In-depth advice on how to buy dogs from a reputable seller and expert advice on how to keep your dog safe from dog thieves. By Camilla Swift.
How can you ensure that you are buying a puppy from a reputable seller? And what should you do to keep your dog safe from dog thieves?’’
While some people have spent the past year of lockdown perfecting their knitting skills or learning to use Zoom, thousands of others have been busy house-training puppies. Demand for dogs went through the roof in 2020. In May, the Kennel Club reported a 237% rise in searches for puppies on its website.
With dogs in such high demand, it is no surprise that the price of puppies exploded. A quick scan reveals golden retriever pups for £4,000 each, so-called silver labradors for £4,500 and even cockerpoos for £3,750 per pup.
With the pandemic restricting travel, many people have turned to the internet to find puppies, however, the worry with many of these sites is that unlike sourcing a pup from a registered breeder or a friend, you don’t know how honest the seller is.
In its own way, lockdown has played into the hands of dodgy dealers: with buyers often unable to travel to visit a litter of puppies, it is increasingly common for people only to see photos or videos of a dog before they put down a deposit or pick it up. There are also numerous stories of ‘puppy scammers’, who take deposits for puppies and then simply disappear.
All this makes it easier for people to sell stolen dogs and helps explain why website DogLost.co.uk reported a 170% increase in the number of missing dogs since the start of the pandemic. The Stolen and Missing Pets Alliance estimates that as many as 10 dogs a day are being snatched – and dog thieves are coming up with all manner of methods to take them. There have been reports in Wales of people turning up at people’s homes claiming to be from the RSPCA and, for the first time, even guide dogs have been targeted.
Dog thieves on social media
One dog-owning friend in South London is a member of several dedicated dog theft WhatsApp groups: “It’s like neighbourhood watch, but for dogs.” The group messages are a long list of suspicious activities: men in parks taking photographs of people dog walking; people making a fuss of dogs and asking about their breeding; people being followed home while walking their dogs…
It is thought that a large number of dogs are ‘stolen to order’. Many of these will be fashionable breeds, but it isn’t just pet dogs that are being stolen – working dogs are hot property, too. Two years ago, stalker and estate manager Paul Childerley had a number of spaniels stolen from kennels at his workplace near Woburn, Bedfordshire. They took four dogs, all of which were retrieved after one was handed in to a vet. “The rural crimes officer was really good,” says Childerley. “She walked into the camp and retrieved the other dogs.”
A year later, despite increased security, his dogs were stolen again – this time when the Game Fair was on at Hatfield House. “We assume it was somebody doing a transaction at the Game Fair, because mine were found below the Game Fair area,” he explains.
Each time it happened they increased security, with all the kennels roofed and locked, plus cameras and alarms. “The third time, they just drove the vehicle into the side of the kennel, smashed the kennel and took my best cocker dog, who was gone for about four months.”
Childerley suspects his cocker was stolen to use as a stud dog. Through gaining access to a ‘closed group’ for dog sales on Facebook, the dog was eventually retrieved. “Every time they’ve been well-groomed, washed, their nails are clipped and the feet are clipped out,” he explains. “There’s nothing wrong with the dogs when they come back; they’re obviously stolen for a purpose.”
The British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC) has been highlighting the increase in incidents of dog theft, along with offering advice on keeping dogs safe. “Dog theft is an unimaginable horror, traumatising owners and impacting whole communities,” says Kate Dymock, BASC’s gundog officer. “Working gundogs are special as they are not just a beloved pet but are highly trained and indispensable to their owners. Their working qualities, biddable characteristics and outdoor lifestyle can make them a particular target for criminals.”
Childerley highlights the fashion for cockerpoos (cocker spaniel x poodles), which he believes might have made his working cockers more attractive to dog thieves. The Kennel Club agrees that certain breeds are more attractive to dog thieves. “Popular breeds, like French bulldogs, cocker spaniels and labradors, as well as ‘designer crossbreeds’ such as cockerpoos, seem increasingly to be the victim,” explains Kennel Club spokesman Bill Lambert. “Criminals see a money-making opportunity and exploit these bursts of popularity.”
