MELISSA BLOCK, host:

A crime wave has hit Los Angeles that involves thefts, home invasions, even smugglings. But the burglars aren't after money or jewels, they are stealing small dogs.

Here's NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: Little dogs are more popular than ever in the United States. This year, for the first time, the noble golden retriever has been knocked from the top two spot on the American Kennel Club's most popular list. His replacement, the tiny Yorkshire terrier, a little dog that fetches a disproportionately huge price - sometimes more than $2,500.

Tina Ro knows exactly how popular little dogs have become. She and her husband, Paul, own Puppy Love, a pet store in the La Mirada suburb of Los Angeles that specializes in pocket-sized dogs.

In a playpen at the front of the store, a white Maltese with flopping pink tinted ears and a lively Yorkie group visitors as soon as they opened the door.

(Soundbite of crowd)

Ms. TINA RO (Co-Owner, Puppy Love): What happened down there?

BATES: The Ros became national news this month when Puppy Love was robbed, twice in two weeks. The thief got away with over two dozen dogs worth more than $30,000 total. Police caught the thief this week, but so far only three dogs have been returned.

As ironworkers put new security gates on the front of her store, Tina Ro shares her theory about why these dogs were napped.

Ms. RO: What I personally think is they're just so expensive, they're all worth $1,000, and most people cannot afford them and that they want it so bad, I guess that's why they're doing it.

BATES: And they're doing it more and more often, not only in Los Angeles, although some of the most brazen examples occur here.

In February, a family in Koreatown suffered a home invasion after they placed a for-sale ad for the Yorkie puppies they bred. After first posing as prospective buyers, two young men returned to their home, and as the apartment's security tape shows, one man forced the family to crouch in gunpoint while his partner chased four frisky Yorkies around the living room. He stuffed the puppies into a plastic garbage bag and fled. Thanks to that security tape. Los Angeles detective Luis Gorono(ph) was able to reunite the puppies with their owners in a few days. Yesterday afternoon, he had the satisfaction of delivering this news about the dognapper.

Mr. LUIS GORONO (Detective, Los Angeles Police): One of the suspects pled guilty and he went to state prison for eight years, with the use of weapon.

BATES: Small dogs, like the Koreatown Yorkies and Tina Ro's teacup-sized Shih Tzus, Maltese and Pomeranians are a hot commodity. That's partly because they're trendy - think Paris Hilton and her Chihuahua, Tinkerbell - and partly because they're ultraportable.

Captain Aaron Reyes of the Southeast Area Animal Control Authority says little dog lust(ph) increasingly is driving people to take shortcuts they shouldn't, like buying smuggled dogs from Mexico to save money.

Captain AARON REYES (Director of Operations, Southeast Area Animal Control Authority): Sadly, though, I mean, they'll end up buying these puppies at a parking lot and, you know, meeting someone paying cash. And once these brokers, these sellers, you know, open the door to their car and you see those cute little brown eyes, it just melts your heart and you shell out the cash, you know, without even thinking twice.

Ms. RO: Pomeranian.

BATES: Tiny pure breeds are a top item on many holiday wish lists this year. The challenge might be buying a dog that's legally cleared for sale and holding onto it.

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

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