It’s every dog owner’s worst nightmare – finding out that their beloved pet has gone missing. What can make this ordeal even worse is discovering that a dog has been stolen by professional thieves.
Sadly this heartrending crime is very much on the increase, leaving thousands of dog owners bereft as a much-loved family member is snatched from under their noses, with a survey by Sussex Police and Crime Commissioner Katy Bourne finding that 22% of people surveyed knew someone whose dog had been stolen within the last year and Wayne May from Dog Lost telling the BBC "I've been doing this for 30 years now and it's the worst I've ever known." Even high profile celebrities are not immune, with the theft of Lady Gaga's French bulldogs making global headlines.
Dog theft is on the rise
Recent figures show that dog theft has grown by about 250% nationwide since the start of the 2020 pandemic.
The number of stolen dogs in each region may be small but they add up. In February 2021 over 70 stolen dogs were found during a raid in Carmarthenshire, estimated to be worth £40,000, while in March a further 83 dogs were recovered in Ipswich.
Stolen dogs are sometimes held for ransom while others are sold on, often several times, with puppy prices increasing recently from £500 to £2,000 for certain breeds. A few dogs may be lucky enough to end up in a decent home, but many will be dumped or used for backyard breeding.
Owners report dogs stolen from kennels and outhouses, while others are taken as they are being walked, or in specifically-targeted burglaries. Sometimes runaway dogs are picked up off the street and either kept or held for ransom, which was the case with Caspar the shih tzu in Cheshire. After bolting his owners received a call the next day, demanding £1,000 in cash for the safe return. "When you lose something like that - a member of your family, it is completely devastating, I've never experienced pain like this," his owner told Cheshire Live.
Staffordshire bull terriers, cocker spaniels, springer spaniels and chihuahuas are some of the most popular targets. Some animals are stolen to order by organised gangs while others are sold, often over the internet, to buyers in other parts of Britain, with the average price of a dog rising from £888 in 2019 to £1,883 in 2020, and some breeds, such as cavapoos (cavalier spaniel x poodle) and cockapoos (cocker spaniel x poodle) selling for up to £3,000. With prices like these it's no wonder dog theft is replacing metal theft as the opportunistic crime of choice.
Over half of stolen dogs are taken from back gardens, but many others are stolen from parked cars or even snatched from the hands of people out walking them. In one incident, an 11-year-old pug named Dora was stolen during her daily walk in Lydd, when a masked individual detached the dog's lead and ran off with her. Dora was found a week layer, 65 miles away in Bexleyheath.
There are some happy endings, with many of the dogs recovered from the Carmarthenshire raids being returned to their owners. In one incident six stolen dogs were recovered within two days, thanks the vehicle description provided by the victim.
But for thousands more people, the outcome is not a happy one. The percentage of stolen dogs returned to their owners is estimated to be between 17 and 22%. However there are steps you can take to not only reduce the risk of your dog being stolen but also increasing the chance of being reunited should the worst happen.
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Dog theft markings - fact or fiction?
One commonly held belief is that professional crooks mark houses with what is known as burglar marks. It is believed that some of these marks might indicate where desirable dogs are a potential target, although they could equally be warning about yappy burglar alarms. These marks can include scratches on trees, lengths of plastic tied to fences, wheelie bins, trees or gates, or symbols on or near the house in paint or chalk. Some believe colour-coded chalk or plastic tape is used to indicate the size of dog inside.
In a March 2021 case in Leicestershire a house where a dog was stolen from was found to have markings in white paint that reflected UV light, making them more visible at night. Thankfully in this case the dog was recovered very quickly. A short time after, in Nottinghamshire, a woman walking her dog was approached by a man who tried to take her French bulldog from her. She was able to get home safely and alert the police, but marks were discovered on a tree in her garden.
There's no concrete evidence that these marks necessarily mean anything, however some ex-burglars have come forward and said that they can indeed be used by organised criminal groups to either highlight a house of interest or even deter them from houses deemed high risk. However, strange symbols daubed in paint are also used to mark roads and pavements with symbols for laying cables, manholes, and kerb repair, so don't immediately panic if you find something in the street.
If you spot anything suspicious around your house photograph it, alert your local police and check with neighbouring houses to see whether they have found any similar strange marks, and if so what the correlation is between your house and theirs. All this information can be useful for police and your local Neighbourhood Watch. Take the opportunity to review your home security, including making sure doors and windows are secure, burglars can't see into your home and gardens are secure. These marks may well be harmless, but it's better to be safe than sorry.
The importance of microchipping your dog
A microchip won’t stop your dog from being stolen, but it will increase your chances of getting your pet back.
Microchipping your dog became a legal requirement in 2016 and you can be fined £500 for not chipping your dog, but having a chip that isn't kept up-to-date means you make it hard to be reunited with your dog, should he or she ever run away or get stolen - and a surprising amount of people don't bother updating their details when they move house or change their phone number. The Dogs Trust estimate that two out of every three stray dogs that get brought in have out of date or incorrect details. This is about 10 dogs a day unable to be reunited with their owners.
