''The ransom demands are going up and up," says Jayne Hayes, the founder of Doglost, an online dog-theft database. "It used to be £500. But last night we had a couple in the Midlands who paid £2,500 to get their dog back.
"They won't talk to anybody, because they feel so threatened - these people know where they live. But the people rang this lady and her husband several times over the weekend, saying, 'That's not enough; it's not worth getting out of bed for that.' And then they got to £1,000. Then the people said, 'No. We've seen your house. You can afford more than that...' And they kept ringing, and the figure kept going up and up until they got the money they wanted.
"All I can tell you is that they had to go to a very odd place in the middle of the night, leave all this money in a plastic bag, then go home and wait for a phone call - and they were thinking, 'Have we been set up?' But two hours later they got a call and were told where their dog was."
Hayes, who set up Doglost after her own pet was snatched last year, knows of many such cases, and worse ones. ''I know of one figure that was paid to get a dog back - and it was almost the deposit on a house. I can't say any more, because the people feel threatened, and they don't want to risk anything else happening. There are some very, very nasty people involved in this."
The rumours in the dog world are that someone in the UK has recently paid a £20,000 ransom for the return of their stolen dog, and that the equivalent of £18,000 has been paid in Ireland. Though it is not yet a large-scale problem, the stealing of family pets for ransom - often for drug money - has emerged in the past couple of years as a new, growing and faintly bizarre branch of criminal enterprise.
Last month, 35-year-old Lester Poynton from Chester was jailed for 21 months after admitting blackmail and "handling stolen goods" - a dog. Poynton had demanded money for the return of a bulldog stolen in Prestatyn, North Wales last March, and was arrested when he met the dog owner and an undercover police officer in a hotel car-park near Mold and was handed £400 cash. Poynton claimed that he had come under pressure from a gang to whom he owed money for drugs.
Jayne Hayes believes that her own dog - Hermie, a French bulldog - had been sold on several times for drug money during the six weeks the dog was missing in and around Doncaster last year. She says that since January this year her online database has helped to reunite 168 missing dogs with their owners. Only 10 of these dogs had genuinely wandered off; the rest had been stolen, and of these 21 had been the subject of ransom demands.
For anyone who doesn't have a dog - or who dislikes dogs - the entire notion of "dognapping" may seem laughable, conjuring up images of a blindfolded pooch with a gun to its head, and a voice growling down a phone line: "Gimme the money or the mutt gets it." But for owners obsessed with their dogs - or just deeply fond of them - the experience is traumatic. For some, it's as bad as having a child kidnapped.
"The stress and anxiety these owners go through when their dog is stolen is unbelievable," says Brian Milligan, a dog warden in Kent. "Some people don't understand it, and say to them, 'It's only a dog - you can get another one.' But to these people, it's their life. For elderly people who've lost a husband or wife, the dog is often all they've got. Everybody's got their own perception of what's valuable to them. For some people, it would be like having their big flashy car nicked. To some dog-lovers, it's like having a child kidnapped; for them, there's no difference."
Hayes says that, of the dogs reported as stolen to her database, the most-frequently targeted are Labradors, followed by lurchers, then Staffordshire bull terriers, then Jack Russells, then springer spaniels. She asks owners to e-mail details of the theft and a photograph of the dog, and passes these on to vets, pet shops, kennels and dog wardens across the country. "One in three dogs reported to us as stolen comes from Kent - that's a hot spot," says Hayes.
It's here, in Kent, that Brian Milligan works as dog warden for Tonbridge and Malling Borough Council - 90 square miles, a population of 107,000, a lot of leafy, wealthy lanes, and an estimated 10,000 dogs.
"A lot of money is being handed over late at night," Milligan says. "I have had a case where a woman handed over £3,000 to get her dog back, at 1.30am. I can't say where, but it was in the south-east of England. People have threatened to kill the dogs if they don't get the money, and the people who've paid a lot to get them back won't talk, because they have been threatened and they are absolutely petrified."
Milligan says an estimated 50,000 dogs are stolen in the UK each year. Each week about 50 are reported stolen in South-east England, and two or three of them are on his patch. "Many of them are being held to ransom," he says. "They're being stolen from back gardens, from cars, from parks. The people will wait for the owner to put posters up, advertising the fact that there's a reward and giving their contact details - and then they give them a call. They probably know where the owner lives, and they know that he or she could probably afford a lot more, and they hold them to it."
Some dogs, however, are less likely to be ransomed. These are the pedigree and working dogs, all the gun-dog breeds (Labradors, springer spaniels) and some bulldogs. "They're the ones that often don't come back," Milligan says. "I believe the people who take these are professional dog thieves who sell them on for breeding, and they may go anywhere in the country or abroad. They may go to puppy farms, or the bulldog types may even go to dog-fighting rings. There are rumours that some have been smuggled abroad and sold for training as bomb-detection dogs."
Milligan believes his patch in Kent has become a hot spot for dog ransom for one simple reason. "Down here, people have got quite a bit of money, so the dogs are being stolen from the big houses with lots of land, not from the council estates. They know these people have got the money to pay. They are usually pedigree dogs, not your little mongrels. Some people keep a dog as a burglar alarm, but when people break into a house, often the first thing they steal is the dog. They put it in the van, and then carry on burgling."
Milligan works for Animal Wardens Ltd, a Manchester-based company which contracts its dog-warden service to 20 or so local authorities. He has won an award for launching a national campaign against dog ransom. But his bread-and-butter work is less dramatic - running a micro-chipping service, dealing with complaints about "excessive barking" and rounding up strays. He usually takes these to the Viking Oak Boarding Kennels and Animal Sanctuary in Borough Green.
