For most of us, reports of yet another stolen working gundog are just a depressing reminder of an apparently growing criminal activity, but the harsh reality of dog theft was brought home to me last season. I had been shooting as a guest on a small shoot in East Sussex, one I had been a founder member of more than 30 years before. My spaniels had enjoyed a hard day’s hunting, so I elected not to wait for duck but to go back to the car early.

My car was parked with those of my fellow guns off road but next to a quiet country lane that is a no-through road. For more than three decades syndicate members and guests have parked their cars here without any problems. As I walked to my car I noticed that the back window of a fellow gun’s pick-up truck had been smashed and a metal grille levered open, revealing an empty dog box. The vehicle belonged to a professional gundog trainer. My own estate car was untouched. I was on my way home from a holiday in France, and my car contained over 40 litres of wine, a laptop computer, two pairs of Swarovski binoculars and numerous other goodies.

The theft of the dog (Archie, a black working cocker dog, belonging to Selena Masson, the former news editor of Shooting Times) was clearly planned and not the work of an opportunist. Most thieves would, I’m sure, have felt themselves much better off with the contents of my car than a single spaniel. It’s difficult to put an exact value on such a dog but, on the legitimate market, around £1,000 would not be too far off. If Archie had been a field trial winner or a field trial champion, the value would be much higher.

Archie is both tattooed and microchipped, so instantly identifiable to anyone who scans him or checks him over. As such, he is a difficult dog to sell on, especially without papers. Despite considerable publicity in local papers, on television and in the sporting press, nothing has been heard of him since the theft. Two big questions remain unanswered: why was he stolen, and what’s happened to him since?

Frustratingly, dog theft isn’t a crime that the police are interested in. The theft of an animal worth, on paper, a mere £1,000, scarcely qualifies as more than petty crime, despite the fact that the theft of a much-loved dog can be as devastating as losing a member of the family. The police have a poor record in solving dog crimes, which is not really surprising. Most thefts are simply recorded in the general theft category.

Several stolen dogs have been traced to travellers’ camps, which are apparently no-go areas for the police. A trainer I know of had his Land Rover Discovery stolen, together with five spaniels, from his drive. The vehicle was recovered but only one of the spaniels was picked up, wandering outside a travellers’ camp. The trainer was convinced that the other dogs were being held inside the camp but the police declined to go in and search it for them.

Stolen dogs are sometimes ransomed, and always for a substantial sum of money. Another acquaintance of mine had his working springer spaniel stolen from his car parked outside a pub where he was having lunch. He was eventually offered the dog back, the new “owner” of the spaniel claiming to have bought the dog legitimately, but having decided to sell it on after discovering its rightful owner. Decline to pay the ransom and the dog will probably end up dead.

Most dogs, it seems, are being stolen to order, though the mystery remains as to who exactly is doing the ordering. Some dogs are certainly used for breeding – the lack of Kennel Club registration papers is only a minor inconvenience to a thief. One black cocker looks very much like another, and the Kennel Club does not require registered dogs to be identifiable by microchip, making the registration system fatally flawed.

Some dogs certainly go for export, and it is rumoured, but not substantiated, that many stolen working gundogs end up in Ireland. Sometimes the thief finds a dog that is clearly too hot to handle. Carole Martin’s Championship Stake winning pointer Tally (FTCh Sparkfield Talent) was stolen from locked kennels in Carole’s Cornish garden, the thief cutting through weldmesh to get the dog. Why anyone would want to steal Tally remains a mystery, as even the very best working pointers sell for modest amounts of money.

Carole worked tirelessly to recover Tally, with friends and family phoning every rescue centre, port and kennels in the country. Nine weeks later she was brought in as a stray to a rescue kennel in Lancashire, though she was so emaciated that at first she was thought to be a greyhound, not a pointer. However, scanning of her ID chip revealed her identity. Carole was on her way north to collect the dog within an hour of hearing of her discovery. “She wasn’t really worth anything to anyone else, but she was priceless to me,” she remarked afterwards.

Few cases of dog theft have such happy endings, but it is a reminder of the importance of having your dog microchipped – something that is likely to be compulsory in the not too distant future. Most vets offer microchipping, as do many kennels, with the cost ranging from £10 to £25. The disadvantage of chipping is that there is no visual evidence to deter thieves, which is why tattooing is a good alternative or a further option.

If you have no intention of breeding from your dog then neutering is worth considering, as a dog that cannot be bred from is less attractive to thieves. It is important to ensure that it is a well-known fact that the dog has been neutered. Fitting a collar tag with this information on it makes sense.

Owners are also advised to photograph their dog from every angle. Good photographs are invaluable for wanted posters or for lost-dog websites. Particular emphasis should be given to photographing individual features that might aid identification – easy with a springer but not so easy for solid-coloured dogs like labradors and most cockers.

Of course, even more important than making your dog easily identifiable is ensuring that it is not stolen or lost in the first place. Most vulnerable are dogs that live in outdoor kennels. Even commercially constructed kennels are generally made to keep dogs in, but not humans out. Most I have seen would be very difficult to make totally thief-proof. Security can be radically improved with lights and CCTV, which is a surprisingly inexpensive option. If in doubt, you should seek professional help.

Thieves hate making noise, so fitting a bell that rings when your garden gate opens makes sense, as does a similar system for kennel doors. Intriguingly, most reported cases of gundog theft have taken place in daylight, and in most instances the thieves appear to have a detailed knowledge of which dogs they are after and their owners’ movements.

If your dog is stolen, mounting a serious and dedicated campaign to recover it is worthwhile. Somerset farmer Andrew Jeanes did just that when his two working cockers were stolen from his farm at Nether Stowey last year. CCTV showed a pick-up driving in, but the image was too indistinct for the registration number to be read. However, as a result of his hard work the dogs were eventually traced to addresses in south Somerset, from which they were recovered. Mr Jeanes’s experience proves that you should never give up.