Dognappers are prowling both the cities and suburbs, stealing people's pets at an alarming rate.
An estimated two million pets are stolen each year in the United States. That's up 32 percent, according to the American Kennel Club. And the number of actual dogs stolen could be potentially much greater, because that statistic only reflects dogs reported missing in the news media and to the AKC.
“It is a problem,” said Kellie DiFrischia, “You can’t be too cautious.”
DiFrischia is Director of Columbus Dog Connection, a non-profit 501c3 animal rescue group that has co-authored animal rights legislation and provides low-cost spaying and neutering across the state.
She says they have seen dogs taken from every kind of neighborhood, from extremely wealthy developments to working class communities and rural areas.
“Dognapping is a crime of opportunity,” said DiFrischia. "Dogs have been stolen from fenced-in yards and front porches.”
There are a number of different reasons for the thefts.
Some dogs are used for dog fighting either as a fighter, trainer or bait. Animals that are not “fixed” are often sold to puppy mills to be used as breeders, and other dogs might be sold for a quick profit on websites like Craigslist.
Often times the thief is a stranger but not always. DiFrischia said ex-spouses or former friends might take the dog to hurt the other person.
One Northeast Ohio couple says an estranged family member took their beloved dog.
Shelby and Brian Patton told Fox 8 news reporter Suzanne Stratford that they were moving out of a house on the family member's property in Wayne County when their 6-year-old dog Ryder disappeared last summer.
She says the male family member told her the dog ran away while they were loading the truck. He wanted them to leave and claimed he had already looked for the dog, but said she was nowhere to be found.
The couple tried to return to the farm on multiple occasions to look for Ryder, but Shelby said the family member wouldn’t let them on the property.
“We had a feeling something was up,” said Shelby.
The couple continued to post fliers and notices on Facebook for months and she says that’s when the now-estranged family member contacted her.
“He kept the dog for himself,” said Shelby. “He said 'well I microchipped this dog and relicensed her'... I was totally at a loss for words.”
Shelby and Brian have now had to take the family member to civil court in Wayne County and must prove through dog-licensing records, veterinary care receipts and photographs that they are the rightful owners.
They went before a judge in November 2015 with their evidence but as of February 9th were still awaiting a final hearing and ruling.
“We’ve been nothing but a ball of stress and anxiety,” said Shelby, “I used to always look up to him and this has really hurt.”
Shelby has started a petition hoping to change Ohio laws so that this can’t happen to anyone else.
**Click here for the link to the petition.**
There are other important steps all pet owners should take now to protect their dog.
Kellie DiFrischia said never, ever leave your dog unattended, not even in a locked car or enclosure, because thieves will smash the glass to get them.
She also suggests microchipping your pet or purchasing a GPS collar or monitor, which can cost anywhere from $50 to $200.
But one of the most important steps a person can take now is to document the animal's history.
Save all of your pet's dog licensing and veterinary care records. It doesn’t matter if you get the dog from a friend, breeder or shelter, Kellie says, make sure you have the transfer of ownership documented.
And in the case of romantic relationships, pre-determine who would get custody of the pet if you were to break up.
“We even offer blank forms on our website for people,” said Kellie, “You can’t be careful enough.”
Click here for their website.