MILWAUKEE -- Many pet owners say their animals are members of the family, and they do everything they can to keep them healthy and safe.
But the American Kennel Club (AKC) says dog lovers often don't realize they are putting their pups in a precarious position by letting them out in their own yards, at risk of being stolen.
The AKC reports 69 percent more dognappings in 2011 than 2010, as thieves target pricey pets.
The stories are heartbreaking, and you can read some of them on craigslist, where pet owners post pleas for the safe return of animals taken from owners' homes, cars and yards.
That's what happened to Chris Hammerbeck, who says a criminal entered a fenced yard in the Riverwest neighborhood and walked off with his sweet shih tzu, Anna.
Hammerbeck says he was out of town on business when his precious pooch was staying with his friend Terry, who also owns a shih tzu and has watched his dogs before.
He says Terry lets the dogs out in his fenced-in yard about 5 am every morning while he takes a shower, but one day when he called them back in, Anna wasn't there.
The gate was closed and the fence was secure, and much too high for Anna to scale.
"The collar was left behind on the ground. He basically became frantic and searched all over the yard, calling for her," recalled Hammerbeck. "I basically panicked: Where was she? Who's got her? Is she in pain? Has she been hurt or killed? Who knows what happened to her? My mind was going insane."
"You're not going to hear anything. The neighbors aren't gonna suspect anything. No one ever thinks there's a crime going on," described Kevin Wilken, the supervisor of Milwaukee Area Domestic Animal Control (MADAC). He says many small, friendly dogs won't bark if a stranger picks them up, and "it's something you can easily hide under your coat."
Wilken says plenty of people are willing to steal to turn pets into profit.
"Pretty sick individuals, someone who probably has no morals, possibly dealing with a sociopath, someone who just doesn't make the connection of what a dog might mean to a person," explains Wilken.
Hammerbeck said he rushed back to town to knock on neighbors' doors and post flyers with a $1000 reward all over the neighborhood, but he has not recovered his dog after months of searching.
The AKC says Hammerbeck is one of many local pet owners devastated by this canine crime.
The organization says a two-year-old Miniature Pinscher was stolen in Milwaukee and later found set on fire and dead.
The group says another family reported their boxer puppy swiped from the family’s SUV, and a Janesville owner says a doberman-chihuahua mix was stolen from their home, and that suspect was charged with dognapping.
An animal advocate who assists frantic pet owners says someone in a minivan stopped to rip a 10-week-old dog from the arms of the girl who just got the puppy for her birthday.
That advocate says other incidents in southeast Wisconsin include an owner who said his wire cage was cut and his dog stolen right out of it, and a Boston Terrier taken by a stranger in a car who pulled up, grabbed the dog and drove away.
More recently, an English bulldog was found wandering in Milwaukee after it was stolen from a fenced yard in Miami four years earlier.
A recent craigslist ad reported how dismayed the owner's children were after their 9-week-old male shih tuz was stolen when their Milwaukee house was broken into.
"You can always replace the electronics. It's difficult -- you can't replace a dog. Most people look at dogs as family members," noted Wilken. "You can't just go to the store and buy a new dog. It's not the same."
The AKC tracked 432 pet thefts in 2011, up significantly from the 255 thefts in 2010.
The group says all types of dogs are stolen, but small popular breeds such as yorkies, pomeranians and shih tzus are abducted more often than others.
Hammerbeck says he had no awareness of the problem until he became a victim and didn't realize who would steal a dog until he started researching the crime and learning the reasons people pilfer pooches: To use as bait for training other dogs to fight, to sell on the Internet or at flea markets, to keep without having to pay a hefty price tag, to use for breeding, and even to sell in bulk to medical research labs.
"They burn their skin to try different chemicals on them, stuff like that, to see what will happen. They torture the dog. They say the average life of a dog in the medical field is about a week or two weeks. Stuff like that just tears you apart when you hear it," lamented Hammerbeck.
He still misses Anna following him around the house, sitting next to him or in his lap, and rolling over for him to rub her belly.
"If she was with someone who was actually taking care of her it wouldn't be so bad. But not knowing where she's at... 'cause she's a sweetheart, an absolute sweetheart dog," he recalled sadly.
He says his two other dogs -- Isabella and Olivia -- still walk around the house looking for Anna, the two-year-old he had since she was small enough to fit in his hand.
"They won't take care of me when I'm old, but they're definitely my children," he described.
And that's why he now rarely takes his dogs out or lets them play in his big fenced yard.
"The dogs do not leave my sight, ever!" he insisted. "In fact, I prefer not to even walk the dogs 'cause I don't want anyone to see I even have the dogs."
"I don't blame him," responded Wilken. "He lost his sense of security, and it's hard to get back."
"If you live in a high-crime area where there's a lot of dog fighting, you cannot leave your dog unattended. If your dog is outside, you need to be outside with your dog," added Wilken. He said in low-crime areas "it's not as common. It still can happen though!"
The AKC says the latest trend is pets being stolen from shelters and adoption events.
Wilken says most pet owners "are not" educated about the threat, "in particular about the dog fighting... people don't realize that someone will hop the fence and just take off with their dog."
Wilken says there are several ways to prevent your four-legged friend from disappearing: Never leave your dog alone in your yard, a car or tied up outside a store. Do not share information about the cost of your dog or where you live with strangers you meet while walking your pup. Always keep your dog on a leash. Be sure your dog has a collar and identification tags and especially a microchip with your current address and phone number, which is permanently implanted in the skin and can't be removed by a thief.
"Chips are definitely recommended," noted Wilken. "It doesn't guarantee you're going to get your dog back, but if your dog does end up in an animal shelter facility or a vet clinic, there's a pretty good chance that you'll be contacted."
If you have a story you'd like us to investigate, send an email to email@example.com.