The government is set to make pet theft a criminal offence in its own right, with stiffer sentences for crooks who have seen it as low-risk, high-reward. The move comes in the wake of a huge surge in the crime, with thousands of dogs and cats stolen in the last year and a half.
Lockdown brought with it a huge demand for people wanting dogs, to keep them company in long hours spent alone at home. Sadly, that sparked a huge rise in dog theft, with 2,000 dogs reported stolen last year.
In response, the government set up a pet theft task force to look at what could be done — and one of their key recommendations is that it be classified as a new criminal offence.
At present, pet theft is treated only under property theft laws, which limits the punishment that can be handed out by judges. Sentencing is based in part on monetary value of what has been stolen, meaning that convicted dog thieves faced very short sentences, and meaning that dog theft was a low-risk, high-reward crime.
‘We hope this will encourage courts to hand out much tougher sentences to pet thieves,’ the RSPCA’s Chris Sherwood told the BBC.
Other measures suggested include demanding proof of ID for listing online pet adverts, a requirement to provide more information registering a microchip or transferring pet ownership, making it easier to track pets recorded on different microchip databases, improving the collection and recording of pet theft data and increasing awareness of the issue.
Earlier this year, Katy Birchall reported on the pet theft problem and offered suggestions on how you can protect your pooch – or get him or her back if the worst happens. Her piece, and the tips for what you can do, follow below.
How to prevent your dog from being stolen
Make sure their microchip information is up to date and note the microchip number in your phone, so you always have it to hand
When out walking, avoid isolated areas and vary your route and times. Be wary of strangers asking questions and don’t let your dog off lead until you are confident in its recall
Never leave your dog unattended, either in a vehicle or tied outside a shop. Don’t leave them unsupervised in the garden — always keep them in view
Install CCTV, motion-activated lights, locks, sensors or bells on gates
If your dogs are kennelled, use locks and chains and obstruct vehicle access. Make sure kennels aren’t visible from the road
Take photos of your dog on your phone for proof of ownership, noting distinguishing markings and features — think carefully before posting dog photos on social media
What to do if your dog gets stolen
Call the microchip company your dog is registered with and list them as missing
Contact the police and get a crime reference number
Get in touch with local vets, dog wardens, shelters and charities. Visit www.doglost.co.uk to register your dog as missing
Put up posters of your dog in the local area with contact details and use social media to get the word out — make your dog ‘too hot to handle’
One morning last May, gamekeeper Jon Gaunt of Brightling Park in East Sussex found his kennels had been broken into and three of his spaniels stolen.
‘The ordeal I’ve been through — that I’m still going through — is horrendous. It’s agony,’ he says.
Mr Gaunt has since got one dog back and is desperately searching for another still missing; he believes the third was rescued during a police raid and is doing everything he can to get her home.
‘It’s a rollercoaster of emotions,’ he admits. ‘Puppy prices are so high — think like a thief when keeping dogs secure. Make it as difficult for them as possible.’
Dog theft has dramatically soared during the pandemic, as the nation’s lockdowns resulted in a growing demand for puppies. Between March and August 2020, the Kennel Club (KC) saw a 161% rise in puppy searches via its website, compared with the same period in 2019, and the price for sought-after breeds has skyrocketed. The Dogs Trust reports that the price of beagles went up by 157% between March and December last year, with that of dachshunds up 112%.
“If your dog is stolen, it’s a traumatic and life-changing event”
With targeted dogs stolen to be sold on, bred from or held for ransom, DogLost, a charity dedicated to reuniting pets with their owners, witnessed dog-theft reports increase by 250% last year, compared with 2019.
The National Police Chiefs’ Council has consequently released a warning about organised criminals exploiting the lucrative puppy market, urging dog owners to take extra precautions — the KC reports that 52% of stolen dogs are taken from gardens.
‘If your dog is stolen, it’s a traumatic and life-changing event,’ says Debbie Matthews, co-founder of Stolen and Missing Pets Alliance, which campaigns for tougher pet-theft legislation and compulsory microchip scanning by vets.
‘In the eyes of the law, pets are simply regarded as property. We’ve had three successful pet-theft reform petitions, showing overwhelming public support. Something has to change.’
Under the Theft Act of 1968, dogs are regarded as inanimate objects when stolen, their sentience and role in family life not taken into consideration. Dog theft is not a specific offence, but is equivalent to a mobile phone being snatched, with no regard for the distress that exceeds any associated financial cost.
According to Daniel Allen of the Pet Theft Reform campaign, only 1% of these thefts in recent years have led to prosecution. Those that are caught are generally given a suspended sentence or a fine, often of no more than £250 — it is, therefore, regarded as a low-risk, high-reward crime.
Following calls for stricter penalties from former Conservative leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith, Home Secretary Priti Patel announced that she’s looking into tougher pet-theft measures.
The Conservative MP for Ipswich, Tom Hunt, has written an open letter to the Sentencing Council urging action. ‘Criminals are taking advantage of our lax sentencing,’ he believes. ‘These are the pets that have cared for us and been the greatest of companions, especially over this pandemic. We need to better protect the animals and the owners who are the victims of this horrendous crime.’
The National Gamekeepers’ Organisation (NGO) has recently launched its own campaign, calling on police and crime commissioners in England and Wales for a national intelligence register to help co-ordinate a nationwide response.
‘Dog thefts need to be collated,’ enthuses Tim Weston of the NGO. ‘With a register, the police could work out a pattern — who is doing it, where and when it’s happening. Theft of working dogs has always been a problem, but the criminals are more organised now.’
Prevention is key and Kate Dymock of the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC) recommends viewing your set-up as a thief might. ‘How fast can they get to your dogs?’ she asks. ‘Motion-sensor security lights, alarmed padlocks and CCTV systems all act as deterrents. If you have kennels, think about where they’re placed — keep them away from a road and close to your house. Make them less visible and minimise vehicle access.’
Wayne May of DogLost emphasises the importance of buying puppies from a reputable breeder: ‘It’s easy to check with your local authority. If it’s someone who’s decided to breed their pet, make sure the puppy is microchipped, above 12 weeks of age and with its mother. Only view puppies at a residential property. The breeder should happily answer questions and want to ask you questions, too. Common sense plays a vital role. Any alarm bells, walk away.’
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