A surprising amount of dogs are found years later so keep your details updated even if you move months or years after your dog went missing. In one case, a German shepherd named Kavik was found 300 miles away from home after being missing for eight years.
You should also ensure you have an ID tag on your dog.
Document your dog
This might sound strange, but it's important to not only keep documentation such as microchip details but to also keep a record of your dog. Mug shots of your dog from the front, both sides and back can help identify your dog should you need to track him down. Take close up photos of distinctive markings such as 'socks' or patterns on the belly. It's gruesome to think about, but there have been cases where stolen dogs have had their microchips cut from their bodies so descriptions and photographs might be the only way to reunite dog and owner.
Dog theft prevention tips
Keep your garden secure
The Kennel Club estimate that about 52% of stolen dogs are taken from the garden. Make sure your garden is secure - keep gates locked, install motion lights and make sure there are no gaps for your dog to escape from. If your garden is accessible from an alleyway, road or public space such as a park or woodland try to have fences tall enough to block the view of your garden. A trellis can be attached to existing fences to make them taller and help obscure the view.
Read our tips for dog-proofing your home and garden
Don't leave your dog tied up outside shops
It was once common for people to tie up their dogs outside shops. Many older buildings still even include loops for attaching leads. With the increase in dog thefts this is no longer recommended because it's so easy for someone to swipe dogs unnoticed. In March 2021 police released CCTV footage of two labradors, Denzel and Welly, being led away from outside an M&S in Nantwich, Cheshire, while their owners were shopping. Pets taken from outside shops make up about 7% of stolen dogs.
Be vigilant when walking your dog
Some dogs get snatched when out walking, in fact it's estimated that about 16% of stolen dogs are taken in this way. Keep an eye on any unusual activity such as people watching your dogs, trying to call them over or taking photos. Be aware of vans pulling up near where you are walking and avoid waking right past them. If you suspect someone might be watching you walking your dog give your local police a description and try to vary your walking routine so your route is unpredictable. Walk in pairs or small groups, if you can. Follow dog Facebook groups in your local area and you will have access to a community reporting any unusual activity. Keep your dog on a lead when out in areas with a lot of people milling about, and discourage people from bending over to pet your dog, especially if they are blocking your view of what they are doing. Dogs can end up unclipped and dragged or carried off.
Be social media savvy
We all want to post photos of our beloved pets to social media, but be cautious when doing so. Don't advertise your location and be aware of your privacy settings. This is particularly important if you have a puppy or a litter of puppies as these are highly desirable, and half of stolen dogs are puppies or young dogs.
Don't leave your dog alone in the car
Not only is leaving dogs in the car risky in warm weather, it can also advertise your unsupervised dog to passers by, and about 5% of stolen dogs are taken from cars. You're unlikely to leave an expensive laptop or mobile phone within view, so why leave a £3,000 cockapoo? A cranked window could end up forced open or even smashed to get to your dog inside.
Dog theft prevention devices
An increase in dog thefts has seen an influx of devices aimed at protecting your pooch. These vary from high end GPS trackers (although the collar may be cut or removed so this isn't a guarantee) to ways of better securing leads. One popular design replaces the usual clip with a carabiner, which is more fiddly to remove than the usual clip. Other brands, such as Petloc, use an actual padlock, but there's currently such high demand for them they sell out quickly.
It's worth considering a home CCTV kit, especially if your dog spends time in the garden. These have become considerably more affordable in recent years, with prices for home cameras starting at about £30. If you want to store recordings you will need to pay a bit more. Brands such as Annke sell cameras with a separate hard drive that can back up your recordings and attach to multiple cameras. Others will use cloud storage, but monthly fees might apply. Even the presence of a camera should act as a burglar deterrent.
Read our guide to burglar-proofing your house
What to do if you think your dog has been stolen
- Contact the police immediately and make sure the crime is logged by them as dog theft and not just a lost dog. Ask for a crime reference number.
- Doglost.co.uk is a national community of thousands of dog owners and volunteers helping to reunite lost dogs with their owners. They can advise on what to do to maximise your chances of finding your dog.
- Report the theft to your Local Authority’s Dog Warden service.
- Report it to one of the databases, such as Petlog, Anibase, PETtrac, PetProtect and SmartChip.
- Inform your vet and as many local practices as you can.
- Check with neighbours, postal workers, shops, post offices, and other businesses.
- Hand out flyers/posters – someone may have seen something.
- Approach local media – newspapers, radio stations and television could help to publicise your missing dog.
- Keep safe receipts, micro-chip documents, photographs and anything that proves your dog belongs to you.
- Register your dog with as many missing pet websites as possible, including Animal Search UK, UK National Missing Pet Register and Lost Dogs UK.
- Post on your local Facebook groups. Search your town or county and 'missing pets' and you will probably find groups for lost and found pets.
Is dog theft a criminal offence?
Dog theft is currently a criminal offence under the Theft Act 1968, which carries a maximum penalty of seven years imprisonment. Additional crimes under the Animal Welfare Act 2006 could also apply if an animal is harmed during the theft, although this currently only carries a maximum sentence of six months imprisonment, due to rise to five years once the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill passes. There is currently a petition to make dog theft a specific criminal offence.