Dog gone blues

Canine theft comes to Sacramento

Janessa Niskey and Jake in happy times.

Janessa Niskey and Jake in happy times.

Photo By Jill Wagner

Jake may have suffered a broken heart, having been snatched from his owners the evening of June 25.

But that’s not what would have killed him.

The nearly year-old dog was plagued by a congenital heart defect, and without his daily medication, his heart was likely to fail within two weeks.

“If somebody is selfish enough to take him for themselves, at what cost?” said owner Janessa Niskey. “They’re going to end up destroying him.”

Jake, a 10-pound miniature Doberman pinscher, had just enjoyed a run along the American River bike path with Niskey and her mother, Julie Sorenson, and was returning home to their apartment complex on La Riviera Drive. Niskey stopped to speak to a friend on the entrance steps, and when Jake wandered a bit too far, intent on following a scent, he was called back. He complied. But, Niskey said, he wandered off to pee, “and all of a sudden, he was gone.”

She didn’t see him, though she heard a yelp and ran down the corridor in search of him.

That was around 8 p.m.

Kids said he was near the pool. Teens near the other end of the complex said they hadn’t seen him. The apartment manager followed Sorenson in a vehicle, calling for the dog, shining lights and searching crevices, corners and bushes in case he had been spooked.

That car was stolen at 11 p.m.

“We wondered whether it was a message,” Niskey said.

They scoured the complex, calling for him, making a lot of noise so he could hear their voices, and knocking on doors. Once or twice, she said, they heard a dog bark and then a stern voice command, “Sit. Sit. Shut up.”

“Dogs don’t usually stop [immediately],” Niskey said. She wondered whether the dog was silenced by force, and she noted that many units in her apartment complex, The Villas at La Riviera, as well as the surrounding complexes, such as Riverwood Manor, don’t allow dogs.

They spent that night, the following morning and evening and the rest of the week calling for Jake along the bike trail, posting fliers, visiting the animal shelters and calling pet stores.

“There’s no way he would not come back. He’s trained; he gets treats for everything,” she said. “He’s the most spoiled dog in the world.”

Jake was being prepped for surgery. The procedure would remedy his heart malfunction and promised him a healthy life free of the regimen of daily pill swallowing. The vet, who had offered to perform the procedure for free, estimated it would be two weeks before his heart damage would be irreparable and irreversible.

Noting that posters in a certain neighborhood on La Riviera Drive routinely are torn down, Niskey said she was feeling desperate enough to purchase a big banner, with Jake’s picture and her contact information, and hang it along the freeway.

Dog loss in the city and county of Sacramento happens for a variety of reasons, including deliberate theft, say experts.

“There are all types of weird motivations out there why people steal dogs,” said Kathy Vos, chief animal-care officer for the city of Sacramento. “I think the primary reason people’s dogs get stolen is someone is looking for a buck to be made, or a dog is running loose, and they feel sorry for the dog and don’t know where to bring it.”

Some people might be afraid to bring the dog to the shelter for fear he might be put down. Others might see how a dog is treated—left alone all day in a yard, tied up on a short rope—and decide to play rescuer. Some may even seek reward money for dogs they stole in the first place.

Vos said people who find dogs often fail to check in at shelters or have a dog scanned for a microchip ID. The city shelter keeps dogs for three days before making them available for adoption. Then, people who drop off found dogs can return and adopt them and continue looking for the dog’s owner by posting fliers and signs near where the dog was found.

As for deliberate thefts, Vos said that most often, people are seeking money.

“A purebred will go for $50 on the street, and they can get their fix for the day,” Vos said.

In other cases, people are snatching animals to train their own dogs for fighting rings.

“If you have fighting animals and find dogs or cats on the street, you use them to train your own animals to be more aggressive,” she said. “It’s a big gang activity.”

Aside from scanning a dog for a microchip, veterinarians can’t clearly determine whether a dog has been stolen.

Valerie Barrett, a certified pet dog trainer and owner of The Right Steps, said some dogs, though they miss their human companions and their home, don’t show stress when they end up in a new place.

“Some personalities of dogs say, ‘Okey-dokey, things are different now.’ Others say, ‘Oh my God, I’m not ready for these changes in my life,’” Barrett said. “Based on a dog’s behavior, it’s hard to say, ‘This dog was taken.’”

Barrett agreed that people who find dogs don’t always take or know the proper steps to locate an owner. Barrett worked in a veterinary office for 22 years and can recall incidents in which people visited the practice to have a dog vaccinated, though they explained that they had just found the dog the previous day.

“It doesn’t occur to them someone might be missing their dog,” she said. “A lot of times, people draw conclusions. They see a skinny dog, or a dog who’s fearful, and presume the dog has been abused.”

Unlike most dog-theft cases, Niskey’s ended well. She called “every freakin’ vet” in the area and asked that staff scan any unaltered male for a microchip. They did. And she got the call.

Reportedly, Jake was found in a parking lot. A woman brought him home, bathed him and then brought him to All Our Pets Veterinarian Hospital.

He had rope burns around his neck, was emaciated and had scratches everywhere.

The 10-pound miniature Doberman pinscher was rewarded with a trip to the pet store. “We took him right away to Petsmart and let him pick out toys,” said Niskey.

The consensus is that he was abducted, he escaped, and perhaps he was abducted again.

What concerns Niskey almost as much is the lack of recourse an owner has when a pet goes missing. Because pets are considered property theft, animal-control officials have no authority to intervene. And the police department lacks the resources to conduct searches for animals, unless they are vicious or a threat. And then, there’s the lack of public awareness, meaning that even when dogs are found, they might not end up where their owners can find them.

Niskey said she wasn’t satisfied with law enforcement, even in dealing with the apartment manager’s stolen vehicle.

“They said, ‘That happens in your neighborhood all the time.’ Well, if you stop the petty crimes, you’d eventually prevent the larger ones,” she said. “People just need to get together; we could solve a lot of crimes.”