Peace Region law enforcement are trying to determine whether plastic bags tied outside residences are being used to signal would-be dog thieves.
On Tuesday, the North Peace SPCA reported a Fort St. John dog owner had found a bag with a piece of lace tied to a tree near their home.
The RCMP followed up on the tip and found a bag securely tied to a tree.
However, no lace was found at the scene.
"Because of all the frenzy that's going on on social media, that detail got added unintentionally, possibly," said SPCA shelter manager Candace Buchamer. "These bags are very clearly tied. They're not poked on a branch, they are deliberately tied in a knot on a tree."
Members of at least two Peace Region social media groups set up to share information about missing dogs believe the bags are markers for an alleged ring of dog thieves.
Anna MacNeil-Allock, founder of the online group Stolen Dogs 911, is concerned that thieves are tying bags to trees to mark homes with dogs.
"The reason it might be a good way to tag a house is because it doesn’t seem suspicious," she said. "If a pet dog owner is unaware of a bag that may be in their tree, and their dog is stolen, the thieves would take the bag with them. There is no evidence."
There is evidence that houses where animals have been stolen have been flagged in this way before, Buchamer said.
The practice "has legitimately been tied to stolen animals in other provinces, and that's where the concern comes from," she said.
However, Fort St. John RCMP say there is no evidence so far to suggest the practice is being used in the Peace Region.
"We have not had any reports of bags being tied to trees being related to anything," said Cpl. Jodi Shelkie. "Nothing has been reported to the RCMP in regards to bags being tied to trees as a marker to steal dogs."
The detachment had three reports of stolen dogs in February. One was later found dead from a gunshot.
The North Peace SPCA currently has 50 missing dogs on file.
South Peace shelter manager Wendy Davies said her branch has not received any reports of bags in trees.
The branch has between 15 and 20 missing dog reports — an unusually high number, she said. As of late January, Dawson Creek RCMP had two reports of stolen dogs.
Buchamer said that while social media has been useful in getting word out about missing dogs, it has also bred "panic."
"We've had people see a plastic bag blowing down their alleyway and they're phoning the RCMP saying they've been targeted," she said. "[Social media] is creating more panic than we'd hope for."
Suspicious bags have been tightly and deliberately tied to trees, she said.
She added that many social media pages carry reports of dogs stolen in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and even California.
Shelkie said police continue to investigate the three missing animal files, but that those files are tough to crack.
"Perhaps there is something going on and we just don't know it because people aren't reporting it to us," she said. "We can't go off what social media says."
MacNeil-Allock says she encourages people to report evidence to police.
"We’re constantly telling people to go to the police. Take any piece of evidence to the police, because they have to have a file to do anything," she said.