Puppy lust: the rise in heartbreaking pet theft

Imagine having a pair of dogs for company. They’re your everything, now that your spouse has passed on. Between walks they like a frolic in the garden. One day you let them out as you put the wash on and potter in your utility room. When you finish a short while later, you call out to them. No answer. Indeed, the garden seems unnaturally silent. As unease takes hold in the pit of your stomach, you go to see where they’ve got to. You call and call, but they’re gone. Dread, panic and hurt overwhelm you. What do you do now?

This is a hypothetical case study, but for increasing numbers of families the distress of pet theft is all too real. For pet theft, read dog theft. Today, Donny Osmond might be crooning, “And they called it, puppy lust,” instead of the original “puppy love”, as thieves make off with our beloved pooches. While there are thefts of other animals, it is dog theft that is the most common.

The National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) assures us that the crime remains relatively rare, but according to Country Living, pet theft increased by 250 per cent in 2020. Devon and Cornwall saw the second-largest increase, up by 88 per cent in July 2020 compared to a year earlier. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) warned that the crime is also on the rise in Somerset. While Dorset is one of the few counties to have seen a slight decline in pet theft, the RSPCA Chief Inspector for Dorset and Wiltshire, Lewis Taylor, has warned of thieves impersonating RSPCA officers.

There have been reports of white vans with RSPCA stickers on them, and people have been approached by men who try to take their pet from them, claiming it matches the report of a stolen dog. This is not how the RSPCA operates. Chief Inspector Taylor said: “We would like to remind and reassure the public that all of our officers wear branded uniforms and carry RSPCA-issued identification. If you believe someone is impersonating a member of our staff please report the incident to us and to your local police.”

More typically, thieves steal dogs from gardens, cars or outside shops. Alarmingly, they are also now attempting to steal pets while owners are out walking with them, sometimes resorting to violence. Skinner’s Pet Foods rank the top three theft locations as: gardens (23 per cent); homes (11 per cent), and whilst out walking (11 per cent).

The DogZoom Campaign

Liz Webster and one of her dogs. Photo by Anthony Kelly

The situation has prompted farmer, veteran campaigner and Wiltshire PCC candidate Liz Webster to team up with Stolen and Missing Pets Alliance and DogLost to lobby the government to take action. Pet theft awareness week (beginning March 14) being the perfect time to highlight the levels of concern around pet theft, they have put together a creative campaign programme.

Day one saw the release of a moving video featuring Ricky Gervais, David Walliams, Clare Balding and other celebrities. They all agreed. Pets aren’t mere objects. They’re part of the family.

Later that day, Ms Webster and actress, writer and former celebrity master-chef winner Emma Kennedy hosted ‘DogZoom’, the largest ever online rally of its kind. The live zoom event featured video messages from celebrities Ricky Gervais, David Walliams, Sara Cox and Clare Balding, together with MPs Tim Farron, Luke Pollard and Iain Duncan-Smith, and live presentations from victims, experts and activists.

One of the key asks of the campaign is that the government set up a national registration scheme and recognise pet theft as a specific criminal offence. At the moment, it is considered like property theft – like the loss of a mobile phone. Devon and Cornwall’s PCC Alison Hernandez explains, “Unless a crime is flagged and labelled well, I’m afraid it’s not easy to find the data. We have some issues, and this is why maybe there are some problems in understanding how serious the problem is, and how bad it may be.”

On the subject of data, the statistics are alarming. Only one in five pets is recovered and only one per cent of thefts lead to charges. Convictions are fewer still and despite the availability of a sentence of up to seven years imprisonment, the likelihood is that they’ll get six months or less, suspended, or just a fine of £200-£250. Fines are low because they are linked to the monetary value of the dog, rather than the emotional impact on families of the loss of their pet. In other words, there is virtually no penalty for dog theft.

Photo by Erica Magugliani on Unsplash

Wayne May of DogLost, an organisation that reunites missing canines with their owners using its online database, says he has been doing the job for thirty years now, but has never seen a year like 2020.

“It’s more lucrative now to be a dog thief in the United Kingdom than to be a drug dealer because the punishment doesn’t fit the crime.”

Ms Hernandez believes that, while the majority of cases may be due to family disputes over pet ownership subsequent to relationship break-down, in 25 per cent of cases, organised crime is involved. “Organised criminals who might do the high-end crime, also like easy money, and they do that as part of their way to make some, and get involved in all sorts of things.”

On rare occasions, the thieves demand a ransom for the safe return of the pet, but this is not their usual route to a pay-off. The value of puppies in particular has sky-rocketed due to a large increase in demand for pets during lockdown. The Kennel Club reported an increase of 168 per cent in the demand for puppies, for example. Whereas at the very beginning of lockdown pet refuges were overwhelmed and begged people to stop dumping their pets – which people were doing for fear animals could transmit COVID to them – the situation soon reversed as the loneliness of lockdown took hold.

Photo by Victor Grabarczyk on Unsplash

Puppies that might have cost £500 in 2019 now sell for around £2,000, and the more popular breeds can go for as much £4,000. Thieves are particularly interested in gun dogs, pugs and crossbreeds. Your beloved pet being sold on for money is not the worst thing that can happen to it. The thieves target females to breed them, but they overbreed, turning your dog into a puppy factory, and they do it in the most abject of conditions, without the services of a vet.

