Hundreds of dogs are believed to have been stolen by organised criminals in South Yorkshire.
New figures reveal that more than 300 dogs have been stolen in the county over the last five years.
But an expert organisation dedicated to reuniting them with their missing owners have warned the true figure is ‘much higher’.
The DogLost organisation has suggested that criminals who previously sold stolen metal have now turned their attention to taking dogs.
Hundreds of distraught owners have seen their dogs taken in house burglaries, stolen from cars and in one instance, grabbed after a street assault.
Doncaster had the highest number of dog thefts with 96 incidents, followed by Sheffield with 60 reports, then Rotherham with 48 and Barnsley with 30.
In some incidents, six or seven dogs at a time have been stolen.
Many of the dogs taken are rare breeds worth hundreds of pounds. Details were revealed following a Freedom of Information request to South Yorkshire Police.
Nik Oakley, a spokesman for DogLost, said the true picture is likely to be even worse than that shown in the official statistics, with dog theft ‘often recorded as the theft of goods’.
She said: “The true figure for theft is much higher. DogLost’s figures show that the crime has increased by 24 per cent in the last three years and that figure is likely to be higher for 2016.
“Our estimation is that one in three dogs that are reunited are done so in suspicious circumstances: recovered by the police or us, ‘reward’ paid, found straying miles from home or scanned later having been sold on. Originally it was opportunist theft and the dog would be sold on quickly to feed a habit. Now it is much more organised crime.
“There is evidence to suggest that when the selling of stolen metals became more difficult then those people turned to dogs.
Many more dogs are now stolen for breeding as it is a profitable operation.
“Thefts of multiple dogs - from kennels or litters - increase the return from a single crime.
“Fashionable designer breeds like pugs, miniature French bulldogs and chihuahuas are at the top of the list, along with valuable gun dogs like labradors, springer spaniels and cocker spaniels.”
The South Yorkshire crime figures show 14 cocker spaniels, 11 pugs, nine labradors and eight French bulldogs have all been stolen, with six springer Spaniels and five chihuahuas also taken.
In one incident in 2013/14, seven cocker spaniels were stolen together, with another incident the following year seeing seven miniature schnauzers taken.
In 2015/16, six French bulldogs were stolen, while six British bulldogs were also stolen in a single incident in 2012/13. Other reported thefts have included four Staffordshire bull terrier puppies being taken, four shar pei puppies and four Patterdale dogs.
In the last four years, there has been a gradual increase in the number of dogs being stolen, with 68 taken in 2015/16 compared to 63 the year before and 45 back in 2012/13.
One of the instances of a dog being taken in Sheffield happened as its owner was injured in an assault.
Four incidents of dogs being taken from cars have been reported to police across South Yorkshire since April 2011.
Temp Sgt Matthew Duffy, of South Yorkshire Police, said: “We are aware there has been an increase in the number of reports of stolen dogs made to the police over the past five years and although there is no one specific reason for this increase, we are asking everyone who owns a dog to take extra steps in order to keep them safe.
“Based on the work we have done with partner agencies it has been acknowledged some high value dogs and rare breeds have been stolen for monetary gains and rewards, however, in some cases dogs have been lost or have strayed.
“When any report is made to us we crime all of these instances and based upon the information we receive a course of action will be taken and if there are any lines of enquiry these will always be investigated.
“Owners should ensure their home and garden is secure, avoid leaving dogs for long periods of time on their own, ensure dogs have been registered and chipped, and don’t leave dogs unattended in public places.
“You wouldn’t leave other valuables unattended or in an unsecure place so don’t do the same with your dog.
“Police will take all steps to return stolen dogs to their owners and punish the perpetrators of these crimes. If you would like to report a stolen dog please do not hesitate to contact police on 101.”