplanting to L.A. was an isolating experience because of the nature of his work. Until he was shot, the privacy of his celebrity clients was something Fischer worked hard to protect. He didn’t even share many details of his work with his family. (“I learned to respect that Ryan has a business where it’s not my place to pry,” Fischer’s brother, Sean, says.) It’s a habit he still hasn’t broken: In more than three hours of interviews with Rolling Stone, Fischer rarely mentioned Gaga’s name, only referring to her and members of her entourage as his “friends” or “clients.” “You love your friend and you want privacy for them,” Fischer explains. “And your ultimate job is the safety of the dogs.”
Fischer was shot on a Wednesday; Lady Gaga posted her plea on Instagram from Italy on Thursday, and the promise of half a million dollars seemed to work. By Friday, the pop star’s team had received an email from a woman who said she’d found the dogs tied to a pole in an alley. She brought Koji and Gustav to an LAPD station in Pico Union, about seven miles from where they were snatched in Hollywood. At the time, police told reporters the woman was “uninvolved and unassociated” with the attack, but her identity would not be released — “for her safety.” They did not mention the reward money.
Fischer, meanwhile, was still in the hospital. His brother, Sean, and mother had flown out from Ohio to be with him during his recovery. “In those early days it was just trying to get through the day,” Sean remembers. “We would play cards with him and talk to him about what we were up to because the last thing he wants is every person coming in asking him about this horrible trauma that just happened.”
The effects of the shooting lingered even as he recovered. One day, inside the hospital, the lid popped off the water bottle in Fischer’s hand. “The popping noise was loud enough to startle him,” his brother remembers. “He burst out in tears when it happened because it reminded him of the gunshot.” He still has trouble with loud, sudden noises like fireworks or dogs barking, his brother says.
Fischer left the hospital within a week, but he was still struggling to breathe. His doctor said it was probably anxiety, but subsequent X-rays revealed his right lung had totally collapsed, air was expanding and pressing on his left lung and on his heart. Two days after his discharge, he was rushed back to the hospital and fitted with a chest tube to drain the air. A few days after that, he had to return when his lung collapsed a second time. And a third. It happened five times before doctors decided they would have to remove more than a third of Fischer’s lung. The bullet, doctors believed, had burned his lung, and the wound was not healing properly.
Instead of dancing at a West Hollywood club like he did the year before, Fischer spent his 40th birthday with his mom inside the hospital.
Instead of dancing at a West Hollywood club like he did the year before, Fischer spent his 40th birthday with his mom inside the hospital. Covid protocols dictated he could only have one visitor at a time, but gifts from his clients were plentiful. “The Haus [of Gaga] sent so many balloons from Italy on my birthday that the ICU said it’s a fire hazard,” Fischer says. When he was out of the hospital, instead of returning to his apartment and a phalanx of media trucks, Fischer went to stay at Lady Gaga’s home in the Hollywood Hills. While he was there, the pop star flew a trauma therapist out to work with Fischer for multiple three-day stints.
Today, Fischer is still working with a physical therapist to increase his lung capacity and get it back to where it was before the attack, but it’s taking time. The bullet damaged his brachial plexus — the network of nerves that serves as a line of communication between his spinal cord and his arm. He is still doing therapy to heal his rotator cuff. Three of his ribs broken in the attack are slowly healing, as are the scars from multiple chest tube insertions and the surgery.
At the end of April, the LAPD arrested five people in a coordinated three-hour sweep. Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón charged 19-year-old Jaylin White, 18-year-old James Jackson, and 27-year-old Lafayette Whaley with robbery and attempted murder. White’s father, Harold White, 40, was charged, as was his girlfriend, Jennifer McBride, 50 — the woman who turned the dogs into the police. The $500,000 reward Gaga offered was never paid out.
According to the felony complaint, on February 24th, Jaylin White, Jackson, and Whaley piled into a white Nissan Altima and drove around Hollywood, West Hollywood, and the Valley hunting for French bulldogs. They spotted Fischer, Koji, Gustav and Miss Asia while driving down Sunset Boulevard and trailed him, with their headlights off, until he turned down a secluded street.
“They’re my friends, and I love them and they’re absolutely there for me,” Fischer says of his former employers. “I have nothing but gratitude for everything.”
In addition to attempted murder, the three have been charged with conspiracy and second-degree robbery. Jackson, who has a previous felony conviction, has been charged with assault with a semiautomatic handgun and carrying a concealed weapon, while Jaylin White, accused of choking Fischer, faces an additional assault charge. Harold White and Jennifer McBride stand accused of being accessories to the robbery and attempted murder. McBride was charged with receiving stolen property, while White was hit with an additional gun possession charge. Jackson, the accused gunman, faces life in prison if convicted.
