Kit Lofgren let her two dogs out in her front yard — on a small cul de sac of only nine homes in her somewhat rural neighborhood in Los Gatos, Calif. — and took her attention away from them briefly. When she turned back, the Labrador was still there, but Heikki, a 4-month-old Bernese mountain dog, had vanished.
Within minutes, Lofgren had neighbors combing the area, but the 11-pound puppy was nowhere to be found.
It was then that she and her neighbors remembered seeing the same man sitting in a truck on subsequent days.
It might not be up there with burglary or other types of property theft, but dognapping is on the rise, says American Kennel Club spokesperson Lisa Peterson, who tracks dog news around the country.
Police reports don't make a distinction between pet theft and other property theft, so there's no way to pinpoint the exact number of stolen pets each year, but anecdotally, officers say that pet theft is increasing this year.
"More people are reporting it ... and it seems to be occurring more frequently," says Lt. John Kerwick, president of the U.S. Police Canine Association, Region 7, New York, an organization of officers who work with police dogs.
In the first five months of 2008, the AKC noted three times as many dog thefts as the year before. (The organization tracked 30 from news reports and customers; the entire year before they only recorded 10.)
Stealing a dog to steal a beloved's heart?
Sometimes people steal a dog simply because it’s a cheap or easy way to acquire one, especially in a tanking economy, says Allan Reznik, editor-at-large for Dog World and a judge on the CBS TV show "Greatest American Dog."
“I’m sure the economy and hard times make people desperate and more brazen in terms of what they think they can get away with," Reznik says. "I think it’s easy to steal dogs and to dispose of them now because there are so many Web sites and outlets for selling a dog. If somebody were selling, say, a Cavalier [King Charles spaniel] for $1,500 rather than $3,000, with no papers, there are a lot of people who would say ‘That’s a gift; I’m not going to ask questions.’ ”
Some dogs appear to be stolen to literally be given as gifts, says Peterson.
Video: Economic woes take toll on pets “A couple of these thefts that we tracked happened around Valentine’s Day earlier this year, so perhaps some people stole a puppy to give as a gift,” Peterson says. “Other people take them just because they want them for their own personal pet and they don’t want to pay for them or take the time to do it responsibly.”
Don't miss these Health stories
More women opting for preventive mastectomy - but should they be?
- Larry Page's damaged vocal cords: Treatment comes with trade-offs
- Report questioning salt guidelines riles heart experts
- CDC: 2012 was deadliest year for West Nile in US
- What stresses moms most? Themselves, survey says
- More women opting for preventive mastectomy - but should they be?
Toy breeds, puppies, and purebred dogs that look expensive or unusual are most vulnerable, says Peterson. Among the stolen breeds tracked by the AKC in 2008 are Yorkshire terriers, poodles, Pomeranians, shih tzu, bulldogs, corgis, a Norwich terrier and a mastiff.
Plus, people increasingly view their pets as members of the family and are willing to cough up big rewards if they go missing.
“People realize that dogs have a street value, where they didn’t before,” Lofgren says. She believes Heikki was stolen because he was a puppy and because the thief knew he was an expensive dog.
Some thieves walk off with puppies from pet stores and animal shelters or take dogs tied up outside stores and coffee shops. Others break into cars where dogs have been left while their owners run an errand. Some have even posed as prospective puppy buyers to case breeders’ homes, breaking in later to snatch the dogs, says Peterson.
Two armed men forced their way into a Los Angeles home last year, ordered the family of four to lay on the floor and stole four Yorkshire terriers puppies and one adult dog. The puppies, valued at $2,500, had been advertised in a newspaper and the men initially posed as buyers. A little more than a week later one of the suspects later turned himself in and four of the dogs were reunited with their family while one puppy remained missing.
It's not just dogs who are stolen, although they're the most common targets. Cats are at risk too. A kitten named Mugsy was smuggled out of a Boise, Idaho, shelter by a woman and three children in February, says Sheri Schneider, the executive director of Simply Cats. And it was the theft last year of a kitten named Ernie in Richmond, Va., that prompted proposed — but failed — legislation in that state to make stealing a cat a felony rather than a misdemeanor. (It’s already a felony to steal a dog in that state.)
In most states, the value of the animal determines whether pet theft is a felony or a misdemeanor. In Ohio, it's a misdemeanor if the value is less than $500, while stealing a pet worth more than $1,000 from a home is considered felony grand theft.
Black market pets
There’s a black market for dogs, Peterson says. People sell them on the roadside out of vans, at flea markets, or through online classifieds. Craig’s List tries to combat this by banning the sale of pets except for a small adoption fee, but that doesn’t stop some petnappers. A Spanaway, Wash., family recently was reunited earlier this month with their stolen Great Dane after someone posted it for sale on Craig's list for $150 this month.
Kerwick, the policeman who works with canines, says that while some dogs are targeted for stealing, most dog thefts are crimes of opportunity. “The average guy doesn’t wake up in the morning and think about stealing a dog for a family member or himself, but the dog is there, there’s no one watching, and they take him,” he says.
Lofgren knew that her best chance for Heikki’s return lay in killing his market value immediately. Posters and flyers with his picture went out to shelters, veterinarians, pet stores, Bernese mountain dog message boards, and missing-pet Web sites such as dogdetective.com and K9 Amber Alert. The San Francisco Dogwalkers Association mobilized members’ eyes and ears throughout San Francisco.
“That turned out to be key, because the people who stole him tried to shop him in Dolores Park and the Financial District,” Lofgren says. “We had dogwalkers with cell phones sending us photographs. It was impossible to walk down the street with a young Berner and not be accosted by somebody.”
Heikki was returned two weeks later after a 4 a.m. phone call from a woman claiming her boyfriend had found the dog. Accompanied by a police officer, Lofgren’s husband met the woman an hour later, paid the offered reward, and got their puppy back. Even though the woman’s story was suspect and the boyfriend’s truck matched the description of the one seen in the Lofgren’s neighborhood, no one had written down a license number so there was no way to prove he’d stolen the dog, not merely found it, so no arrests were made.
Patty Mullins of Garden City, Mich., hasn’t been so fortunate but she remains hopeful. A month after someone witnessed a man luring her Affenpinscher, Joey, to jump into a truck, she continues to post flyers throughout the area, hands them out to utility workers, postal carriers, and lawn service employees, checks shelters regularly, and walks the area daily searching for him.
“I know in my heart I will trip over my boy one day soon,” she says.
Kim Campbell Thornton is an award-winning author who has written many articles and more than a dozen books about dogs and cats. She belongs to the Dog Writers Association of America and is past president of the Cat Writers Association. She shares her home in California with three Cavalier King Charles spaniels and one African ringneck parakeet.
© 2013 msnbc.com. Reprints