What is our government doing about this?

NOTHING.

In 2007, Boris Johnson, then MP for Henley-on-Thames, said he backed action on pet theft. After a meeting with his constituents on this very topic, he said, “As someone who grew up in a household with thirteen much less valuable dogs, I can see why people care about this so much. This is a huge problem. It’s really opened my eyes to it.”

The Times reported: “Boris Johnson has enjoyed several jobs during his varied career but the Conservative MP has now turned detective to help his constituents to be reunited with their stolen dogs.”

Needless to say, it all came to nothing, it was just a stunt and Johnson has long forgotten the promises he made.

More recently, on February 12th this year, Priti Patel pledged to “go after pet thieves”. She told LBC Radio, “This is absolutely shocking, it’s a shocking crime that is taking place.” Now, here she is a month later with her Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Bill, being presented to Parliament at the start of pet theft awareness week. It’s the perfect opportunity to make good on her pledge, and what does it say about pet theft?

NOTHING.

I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised. After all, despite years of the #MeToo movement raising awareness of sexual assault in the workplace, an enhanced focus on domestic violence and the decline in rape convictions – despite an increase in reported cases – there is absolutely nothing in the PCSC Bill about violence against women. Ms Patel and the Tories are lavishing more love on protecting the statues of long-dead slavers than on modern-day women alive in the here and now.

What a disgrace. While Ms Patel chases down the last vestiges of individual democratic rights in this country, taking us back to a time before the Tolpuddle Martyrs when the right of assembly and protest did not exist, pet thieves continue to thrive and get off scot-free.

Since Ms Patel has deliberately ‘missed’ this opportunity to fulfil her pledge, we here at West Country Bylines have assembled advice from a variety of sources, including Dorset Police, as to measures you can take to protect your pet.

Protecting your pet

  • Be extra vigilant, especially if your dog is pregnant. Thieves are especially interested in pregnant dogs because the pups won’t be microchipped.
  • Avoid putting too many photos and details of your pet on social media.
  • Secure your property. For example, consider planting raised hedging to make your garden more private.
  • Make sure that any kennels or outhouses where dogs are kept are as secure as possible by fitting a good quality padlock with security lighting, alarms and CCTV.
  • Consider having CCTV and alarms linked to your phone to see what’s going on when you’re not at home.
  • Don’t leave your dog tied up outside a shop or leave it alone in your car.
  • By law, all dogs in England must be microchipped before they are 8 weeks old. Ensure the details are registered and up-to-date on the government website. 
  • All dogs should wear a collar with identification when in public, preferably one fitted with a GPS tracker, but please don’t put your dog’s name on the tag. Just a surname and contact number will do.
  • Buddy up with a fellow dog owner and walk with them. Safety in numbers – but respecting whatever social distancing norms are in place at the time.
  • Change your routine of where you walk and the times, so that thieves won’t know where your pet is at a specific time, and try to make sure that your dog is not out of sight during the walk.
  • Train your dog to return to you whenever it is called, and until it learns to do so, keep it on an extendable leash.
  • Try to confine your walks to daylight hours and to places where there are other people around if you are alone.
  • Always carry a torch, whistle and your phone with you when you take your dog for a walk, so that you can react quickly if the worst happens.
  • If you are approached by a stranger who shows an interest in your dog, don’t give out details such as name, age or breed. If your pup isn’t neutered, keep this information to yourself.
  • Always report suspicious behaviour to the police on 101, with as much detail as possible, such as the person’s appearance, what they were wearing, vehicle registration, etc.
  • If your dog is neutered, it will reduce the chances of the dog being stolen for breeding.
  • Consider having your dog tattooed in its ear with an identification number, as this will provide a visual deterrent as well as a permanent mark.

If your dog is stolen

If your dog goes missing, the first thing to do is to check the local area and your dog’s favourite spots. It may just have wandered off.

After searching yourself, if you cannot find your pet and you suspect it has been stolen, report it to the police, your local council’s dog warden and those in neighbouring local authorities, as well as animal shelters and charities like DogLost.

Insist that the police record it as a theft and not a lost animal, and be sure to ask for a crime reference number. Provide pet photos, a physical description and the dog’s microchip number. They will request details about what happened, including the time of day, who you saw, what they were wearing, what vehicle they were driving, etc.

Report the theft to the microchip database so that if anyone tries to re-register the chip number you’ll be alerted. Also, inform local pet shops and make sure any local vets know your dog has been stolen, on the off-chance that someone takes it in for treatment.

Spread the word. Ask other dog walkers to keep an eye out for your dog and make it ‘too hot to handle’ by sharing on social media, putting up posters in the local area and informing local media. Always include pictures and any distinctive marks in any appeals.

If someone claims that they have your dog and can reunite you with it, check that they are legitimate and always meet in a public place. Be wary if they ask you for money.

Photo by Michael Oxendine on Unsplash

We wish that we could end on a more positive note and can only hope that having to take all these extra precautions won’t take the joy out of owning a pet. Watching a dog gambolling in the woods, following a scent and rolling in the dirt has to be one of life’s simplest and greatest pleasures. We wish you happy times with your pet.