Lone women walking puppies are being targeted by organised crime gangs as the value of their animals soars in lockdown.
Pedigree breeds can fetch up to £3,500 on the black market as breeders struggle to keep up with demand.
Now people are being warned about walking pets alone in isolated spots after a series of attempted snatches last week.
On Wednesday, two men with a fake RSPCA badge on their van approached Ceira Fleming, 23, who was jogging with collie-cross Callie near Poole, Dorset.
She said: “They told me my dog matched the description of a stolen dog and they would have to take her for tests.
“The men weren’t in uniform. When I started to ask questions, one of them looked annoyed and started to get out. I slammed his door shut and ran off.”
Lauren Barnes, 28, was confronted by two men while walking her £3,000 golden retriever puppy Bentley near Horsham, West Sussex, at 10.30am.
She said: “A white unmarked Transit van suddenly veered alongside me.
“Two men in black woollen hats were staring at my dog. The passenger started to get out but I pulled out my phone to take their picture and they sped off.
“They looked really menacing. I think they targeted me because I was a young woman out alone with a nice puppy.”
Criminals can make more money from selling puppies than drugs.
Demand has rocketed as families with time on their hands in lockdown decide to buy a fashionable pet.
The value of chow chows, dachshunds, pugs and bulldogs has risen by nearly 75 per cent since March, with pugs leaping from £684 to £1,220 and French bulldogs from £1,251 to £2,128, according to the Dogs Trust.
The RSPCA said they were hearing of more attacks on lone dog owners and added: “It’s worrying.”
Debbie Matthews of SAMPA, the Stolen and Missing Pets Alliance, said: “It’s important for the public at large to be vigilant when out walking their dogs.
“Be dog theft aware. Nowhere is safe from these monsters.”
Sussex Police said: “Our rural crime team are gathering intelligence and highlighting crime prevention advice among the dog-owning community.”
In the UK around 2,000 dogs are reported stolen each year but only 5% end in a conviction, with usually just a fine. Campaigners want tougher sentences.