Here, the notice board in reception is plastered with "missing" posters - a Jack Russell, a spaniel, a Labrador, a bull terrier and an Alsatian/collie cross "taken from a car outside Lidl at 4.30pm". Steve Moore, one of the sanctuary's owners, says: "Every day we're getting people ringing up saying that they've had their dog stolen, often from their garden. It's now got to be at least one a day. Some people are finding them - they're paying rewards and getting their dogs back. Others, they're never found. It used to be all small dogs - little terriers and things - but now it seems to be anything they can get hold of.
"When this first started, probably a couple of years ago, I had a call from an old lady. She knew who had taken her dog and she put a reward on the poster, and they telephoned and said, 'Yeah, we've got the dog, I'll meet you at a certain place...' I think she paid £500. Then she phoned me a couple of days later - and they'd taken it again. Same people. That's what they do. It was near Maidstone. And for people like her, their dog is their life," Moore says.
The only person on Milligan's patch who is prepared to talk about his skirmish with dog thieves is Peter Wildish, who runs a gardening and tree-surgery business near Maidstone. His adored Jack Russell - called Jack - was stolen from his works yard a month ago. The trail was to lead eventually to a travellers' camp nearby.
"Jack was in his favourite spot by the outside water-tap in the yard, watching me work," says Wildish. "That Saturday, at about 11am, I heard the yard gate being opened. I called him, but he never came. And then panic set in, because I knew he wouldn't run away.
"I searched all over the fields and the wood. My wife and I drove around and around - there is no logic to it, you just keep driving. After about nine hours we came home. I knew in my heart that he'd been stolen, but I just wouldn't admit it.
"We were up early on Sunday, off looking again, putting up posters. Finally I went to the travellers' camp, talked to a guy there and asked if I could put up a poster. I'd put 'substantial reward offered'. And as I was leaving I heard a dog barking from behind a caravan - and it was Jack. I recognised his bark, and I knew it was him. I got out of the camp, and phoned the police." Wildish claims that he was fobbed off by a civilian operator. He hung up, furious.
Early the next morning, the phone rang. "This guy said, 'I might be able to get the dog back for you. But we've got to talk about the reward money.' I said to him, 'You tell me what you think.' He said, 'No, no, it don't work like that. You've got to tell me how much you'll pay.' I said: '£100, £150?' He said, 'That's no effing good,' and he hung up.
"That was it. I went crazy, hit the roof. I'm a law-abiding guy, but I made a conscious decision that I was going to go down there and shoot the bastard. I was making preparations. Then my wife pushed the panic button on the alarm system to get the police up here before I went..."
There followed, according to Wildish, a furious confrontation with the police. Finally, officers visited the travellers' camp, but they failed to find the dog. Wildish and his wife Glenys decided to launch an anti-kidnap campaign, and their efforts made it on to the front page of the Kent Messenger and local television.
"We made the dog too hot to handle," says Wildish. "And then we got a call from a woman who said that she'd found Jack in a village five miles away." The handover was arranged to take place in a different village, at a derelict shop, which had its windows blacked out with old newspapers.
"Glenys and I had the feeling we were being set up," Wildish says. "It was late evening. I walked up the opposite side of road, and when I drew level with the shop - I couldn't believe this - I saw Jack tied up in the window of the shop where they'd torn a gap in the newspapers.
"I was going to kick the window in and grab him and run, but he was too close to the glass, and it would have cut him. But he had seen me, and he was going absolutely barmy. A woman came to the door, and I said, 'I want my dog back, and I'm not paying any money.' I'd brought two heavies with me just in case. Just then Jack leapt towards me and broke the string that was holding him, and he jumped into my arms. I just stood there holding him and cried my eyes out."
There is no shortage of similar tales. Ivor Hancock, a retired ambulance driver from South Wales, had his miniature schnauzer, Sophie, stolen from a caravan at an agricultural show in Doncaster. After advertising that there was a reward, he was contacted by a man who claimed to have paid someone else £200 for the dog, and who wanted the same amount for her return. Hancock contacted the police before arranging a handover, at which Sophie was returned and the man demanding the money was arrested.
Mandy Turver's Staffordshire bull terrier, Dennis, was stolen from her shop in a village in South Yorkshire. Again, she was contacted after advertising a reward. She was so pleased to see Dennis again that she handed over £500 in cash to the woman who returned him. "With hindsight," she says, "we should have given her a cheque, then cancelled it or something."
Not every tale has a happy outcome. In Thornton, Leicestershire, the former animal nurse Kathryn Jenkinson is still going through her own nightmare, rushing to the phone every time it rings. A fortnight ago, while she was out, a red and silver Mitsubishi pick-up with false plates was seen in the driveway of her home. Jenkinson came back to find that her German shepherd Heidi's 10 puppies had vanished from the outhouse. They were only four weeks old, and may not survive.
"I still don't believe it, even now," says Jenkinson. "They weren't weaned, and were not old enough to be taken away from their mother. I just hope in my heart of hearts that whoever's taken them may know enough to be able to get them to lap milk. I've put up a £1,000 reward. And I can't describe to you how I feel: just totally empty, totally numb. And very angry that somebody could do this to these little puppies, and to me and my family. I haven't slept properly since, and I can't seem to function. I'm desperate to get them back. At the moment, everything else is on hold."
If you have any information on these or other stolen dogs, contact Doglost (01909 733366; www.doglost.co.uk)