At least 50 large-breed dogs have vanished from southeastern Manitoba homes in the past year, fuelling speculation the animals are being used as bait in illegal dogfights.
The RCMP say there is no proof of such a crime, but as the number of missing dogs grows, so grows the scuttlebutt.
Janine Acott volunteers for the 500-member Southeast Manitoba Lost Dogs site on Facebook. She says her group had 46 documented cases of stolen dogs two weeks ago and more animals have vanished since.
"While we have no proof what the dogs are being taken for, the one thing that all the missing have in common is they are all spayed/neutered, older, larger-breed country dogs," she says. There are likely many more missing animals, she says, but they only have numbers on the ones reported to the site.
Garett Aubin lives north of Dufresne, off Provincial Road 501. His dog, Callie, a two-year-old black Lab and his brother's dog, Chevy, a six-year-old husky-terrier cross, vanished from his acreage Nov. 26. Since then, he says, six more dogs have disappeared within 21/2 square kilometres of his place.
"It's almost like common knowledge around here that someone is taking the dogs," says Aubin. "Ours were rural dogs. They were kind of sucks. They just want a warm bed.
"I don't know what's happening to them. I don't want to believe someone is making them fight."
Aubin filed a report with the St. Pierre-Jolys RCMP detachment. He says rural residents should be on the lookout for strange vehicles near their homes and report anyone who seems to have an unusually large number of dogs in their possession.
Terry Bolton lives across the road from Aubin. He came home last Wednesday to find a strange set of vehicle tracks entering his property. He later discovered a dog biscuit in his yard.
"It wasn't something we'd feed him," he says. His mixed-breed bull mastiff, Caleb, was still on the property.
"My dog has an electric collar so he doesn't leave the yard," Terry says. "I think someone tried to lure him out. There's no rhyme or reason to this. They're not purebred dogs or anything."
Bolton contacted St. Pierre-Jolys RCMP, who came out, took a statement and bagged the biscuit. "These dogs aren't running away. They're not getting run over," Bolton says.
RCMP spokesman Cpl. Miles Hiebert says he's heard the rumours but only a handful of missing dogs have been reported to rural detachments.
"Dogs go missing all over the place," Hiebert says. "Certainly I can assure you if there is any criminal activity suspected, we will investigate."
Hiebert says he understands dogs become part of families and urges people to report their concerns.
Jessica Blue, who recovered her two German shepherds after they were taken from her Ste. Anne-area yard two months ago, thinks the animals are being tossed into dogfighting rings to incite the competitors.
After her dogs, Kota and Tucker, were stolen, she got a tip they were tied up at a home three kilometres away. She investigated and found them chained to a Hydro pole.
"The people said they were their dogs, they've had them for a couple of years. My name was on the collar. I took them back."
She reported the theft to the RCMP.
"Everybody's dogs are going missing. What do they think is going on?" Blue said.
Cathy Brule's five-year-old boxer, Bobby, went missing from her home near Ste. Anne in August. She and her family haven't stopped searching for him, putting up posters in neighbouring towns and on Facebook sites dedicated to lost dogs.
She says she's disturbed at how many dogs have vanished from southeast Manitoba.
"I don't want to think that anything bad would happen to my guy," she says. "I'm hoping someone has him and will bring him home eventually. We won't give up until we know he's died of old age."
She estimates there are 40 dogs missing and presumed stolen in the region.
Janine Acott's German shepherd cross, Keesha, disappeared from her parents' yard near Oakbank on Nov. 7. The dog and its sister were let out for a run. Only one dog came back.
"We've knocked on so many doors. Every time we got a lead ,we followed it up," she says. Since Keesha went missing, she says, she's heard of 20 more dogs disappearing from area homes.
"Literally, people let them out to go to the bathroom and they never see them again."
Erica Lenton lives close to Garett Aubin, near Dufresne. Her son's dog, a German shepherd named Max, vanished Dec. 19. They'd put him in the yard in the early evening and never saw him again.
"He doesn't run away," she says. "He's our baby. We've looked everywhere, posted notices on Kijiji and Facebook.
"I'm not thinking we're going to get our dog back."
Lenton has four sons, ages 11 to 19. Max belongs to her eldest, who was given the dog when its first owner, a friend of the teenager, died.
When eight dogs vanish from 21/2 square kilometres of rural Manitoba, that's not coincidence. Someone is taking these dogs and harming them.
If you spot something suspicious, don't just tell your friends over coffee; call the law. Whoever is stealing the dogs is breaking up families.