Just past dawn, a gray SUV pulled into Hailey Shelton's driveway and made off with Chloe and Dixie.
Nobody heard a bark on that June morning. Nobody found an open gate. The only explanation came from a neighbor, who witnessed the early morning dognappers from across the street.
"They just straight-up took two puppies," said Shelton, 19, who lives in Durham, N.C.
Animal advocates are reporting a sharp rise in dog theft -- a murky and hard-to-track crime that often goes unreported.
The American Kennel Club tracks larcenies through a national database, and its figures show at least a 32 percent uptick so far in 2011. The group bases its numbers on media reports of stolen dogs and customers who call its Companion Animal Recovery service.
The AKC database showed 224 animals stolen during the first seven months of this year, compared with 150 during the same period last year and 255 in all of 2010. In 2009, 162 thefts were reported to the AKC, said Lisa Peterson, spokeswoman for the New York-based group.
"Some are taken out of homes, some are taken out of cars, some are taken out of pet stores," Peterson said. "I've even seen some taken out of a child's arms on a park bench."
Peterson said the AKC's numbers exclude lost dogs. It counts only animals that likely have been stolen -- from a locked car or during a home break-in, for instance.
Motivation for theft, she said, always boils down to money, whether dogs are resold, sold to laboratories or used in fights.
Peterson called dog thieves misguided and naive. Animals can't be pawned. High-priced dogs require registration papers. Collecting heavy ransoms is unrealistic.
Shelton's dogs were pit bulls. They, along with other large breeds, tend to show up stolen most often. In the case of Shelton's dogs, the perpetrator found enough incentive to open a 6-foot-tall fence when every resident was home.
Indeed, the number of stolen pets is small compared with those that are lost or abandoned.
The SPCA of Wake County maintains an entire wall of posters of lost pets, with only a few marked as stolen. In 2010, most of the 18,297 animals that entered the county's shelters were strays with no identification, according to Mondy Lamb, the SPCA's marketing director.
Lost and wandering dogs that haven't been stolen create a far greater problem, she said.
Stray cats, estimated at 50 million, are too common for anyone to steal, said Pam Miller at Safe Haven for Cats in Raleigh.
Still, some call the threat exaggerated.
The California Biomedical Research Association, for example, describes the idea as "The Pet Theft Myth." The myth says shadowy figures are luring animals into vans and selling them to research labs. The majority of dogs and cats used in research were specifically bred for research, the group says.
A suspicious snatching happened to Debbie Hawes' son Zach in Knightdale, N.C. After posting a missing pit bull report, she said, Zach discovered second-hand through a rescue group that the dog had been found. But the person who recovered it didn't want to return it directly to the owner, and he wanted a $125 fee to return it.
Hawes said her son paid the fee and didn't ask questions. It was worth it to have his friend back home.
For a list of pet-theft prevention and recovery tips, see http://www.akc.org/press_center/pet_theft.cfm.
(Contact Josh Shaffer at josh.shaffer(at)newsobserver.com. SHNS contributed to the story.)
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