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PHOENIX – Nationwide lockdowns in the past year have driven demand for companionship from man’s best friend during the pandemic, and shelters across the country have seen spikes in dog adoptions and fosters. But some pricey and popular canines are being ripped away from their intended forever homes and sold to unsuspecting buyers.

It’s known as dog-flipping, a phenomenon that drew widespread attention after pop star Lady Gaga’s dog walker was shot and wounded and her two French bulldogs were stolen in February, according to the Los Angeles Police Department. The dogs were returned after the performer offered $500,000 as a reward, and the investigation continues into whether thieves targeted Gaga or just her valuable Frenchies.

Because pets are legally viewed nationwide as personal property, dog thieves generally have little to lose.

In Phoenix, dog theft reports are on the rise. In 2019, 137 pets were reported stolen, Sgt. Andy Williams told Cronkite News. In 2020, that number jumped to 155.

“Animals and pets are considered property, so with regards to theft there are no unique laws” for pet abductions, he said.

According to pet detective Karin TarQwyn, French bulldogs and other small breeds have become desirable over the past two to three years. A quick search on Craigslist shows asking prices for a Frenchie range from $4,000 to $10,000.

“The least amount of money that we’ve been able to use to get a French bulldog back (to its rightful owner) is $3,500,” said TarQwyn, who has worked full time to assist in locating and recovering missing pets since 2005. “And people are willing to pay the price because they are desperate.”

Depending on how much the dog is worth, penalties for dog theft vary in Arizona. A theft of $3,500 is a Class 4 felony punishable by up to three years in prison.

The American Kennel Club estimates that nearly 2 million dogs are stolen each year. Since the pandemic was declared in March 2020, dog theft has become so common that Adopt-a-Pet.com, North America’s largest nonprofit pet adoption web service, issued a statement warning pet-seekers that dogs are being stolen to meet demand.

“Americans are desperate for animal companionship during COVID lockdowns, and at the same time, supply has fallen in many parts of the country,” the statement said. “Thieves are taking brazen action to steal dogs, not just from backyards but also from people who are out walking their dogs.”

Pet owners of all popular breeds – including terriers, poodles, bulldogs and pugs – should take safety precautions, and if their pets do go missing, there are pet detectives like TarQywn who work to find them.

In the eyes of law enforcement, companion dogs “are no different from TVs,” TarQwyn said.

“As a matter of fact, you might get more response from the police if your TV was stolen than if your dog was stolen,” she said.

In Arizona, dogs are considered property, and TarQwyn believes holding dog thieves accountable comes down to treating dogs like more than property because pets are worth more than the price owners pay for them.

“These animals, who are becoming an integral part of our lives, need to have some kind of a personhood,” she said. “It’s that term of property on the animal that makes it of less value in terms of what is going to happen if someone steals a dog.”

At the same time, there have been instances when Good Samaritans with otherwise good intentions were considered dognappers.

“Rescue is cool right now,” TarQwyn said. “What it created was a ‘rescuer mind’ or rescuer justification, where someone comes across somebody’s pet, picks it up and in their mind they say it is abused, neglected or dumped.”

Such was the case for the Herrera family. Lucy Herrera just finished giving her dogs a bath when the unthinkable happened. As her husband went outside to toss the trash, Peach, a miniature poodle mix, and Kira, a husky, escaped into their Glendale neighborhood.

For weeks, the distraught family hung lost-dog flyers, drove around the neighborhood and even went door-to-door. The Herreras feared they had lost their dogs forever.

“We’ve had Peach for almost six years now and Kira since she was a baby,” Herrera said. “So the kids have really grown up with them always around. We were so sad without them here.”

Herrera’s youngest daughter is 2 and so attached to the dogs that when they went missing, Herrera said, she began to show signs of anxiety.

“We noticed she began to bite her nails super bad and you could tell she was worried,” the mother said. “So I think her being so young and not understanding when or if they were coming back was hard for her.”

But on March 24 – more than three months after Peach and Kira ran off – Herrera found Peach wagging her tail in the front yard, as if waiting to be let in from an afternoon walk. But it appeared someone had taken Peach, who was wearing a new collar with a different set of ID tags, which listed her owner as Bella.

“We had her microchip scanned just to make sure it really was Peach. Thank God that it confirmed she was really ours,” Herrera said. But she was afraid to call the number on the new tags.

“Peach is like Kira’s mom, and I knew they would stick together,” she said. “What if these people still had Kira and didn’t want to give her back to me?”

Instead, the family explained the situation to Glendale police. An officer called the number and posed as if he found the dog and wanted to return her to the owners. When police arrived at the given address, just one the street over from the Herreras’, they found Kira and explained that the dogs were owned by the Herrera family.

The officer told Herrera that the other family kept the dogs after their children grew attached to them.

But upon reuniting with Peach and Kira, Herrera noticed Peach had been professionally groomed but Kira’s coat was riddled with ticks.

Peach, being a poodle breed and one of the top 10 most popular dogs in 2020, was at risk for dog-flipping. Asked whether she thought the owner had planned to sell Peach, Herrera said “it is possible.”

“It is scary to think there are people out there doing this,” she said. “There are other families like us who really love their animals and they never get them back. We were lucky.”

The Herreras declined to press charges.

“Right now, we are just thankful that our dogs are back in our house and back to getting belly rubs,” Herrera said.

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