Dognappers have struck again in Delaware County, this time swiping a high-priced Chihuahua from a Springfield pet shop.

Police reported that a man in his 20s stole the light-gray dog Saturday morning from We Love Pets, on Baltimore Pike, then climbed into his getaway driver's silver Ford pickup truck.

The purloined pup - valued at $1,400 - is the third dog stolen from that store this year.

In January, a pair of brazen dog-snatchers grabbed a black pug and a maltipom and escaped in a Cadillac Escalade waiting out back. Those dogs were selling for about $1,000 each.

Several horrific animal-abuse cases have been reported recently in Delaware County, including a torched cat and a drowned Pomeranian, but experts say that dognapping has become a nationwide concern.

Lisa Peterson, spokeswoman for the American Kennel Club, said that she is tracking about 135 cases this year, up from 71 last year and 10 in 2007.

"It used to be one a month or every other week," she said. "Now, it's literally two or three a week."

Some thieves steal dogs for ransom or to sell, and it is not uncommon for today's burglars to grab Fido along with valuable jewelry and electronics. Others simply want a free pet.

"My biggest fear is that there is this underground network of stolen dogs that are being resold as pets on the Internet through nice-looking Web sites," Peterson said.

Dogs, particularly popular smaller breeds, are an attractive target for thieves because they can be slipped into a jacket and sold on the black market.

"Even if they sell it for $100 or $200 on the street, that's pure profit," Peterson said.

Springfield Police Lt. William Clark said yesterday that he couldn't speculate on the Chihuahua thief's motives.

"Anything's possible," he said.

The owner of We Love Pets didn't return a phone call yesterday and had declined to comment on the previous case for fear that publicizing the crime would lead to additional thefts.

The FBI's National Crime Information Center, which tracks stolen property, currently lists about 200 stolen dogs. But that figure represents only a fraction of the missing dogs nationwide because many do not get reported to NCIC, said FBI spokesman Stephen Fischer.

Peterson urged owners to implant microchips in their dogs to increase the chances of recovery if they are stolen. She recommended that pet-shop employees hold a potential customer's driver's license if they want to handle an animal.

"People don't think that their dogs could be the targets of a crime like this," she said. "Unfortunately, they can."

Anyone with information on the Springfield case should call police at 610-544-1100.