But the reality is that any dog can be a target. Those in the hunting fraternity may have heard that five hounds were taken from the Westerby Basset kennels in Leicestershire in February. “In all my time in hunt service I have never known a kennels be raided and have that many hounds taken, which is quite alarming,” says Bruce Langley McKim MFH. “We have had the police come in, and they’re trying their best, but [dog theft] is less than priority for them.”
He believes it may not be a coincidence that two weeks before the hounds were stolen, all the hunt’s information was hacked and published on the Hunting Leaks website – which made the location of the hunt kennels freely available. “There was some infighting on the hunt saboteurs page,” he says. “Some people were saying well done, you’ve now enabled the hounds to be stolen. The thing with bassets is they’re small, so you can just lift them.”
Taking on the dog thieves
So what can be done to clamp down on dog thieves – and what is being done? The police response to dog theft depends on which constabulary you are dealing with. Paul Childerley says that his local rural crime team has always been helpful. Others have had less satisfactory responses, stating that the police need to have more powers to stop and search, and enter properties.
On 30 October 2017, Becca Smith’s two spaniels, Flora and Clover – a cocker and a springer – were stolen from their kennel in her father’s garden near Halstead, Essex. She rang the police to report the crime, but “I didn’t feel like they tried to do anything. They told me to post it all over Facebook and gave me a crime reference number.” They told her there was little else they could do. Despite looking at hundreds of pictures of ‘lost’ spaniels, there has been no sign of them. The hope is that they might one day turn up but, as Becca says, “the problem is you don’t actually know what they’re doing with them. People say that they’ll be used as breeding bitches, but I don’t know that; I don’t know that they’re not being used for bait; that they’ve not been killed.”
Success stories do exist. Pauline Turner’s sheepdog turned up three years after she had disappeared from their farm in Sussex, after a friend spotted her in a television report of a police raid in Leeds, where 28 stolen dogs were found.
Of course, different forces have different tactics and varying amounts of resource to dedicate to the problem. In March, Nottinghamshire Police announced that they were planning to appoint a dedicated chief inspector to deal with dog theft – the first appointment of its kind in the country.
“There is growing alarm – both locally and nationally – over the threat of dog theft,” explained Emma Foody, Nottinghamshire’s deputy police and crime commissioner. “As a dog owner myself, I know just how worrying this issue is, and I’m determined to fight for tougher penalties for those involved in this despicable crime.”
Nottinghamshire Police were keen to highlight that they “have not seen a significant spike in dog theft” – but that they want to keep it that way. Similarly, Surrey Police state that “in Surrey, the number of reported dog thefts remains low”, but confirmed that criminals are stealing dogs “to breed from or sell on for a profit”. The same week, it was reported that the Sussex Police Rural Crime Team had recovered 10 dogs on a raid in Surrey. Some forces – including Darlington Police – have invested in microchip scanners.
Currently dog theft is classed as a minor crime, with minimal punishments. As Bill Lambert of the Kennel Club puts it, “Currently, the theft of a dog is treated no more seriously than the theft of a mobile phone, despite the utter heartbreak it causes.”
This is something that many people believe needs to change. Last year, petitions urging the Government to make dog theft a specific criminal offence led to a Westminster Hall debate on the topic. But in January, DEFRA responded that: “While the Government takes the issue of dog theft very seriously and is concerned by suggestions that occurrences are on the rise, we consider the legislative tools we have in place to deal with cases of dog theft to be robust and proportionate.”
Tom Hunt, MP for Ipswich, led the Westminster Hall debate and believes that “we’re fighting this growing tide [of pet thefts] with outdated and underpowered laws”. After the debate, he and Siobhan Baillie, MP for Stroud, wrote to the Sentencing Council asking them to amend the sentencing guidelines for pet theft and to make more specific reference to the damage it does. “The response was very disappointing,” says Hunt.
