- CRITTER TALK
Getting home in the afternoon to find your home ransacked would be distressing enough, but for Peggy Riley there was a much deeper sense of loss.
Her two nine-year-old Yorkshire terriers, Baxter and Cooper, had been stolen, making the theft of her laptop and the disturbance to her house in San Antonio, Texas, quite insignificant in comparison.
“I don’t recall much, other than realizing I was in the middle of the street, about two houses down from my home, screaming their names and crying uncontrollably.
“The distress has been to such a degree that I can’t even explain. It’s turned my life upside down. I don’t have children so these are my babies.”
Ms Riley, 48, has spent thousands trying to get them back, with another $10,000 (£6,000) standing by as reward for their safe return. Two private investigators are on the case, there are adverts in several newspapers and billboards, and a Facebook page appealing for their return.
She believes the thieves acted opportunistically but the Yorkshire terrier is one of the breeds that is being increasingly targeted by criminals who see valuable dogs as a revenue source in hard times.
New figures from the American Kennel Club suggest dog thefts are up 50% this year and have risen fourfold since the start of the recession.
“There are economic reasons behind this,” says spokeswoman Lisa Peterson. “Criminals sell them on the internet to unsuspecting buyers or at flea markets or roadside sales. I’ve seen dogs stolen and then miraculously turn up again to get a reward from the owner.”
The criminals strike in many ways, she says – breaking into a home, into a parked car or just snatching them in the street.
All types of dogs are vulnerable, but particularly small breeds such as Yorkshire terriers and Pomeranians, which are popular and easy to carry.
It comes as prospective owners fork out more and more for a dog, according to the American Pets Products Association, up to $364 (£221) last year, from $221 (£134) in 2008. There are now 46 million Americans owning a total of more than 78 million dogs.
Such thefts first gained notoriety in the 1940s and 50s, when a series of high-profile ransom cases brought the practice into the public eye, helped by the release of the Disney film 101 Dalmatians in 1961.
But it was not until the Animal Welfare Act of 1966 that the practice was formally outlawed in the US.
People treat their dogs like children in so many ways, buying them presents, giving them good food and giving them expensive medical treatments. So the theft of a dog can feel like a bereavement, she says.
“People are likely to get extremely upset. It’s how people would feel about the loss of a child. And it’s become less fashionable to say ‘Oh well, it’s just a dog’.
“Criminals have been exploiting human emotions throughout time and this is just one more way to do that.”
You can read more of this story at BBC News