STRATTON -- Russell Smith's 55th birthday was on Sept. 5, but he was in no mood for celebrating.
That morning, three of his bear hounds were snuffling around an old apple tree near Grout Farm in Stratton when a fourth dog took off running after a deer.
Because the three bear hounds weren't likely to run off after wildlife, other than a bear of course, and because all three had GPS tracking devices, if they did take off he wasn't worried that he couldn't find them after he tracked down his wayward dog.
"I drove down to the Boy Scout camp to get her back, but when I went back, the dogs were gone," said Smith. "Someone drove up and right there shut their (GPS) collars off and loaded them into a truck. They knew what they were doing. I wasn't gone more than eight minutes."
Since Sept. 5, Smith, of Jamaica, has spent the majority of his waking hours looking for the three dogs, but he is not holding out much hope that they will be found.
"I don't think that I'm going to get them back," he said on Monday. "They'll probably end up in Maine in some backwoods hunting camp."
His dogs -- Jack 5, Clyde, 7, and Rock, 4 -- were more than tracking dogs, said Smith.
"One of them lived in the house," said Smith. "He was in bed before us."
Word has gone out all over the region about the three dogs, said Smith, and he and his wife have posted a $500 reward for each of their dogs. But that reward might not be enough,
As he knows, a guide can make a lot of money leading hunters to their prey.
Gary Greenwood, of the Vermont Bear Hounds Association, said a good bear hound can cost up to $5,000, and Greenwood heard that Smith's dogs were "top notch."
"If these dogs were good, and it's bear season now, you could sell them pretty easily down south or in Maine," he said.
Greenwood said it's not too hard to disable a GPS unit.
"Everyone knows how to turn off tracking equipment," he said. "These dogs fell off the face of the Earth."
Senior Trooper Genevra Cushman spent much of the weekend and Monday looking for leads.
"I've never actually run into anything like this before," she said.
Cushman has been on the lookout for an older two-tone Chevy truck with a green dog box in the back, but other than that, she hasn't had much luck in tracking down the dog thief or thieves.
Though a number of witnesses said they saw the truck in the area of the missing dogs, none of them looked to see where the vehicle was registered.
"Someone called with a truck matching the description in Bennington, but the convenience store surveillance camera wasn't working," said Cushman.
Based on the value of the GPS equipment and the dogs themselves, whoever stole the hounds could be charged with a number of felonies, she said.
"To buy them already trained is quite expensive," said Cushman.
Each of the dogs has a brand in one of their ears.
"People who steal dogs, especially for stud, may cut the ears off," said Cushman.
Smith said he was horrified when he learned about ear cutting, especially seeing as he has bred and raised all three of the dogs himself.
"I trained them myself. That's what I do on weekends."
He has had bear hounds for the past 15 years. Before that he had coon and rabbit hounds.
"It's kind of a family tradition," he said. "One of my uncles had a coon hound and when I was a little boy we used to ride at night coon hunting."
Smith thinks someone might have learned about his dogs because of the Internet. On the first day of the season, Smith took his nephew and a friend out on a hunt and they bagged a 273-pound bear.
Shortly afterward, the picture was posted on Facebook.
"I think the wrong people might have seen that," said Smith, who said he just tracks, and doesn't shoot the bear himself.
"Bear meat ain't all that great," he said. "And you can only have so many bear rugs."
When he's not guiding someone such as his nephew, Smith lets his dogs tree a bear and then pulls the dogs back, letting the bear go.
"Most of the guides are not into shooting the bear. They're into it for the dogs."
In his 25 years in Fish and Game, Major Dennis Reinhardt, of Vermont Fish and Wildlife, said he's never heard of someone stealing a bear hound.
"Dogs go missing and show up three days later in another town," he said.
The bear hunting season started on Sept. 1 and runs through Nov. 14, he said.
Those who use dogs must have a permit and can use up to six dogs, said Reinhardt. Whoever buys a big-game license also gets a bear tag and can shoot one bear a year.
"A houndsman could have a couple of different hunters with him," said Reinhardt, adding the use of hounds to track and tree bears is a long-standing Vermont tradition.
Vermont's bear population is estimated between 4,500 and 6,000. Last year, 396 bears were taken.
Greenwood, 76, uses English bluetick hounds.
He said there can be quite a rivalry between the owners of different breeds as to which is best for hunting bear.
But he said, when something like this happens, houndsmen pull together.
"The word will get around."
If Smith doesn't get the three dogs back, he will have to start from scratch.
"I don't have any bear hounds left," he said. "Just a couple of dogs that aren't trained to do anything."
Most of the people who run bear hounds are good people, said Smith.
"I'd hate to think a bear hunter stole my dogs," he said.
Anyone who might have information related to the missing dogs is urged to call Cushman at 802-254-2382.
Bob Audette can be reached at email@example.com, or at 802-254-2311, ext. 160. Follow Bob on Twitter @audette.reformer.