Following this response, the pair have written once again to the Lord Chancellor, as well as to DEFRA Minister Victoria Prentis. “The only way I think we’re going to get action on this is for Parliament to take the lead,” explains Hunt. “It was clear when I led the Westminster Hall debate that there was a strong cross-party consensus that action was needed, yet at the same time it does feel a bit like I’ve been hitting my head against a brick wall for the past few months. I’m working closely with my colleague the Member for Stroud and campaigners to get action on this, and we won’t give up doing everything we can.”
In the meantime, what can people do to keep their dogs safe? It is a legal requirement for all dogs to be microchipped over the age of eight weeks, and all the dogs mentioned in this piece were chipped. But there is no legislation for microchip scanning – so it doesn’t always happen.
Gloucestershire’s independent police and crime commissioner recently suggested introducing identity documents for dogs. “It’s not hard to do, a simple piece of legislation,” explained Martin Surl, who believes that microchips are not sufficient. “When you find a dog, the person has to prove it’s theirs, not the other way around.”
Both Bruce Langley McKim and Paul Childerley have upped their security. “We’ve spent £3,000 putting in an alarm system at our kennels, which is connected to all our phones,” says Langley McKim.
When out and about, the police recommend being mindful of anyone trying to distract you or draw your dog’s attention away from you, and to invest in a personal safety alarm. Langley McKim also recommends tying or using a carabiner to attach your dog’s lead to a harness – rather than a clip-on lead to a collar – and to use a chain-style lead that can’t be cut.
Social media pages are a good stalking ground for dog thieves, and putting pictures of dogs – particularly litters of puppies – on Facebook and Instagram isn’t wise. Becca Smith reports an incident local to her where a lady advertised a dog for sale online, and “people barged through her door, broke in and stole the dog”. “Everyone loves the fact that I have foals and pups being born,” says Langley McKim, “but I just can’t share pictures.”
There is also an onus on people buying dogs to make sure that their dog is coming from a good home. “When breeders are charging £3,000 for a puppy it is pricing people out the market, so demand for no-questions-asked puppies is growing,” says Sarah Lee of the Countryside Alliance. “People looking at the thousands of adverts online probably don’t realise that many of them are fake, from illegal breeders or are dogs stolen from loving family homes. We all have a responsibility in trying to stamp out this despicable trade by researching the breeder and asking questions, and not paying a deposit without seeing the dog. If a dog seems too good to be true, it probably is.”
What can you do to tackle dog thieves?
- Sign the petition to make dog theft a specific offence on: petition.parliament.uk (type in ‘dog theft’).
- If you’re getting a new dog, make sure you source it responsibly. Most people selling online will be genuine but do try to visit the puppy before you put down any money, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. A genuine seller will be happy to answer.
- Get behind campaigns to create pet passports or pet IDs. As Martin Surl of Gloucestershire Police said, the onus should be on the owner to prove that a dog is theirs. ‘‘ Police response depends on which constabulary you are dealing with
How to keep your dog safe
DO: Take plenty of clear photos of your pet, including any distinctive markings.
DO: Ensure your pet is microchipped and registered with up-to-date information – and take note of the microchip number.
DO: Pay attention to your surroundings and know where your dog is at all times when out walking. If someone is following or watching you and your dog in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable, call the police.
DO: Ensure gardens, yards or dog paddocks are secure so no one can gain entry and a dog cannot squeeze through any fences or hedges.
DON’T: Leave your dog unattended in the garden, the car or outside shops, if you can help it.
DON’T: Post pictures of your pet on public social media pages, and review your social media security settings. Be careful with sharing details about your location or favourite walking spots.
DON’T: Boast about your dog in the pub or in public – you never know who’s listening.
If your dogs live in kennels
DO: Make it as hard as possible for someone to break in. Use multiple locks and have CCTV cameras covering the kennel as a deterrent – ideally, use alarmed padlocks or infra-red sensors.
DO: Install panic alarms where you can – particularly ones that can be controlled remotely. Remember, CCTV might help you to identify culprits but a loud noise is more likely to scare them off or minimise the time spent on your property.
DO: Try to ensure any vehicular access to the kennels is secured/gated, so vehicles can’t drive up to or into buildings.
DO: Build your kennel as close as possible to your home. ‘‘ Some forces have invested in microchip scanners