As she struggled to unload groceries from the back of her car, Sherrie Schenning got an uncharacteristically queasy feeling.
Her family's Essex neighborhood had always felt safe, but on this recent Saturday, she noticed two unfamiliar young men in a nearby schoolyard eyeing their home.
"They looked like they wanted to steal something, but there was nothing valuable in the yard," she says — just her shopping bags and the family's beloved 12-year-old dog, Bella, who was snuffling around for attention.
Five minutes later, the groceries were put away, the young men were nowhere in sight, and Bella, a floppy-eared Yorkshire terrier, was gone, an apparent victim of what some are calling an increasing crime problem in the Baltimore area: dognapping.
"With the economy the way it is, a lot of people are in a bad way, and we're seeing more dogs get stolen for all kinds of reasons," says Anne Wills, who runs a nonprofit in Arbutus that uses trained search dogs to locate missing pets.
The American Kennel Club, which maintains a national database of dog thefts, says its sees a nationwide trend. The New York-based group reports that the number of reported thefts more than doubled between 2009 and 2011, rising from 162 to 432 over those years.
"And those numbers are just scratching the surface," says Lisa Peterson, an AKC spokeswoman. The organization bases its figures on media reports of stolen dogs and customers who call its Companion Animal Recovery service.
Wills says animal thieves have many motivations. Many steal dogs to sell, ransom, breed or give away. Individuals tied to dog fighting are always on the lookout for large, muscular canines they can train for bouts — or weaker ones as "bait" on which the fighters can learn to maim or kill.
"These people want to keep their fighting dogs in shape and they're looking to grab little dogs that can't fight back," says Darlene Harris, the former manager of the Baltimore City shelter. "It's horrific."
The perpetrators sometimes dump the bait dogs, or return them, scarred or missing appendages, Harris says, adding that the Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter has gotten several such dropoffs a week since 2010.
City and county police say they've noticed no significant spike in dog thefts, but Wills and Harris both say they've seen a surge in the Baltimore area over the past year.
"It has definitely gotten a hell of a lot worse," Wills says.
Her organization, Dogs Finding Dogs, gets about 15 calls a day and works a dozen or so cases at a time. More than half now turn out to involve acts of animal thievery.
Chelsea McKenzie, a pit bull owner from Glen Burnie, has lost two dogs to thieves.
"It's the people [involved] who are the animals," she says.
The dog advocates who track thefts say perpetrators often travel away from their own neighborhoods to scout for victims and spend time casing scenes or cultivating dogs before they act.
In one recent case, two young men from South Baltimore traveled to Patapsco Valley State Park, where they snatched an Ellicott City man's dog when he left it off its leash during a walk.
Wills' team tracked it from there to Dundalk, then later to Brooklyn, where police had to be called to help her retrieve it from individuals who cursed and shouted threats.
Peterson, of the American Kennel Club, has heard of thieves stealing dogs from cars, off leashes in front of restaurants, even from animal shelters.
Wills says owners should take precautions, including keeping pets leashed when outside; never letting them wander unsupervised, even briefly; and getting them microchipped for easy identification,
Since she started Dogs Finding Dogs in 2008, Wills has found dog theft most prevalent in a handful of areas, including Essex, Dundalk and Parkville in Baltimore County; Brooklyn Park in Anne Arundel and several West and Southwest Baltimore neighborhoods, including the Wilkens Avenue corridor.
Wills says she has been averaging seven new calls a day from Essex alone in recent weeks.
Baltimore and Baltimore County police, including those in the Essex Precinct, say they have noticed no particular spike in dog thefts. But they add that that doesn't mean it isn't happening.
Victimized owners sometimes assume a dog is merely lost and so don't contact law enforcement. And police group animal theft with other property theft, so it's difficult to identify trends.
"There's no specific dog-theft code, so it's labor-intensive to search for those results specifically," says Cathy Batton, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore County police.
Dogs Finding Dogs keeps Wills, her own search dog and her team of nine human and nine canine volunteers so busy she's at work on cases from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. most days.
Wills works for donations. She says her outfit has recovered more than 2,000 pets, an average of more than one per week.
Wills fell into the field almost by accident. The first dog she ever owned, a mostly German Shepherd pup named Heidi, proved so energetic she was hard to control. Wills' boyfriend, a cop who worked with a canine unit, suggested she put Heidi through police-dog training.
When Wills learned how many citizens contact police dog units asking for help with lost pets — a service they don't offer — she took her dog on a few free calls.
Demand was so high she soon quit her old job.
Each of her volunteer dog-and-human tracking teams is certified through the National Tactical Police Dog Association and can work day or night in any weather.
There were always plenty of calls for lost-pet cases, but Wills says her greatest surprise was learning how often pets are stolen. At first, such cases took up about a third of her time. The portion has jumped to more than 50 percent over the past year.
It is not unusual, she says, to follow a trail to a malefactor's door and see or hear the missing animal inside, only to hear the thief deny it was there at all or try to sneak it out a back door.
Violators are young and old, and of all races. Some are little old ladies who have "found" a new pet and refuse to give it back.
In one case, a dog owner found a man walking her pet on Bel Air Road in Baltimore. When she confronted him, he pulled a gun.
"We're talking about people who are not always the classiest forms of life," says Wills.
While police can't make animal searches a top priority, she says, many officers are willing to assist in making arrests if she or her colleagues have followed the trail to a site and a neighbor can confirm the pet's presence.
Three years ago, McKenzie was living in Brooklyn when her beloved pit bull, Marley, disappeared from her fenced-in backyard. She contacted Dogs Finding Dogs, and was amazed to see Wills and Heidi make a straight line for a rowhouse Marley used to frequent.
Wills encourages owners to supplement the sniff searches by plastering neighborhoods with posters, setting up Facebook pages, taking out online ads and using FindToto.com, a service that can bombard an area with prerecorded alerts, all in hopes of pressuring thieves or turning up a lead.
McKenzie, who took out a Craigslist ad, eventually got an anonymous call from a woman who told her Marley had been left at the Anne Arundel County animal shelter.
There he was, covered with cuts and scrapes, as though he'd been in fights, but otherwise healthy.
"I had my four-legged son back," recalls McKenzie. She later recounted the case on "Justice With Judge Janine," a national cable TV program.
The Schennings feel as though they've lost a family member. They got Bella in 2001, during a period when Sherrie Schenning's daughter, Chantelle, now 22, was being bullied at school.
The Yorkie "became my comfort and my little shadow," Chantelle says. The tiny dog always licked her face when she was ill, and continued to sleep with her.
"I don't even want to think about what might be happening to her," she says, tears welling in her eyes.
A few days after Bella vanished, Wills and Heidi tracked her scent to the edge of the yard, where the trail abruptly ended.
Since then, Chantelle has posted more than 1,000 fliers, made robocalls through FindToto.com, contacted schools, police stations and pet stores, offered a reward and made it known she'll accept Bella back "no questions asked."
Wills says she'll be returning with Heidi to search again.
"We're ratcheting up the pressure," she says.
In the meantime, the Schennings are having trouble sleeping at night.
"Who'd have thought someone would take your dog?" Chantelle says. "If we'd known this was happening, we'd have been more careful. I had no idea people could be so cruel."