A B.C. dog walker accused of leaving six dogs to die in her overheated truck could face a raft of cruelty and criminal charges if it’s determined she willfully left the animals in the vehicle.

Emma Paulsen reported the pets were stolen from the back cab of her pickup truck while it was parked at a Langley dog park last week, but RCMP now say the canines died from heat exhaustion that same day.

“We now believe the dogs perished after being left in the back of a vehicle while the dog walker went into a business and they perished in the heat,” Cpl. Holly Marks said.

Paulsen was questioned and released by Langley Mounties Sunday, after all six dogs were found dead.  Their bodies were found in a ditch in the Fraser Valley -- nearly a week of intense searching and social media appeals for help by their desperate owners.

The veteran dog walker had initially claimed to be baffled by the dogs’ disappearance, and maintained she had left the dogs alone for no more than 10 minutes while she went to use the park’s washroom.

“When I came back the top flap of my truck was open and the dogs weren’t there,” Paulsen told a CTV reporter the day after the dogs went missing.

The BC SPCA has taken over the investigation into the case and will perform necropsies to confirm how the dogs died. Marcie Moriarty, chief prevention and enforcement officer, said forensic evidence in the case will be “pivotal.”

“Like everyone, we were shocked to hear these allegations. Now we’re going to be pursuing them and determining the mystery – what exactly happened in this case,” she said.

Paulsen could face charges under the cruelty to animals act, and a criminal code charge for allegedly misleading the police in their investigation.

Devastating discovery

The grim twist in the investigation is devastating for the dogs’ owners, many who spent most of last week searching the park and surrounding area for any sign of their beloved pet.

Eric Ortner said he and his wife said they've been living a "nightmare" since their Boston terrier Buddy vanished.

"Jen and I tried to have kids before and it was unsuccessful so we got Buddy as our baby. He was our child," Ortner said.

"I don't think anything can ever replace him.  Nothing can."

Lyndon King, whose dog Teemo was found dead, said it’s been an excruciating time for his family.

“It’s been a week of torment. I told my family to brace for bad news and that’s what we got,” he said.

King said even though he’d trusted Paulsen to walk his dog for the past two years, he was suspicious about what happened to his pet.

“We’ve been at that park every day,” he said.

King said it was his family, not Paulsen, who notified police that the dogs had disappeared.

Petsearchers Canada, a Vancouver-based pet detective agency commissioned to help in the investigation, said Paulsen concocted the story about the dogs being stolen because she was in shock over the deaths.

"I'm just devastated for the families," said Petsearchers' Alesha MacLellan. “Even though we knew we didn’t have the whole story… there was a sliver of hope that even if something bad had happened even one or two of the dogs was okay somewhere.”

MacLellan said Paulsen admitted to her agency that she left the dogs, including one of her own, in the truck, and that she was going to speak to RCMP.

Hot car, big dangers

Temperatures reached the mid-20s the day the dogs went missing.

MacLellan said the dogs had access to water and the vents on the canopy were open, but the summer-like temperatures were too much for the animals.

The SPCA says if the allegations are true, the incident is a grim reminder about the dangers of leaving animals in a car on a hot day.

“It’s 10 minutes potentially to disaster,” said Moriarty.

“We get deaths each year and by and large these are people that care about their animals. People just need to realize that dogs just don’t have the same ability to cool themselves,” she said.

With files from CTV Vancouver’s Penny Daflos