Fischer, who had to identify his assailants in a police lineup a few weeks after his last hospitalization, still feels conflicted about the arrests. “That part’s hard,” he says quietly. “Of course it’s a relief, but at the same time, I think about the prison system they’re entering, and even though the attack was against me, what that means for the rest of their lives — it’s hard to know that I contributed… I wish there was a way, for anyone that’s in prison, [to access] resources that help them have a fulfilling life. And I don’t believe that our current system offers that at all.”
In the spring, after the surgery and the arrests, Fischer was desperate to get out of L.A. He gave up his apartment and gifted his car, a 2010 Toyota Rav 4, to Ault as a thank you for her help. He rented a 1991 Ford Falcon that he christened Trudy, and set out on a road trip across the U.S. On the road, Fischer started writing. “Some of it is quite dark,” he says. “It’s about feeling alone; it’s about feeling abandoned. And it’s about all those things when you’re alone on a road going through trauma.”
In August, Fischer set up a GoFundMe featuring a minute-long video — a mash-up of movie quotes, photos of Fischer with dogs he’s cared for, and gratuitous, shirtless thirst traps. It ends with a smash cut to black and the sound of a gunshot. “With no vehicle, apartment, and having run out of savings and surviving on donations from generous loved ones, I am humbly asking for your help,” he wrote. “This is not an easy thing to ask, but I have started to realize sharing your vulnerability with others is exactly when radical change begins to occur for everyone involved.”
The comments on Instagram quickly filled with a mix of support (“So strong 🔥🙌 keep going!!!!”), outrage (“You want people to donate money to you so you can take some ‘self healing trip across the US’ with your three stuffed animals… pathetic and embarrassing!!!”), and vitriol directed at Lady Gaga (“WHERE is GAGA??????????” and “This beautiful man, almost died protecting your dogs, I mean damn you put up half a million dollars to get the other dog back, surely you can support him financially to get back on his feet…”)
The last part, Fischer says, was the most difficult to swallow. “Everyone thought that I was setting a blame on someone, when it was all love. It’s what happens in trauma — all your loved ones, all your family, everyone: you feel alone. You don’t feel supported because this is your journey,” he says. “I tried so hard. I tried to navigate that. I really did think about the wording. It’s a weird video and it’s a weird way to go about life. It’s not normal and I understood that. And I really did try to navigate it as best I could.”
Fischer adds of his former employers: “They’re my friends, and I love them and they’re absolutely there for me. I have nothing but gratitude for everything. It’s just a weird situation just because of how it’s evolved in the media. But I’m very grateful for my friendships.”
From Ault’s perspective, though, Fischer is being charitable. Those first couple of months, Ault says, “They were supportive from afar — there were a lot of words of assurance, like: Oh yeah, don’t worry about anything, we’re going to take complete care of you.” In the end, Ault says, that support didn’t materialize. When shooting of the film in Italy wrapped, Gaga’s entourage returned to L.A. “Nobody really made a point to come see him or talk to him or make contact with him,” Ault says. “Ryan was a lot more than just an employee for them. They were friends — close friends — for years.” (Through a representative, Lady Gaga declined to comment for this story.)
“They were supportive from afar — there were a lot of words of assurance, like: ‘Oh yeah, don’t worry about anything, we’re going to take complete care of you,'” – Elisha Ault
When he left on his road trip, Ault, who handled Fischer’s business finances, sent his clients, including Lady Gaga, an invoice — the first of what she expected would be an additional six months of support for Fischer. But she was surprised to receive a text from a member of Gaga’s team asking what it was for. It quickly became clear that Gaga’s team only expected to support Fischer until the pop star returned from Italy around three months after the shooting. “He had moved out of his apartment, got rid of his car — he had made the move to change his life in a way that he was expecting to be supported in,” Ault says. “They knew that he didn’t have any other source of income.”
Fischer, for his part, has tried to focus on the help he did get. “I received so much support, and I’m so grateful. I have nothing but gratitude in my heart for the care that I received and the support I received,” he says. “Most [victims] of crime do not get that and I did, and I’m very grateful for that.”
For the GoFundMe, Fischer set a goal of $40,000 with the intent to buy and outfit a van or a bus that he’ll use to go on his healing journey. (He’s currently raised around $32,000.) Ault worries that the goal is not nearly enough money to live on while he recovers. But she recognizes that doing a fundraiser at all was a stretch for Fischer. “Asking for money has always been really hard for him,” Ault says. “When I came on as his assistant, he had $75,000 in unpaid invoices that he hadn’t even submitted because he hates asking for money.”
Fischer hopes to set off on the road this month, but he’s still working out the details of where he will go and how he will get there. No date has been set for his attackers’ trials, at which he will likely have to testify. As for returning to his work with dogs someday, it’s still unclear if that will be possible for him. “I’ve been tiptoeing back in it — my trainer, she has a dog and I give her tips over zoom. I tried to go on a hike with a couple of the dogs here, with a [fellow dog] walker, and I had to walk away several times to just, like, cry,” Fischer says. “Something that was so natural for me is now work. And it’s work for me to kind of get past those things, and I know I will, but right now I need to do the work internally to get back to that state.”