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After two LI dognappings, all eyes are on the most-pilfered pooches

Teddy Henn and his dog, Winston, a long-haired

Teddy Henn and his dog, Winston, a long-haired dachshund, search for a  lost dog in South Huntington Friday, Dec. 24, 2021. Credit: Barry Sloan

Doggie detective Teddy Henn readied his tools to search for yet another missing pooch — this one, a burglarized French bulldog named Stella.

A camera-equipped drone. A long-haired dachshund named Winston to sniff out the victim’s scent. And, of course, lots of "LOST DOG" posters.

But first, having smelled Stella’s blanket and her fur comb, Winston picked up Stella’s trail that Thanksgiving weekend, starting at the rear sliding door where owner Matthew Hauck of Huntington believes the break-in began. The scent continued around the driveway out front. Winston sat down near the street.

"The scent stopped there," Hauck recalled Friday, the theory being that the burglar or burglars had hustled away Stella, a 4-year-old purebred weighing 20 pounds, in a getaway vehicle on Nov. 25 as he and his wife were away for Thanksgiving in West Hempstead.

Stella’s theft has a happy ending — as does another burglary later that same weekend, in Bay Shore, of a 3-month-old Frenchie named Zushi, sometime Nov. 27 or Nov. 28.

In each case, a Good Samaritan found the dog, according to the police: Stella was wandering some 30 miles away, in Center Moriches; Zushi was in the Coram-Selden area and turned in to a nearby animal hospital, where his embedded microchip, to which vets have access, was scanned and the owner notified.

With bat ears, a large square head, heavy wrinkles above a very short nose and a price tag that can reach between $5,000 and $10,000, French bulldogs like Stella and Zushi are the most commonly stolen breed in the United States, according to the American Kennel Club, which calls the crime "dognapping."

"They’re easy to grab, and they’re worth a lot of money," said Roy Gross, chief of the Suffolk County SPCA, adding: "To pick up a German shepherd or something like that is a little bit more difficult, but a small dog they can just grab and run."

Up to 2 million dogs are stolen per year, according to a pre-pandemic estimate by petfinder.com, and only 10% are recovered.

Still, Gross said, the back-to-back thefts in Suffolk are unusual.

"I’m doing this now going on 38 years," he said, "and I can’t remember ever seeing two dogs being stolen out of somebody’s house like that in a short period of time."

Like losing a family member

The breed’s susceptibility to theft made international news in February when dognappers stole Koji and Gustav, two of singer Lady Gaga’s three French bulldogs, from a dogwalker who was shot during the crime. (Five people were later arrested in connection with the episode, including the woman who had returned the dogs.)

In Suffolk County, the burglaries — in Huntington, a PlayStation 5 video game console was also taken, and in Bay Shore, $4,000 in cash and designer clothes for the owner’s online boutique — remain unsolved, according to an email on Christmas Eve from the county police department’s press office.

The chief of detectives, Mathew Lewis, doesn’t believe the two crimes are related but said he can’t rule it out.

"They’re far away in location, and just the methods of the crimes seem to be a little different," he said.

Nevertheless, in both cases, he said, publicity probably made the dogs harder to fence.

"Those dogs are obviously very popular, and once it gets out that they were taken, the pictures of the dogs circulate on the internet and in the news media, and it’s my belief that it makes it hard to get rid of the dog," he said. "The dog becomes almost a liability at that point."

Lewis said the department doesn’t track dog-theft statistics.

Det. Lt. Richard LeBrun, a spokesman for the Nassau County Police Department, said that as of earlier this month two dogs had been reported stolen in 2021, one in 2020 and seven in 2019.

The kennel club has warned about "dog flipping," a crime in which the animals are stolen from their owners and resold for profit. Earlier this year, the nonprofit Adopt-a-Pet.com issued an "emergency alert" that a pandemic-fueled demand for pets has put them at increased risk for theft. The site suggests never leaving pets unattended and pet owners always being mindful of what’s posted on social media, particularly posts that clue in potential thieves to locations and habits.

Although dognapping is considered theft of property under the law, to owners like Matthew Hauck, it’s like losing a family member.

"We have no kids. This is our kid. So someone came in our house and stole, like, in our opinion, our most valuable possession," Hauck said at the time, crying.

How pet detectives do their work

And so Hauck retained Teddy Henn, as well as a private investigator in South Florida named Jamie Katz. She says she’s found dogs, cats, tortoises, an African grey parrot and a white ferret named Benjamin. She fashions herself after the eponymous character of the 1994 film "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective."

In Stella’s case, when a lead came in of someone posting on Instagram of a supposed sighting at a 7-Eleven about seven miles away from Huntington, Katz helped look into the poster’s background, scrutinized the claim, and later determine that it was a false sighting, she said.

Then, when the Good Samaritan reported having found Stella on the street, Katz helped facilitate a FaceTime call with her and verify that the Frenchie was in fact Stella, Katz said.

"It’s amazing. It’s the luckiest thing ever," said Katz, who estimated she has closed about two-thirds of her 800 cases.

In most of them, the animal is found safely, but about 5% or 6% of the time, the animal winds up being found deceased. About 3% to 4% of the lost pets had been stolen.

Her fee for a remote job like helping find Stella on Long Island is at least $650 plus the cost of any signs and materials. An in-person investigation, in the greater Miami area, can cost at least $1,300, which includes two hours with tracking dogs and other services.

Tom Sharp, chief executive of the kennel club’s microchipping operation, AKC Reunite, says about 1 in 3 dogs and cats will go missing at some point in their lifetime.

There are over 9 million microchipped pets, mostly dogs, by the club’s service, and about 20,000 are reported missing annually — a leash breaks, the pet runs away — but about 5%, or 1,000, are said by the owner to have been stolen, he said. About 80% of those pets reported missing are found.

After French bulldogs, the most commonly reported stolen dog breeds are Labradors and German shepherds, Sharp said, but explained, "the Lab is the number one breed in America, so there’s just plain more of them in the first place," a phenomenon similar to that with German shepherds.

"On a percentage basis, French bulldogs are stolen way more than Labs are," he said.

He said 9% of dogs reported stolen are Frenchies, while 4.5% of dogs enrolled with the service are Frenchies. Labradors are 10.8% of enrolled dogs, but 5% of what’s reported stolen. Rounding out the top 5 stolen breeds are Siberian huskies and Yorkshire terriers, he said.

But a microchipped dog can’t be identified unless found.

Henn, of West Sayville and the nonprofit Long Island Dog Search and Rescue, has been on the job for five years doing the finding.

His initial search begins within a two-mile radius of where a dog goes missing, and can expand from there — into the woods, onto highways, on train tracks.

He can also deploy a big cage, with the dog lured by the smell of barbecued food, and the trap monitored by live cameras.

The nonprofit, which relies on donations, has recovered hundreds of dogs, he said.

About 10% have died, about 20% are probably kept by someone else, and the rest are found and returned, according to Lynn Fodale of Massapequa, Henn’s work partner.

Although that Good Samaritan wound up finding Stella, Hauck said, he made a $500 donation to the group.

Said Henn of his group’s mission: "We don’t give up. We don’t say, ‘This one’s too hard to catch. There’s another one. Listen, let’s go find that one.’ I’m stubborn. If I gotta stay on one dog for five months straight, I’ll catch that dog. I’ll go out every day."

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