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.
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.
By mid-July, its database showed 191 stolen, compared to 145 over the same period in 2010.
Those 191 dogs have far exceeded 162, the AKC's 2009 total.
"Some are taken out of homes, some are taken out of cars, some are taken out of pet stores," said Lisa Peterson, AKC spokeswoman. "I've even seen some taken out of a child's arms on a park bench."
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.
The incentive to take them was strong enough 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.
And in 2010, most of the 18,297 animals that entered Wake County shelters were strays with no identification, according to Mondy Lamb, the marketing director for the SPCA.
Cats aren't being taken
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.
Dogs aren't the only targets. Last year, two parakeets and a cage disappeared from an apartment in Cary.
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.
Dogs are gone
Every day, dog owners post grief-stricken notices on Craigslist.org. Stolen pit bull in Knightdale. Stolen boxer in Rockingham. Stolen pit bull mix in Garner.
Not all of them are reported to police, and if they are, they're not broken out from other larcenies, making the crime trends hard to monitor. Not all of the dogs stay stolen.
Steve Hubbard, a Marine in Surf City, lost his lab puppy Bentley at the end of May by leaving him in the back of his pickup while Hubbard darted into Food Lion for a few items. Bentley was too small to jump the tailgate, and though he wasn't 100 percent sure, Hubbard guessed he'd been taken.
Weeks later, Hubbard canvassed houses door-to-door in a part of town where he had often taken Bentley swimming, and that night, he got a call saying the dog had been dropped on a porch nearby.
When Hubbard saw Bentley again, he was wearing a blue collar that wasn't his.
His conclusion: Someone took Bentley on a whim, felt guilty about it and returned the dog anonymously.
Another suspicious snatching happened to Debbie Hawes' son Zach in Knightdale. After posting a missing pit bull report, she said, he 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 rehoming fee.
Hawes said her son paid the fee and didn't ask questions.
It was worth it to have his friend back home.
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