Dognappers beware: we’re on your tail

With rising demand driving up prices of puppies, thieves are resorting to violence to steal them, leaving families heartbroken. Lorraine Fisher talks to the owners teaming up to stop the snatchers.

dog missing poster
A missing poster for Ted the sprocker spaniel, whose owner was attacked by thugs. Image: Lucinda Jasper/SWNS.COM/Getty Images

Walking her devoted dog through the countryside near her Wigan home should have been the most relaxing part of the day for Tracey Bilski. Instead, she was on tenterhooks every time Charlie, a ten-year-old cavachon (a cross between a bichon frise and a king charles cavalier), disappeared from view.

Tracey, 51, a professional dog-walker, had listened to so many stories about dogs being stolen that she feared Charlie could be next. ‘I heard about a man being attacked in the local park by people trying to steal his dog,’ she says. ‘He needed hospital treatment. Thieves also broke into a nearby house and stole seven french bulldog puppies when the owners were out.’ In January a lurcher called Socks had been bundled into a car by three men, leaving her owner distraught.

Because of her work, Tracey is acutely aware of the special place dogs hold in their owners’ hearts. She knows the heartbreak that accompanies the loss of a beloved companion – and if that loss is through theft, she adds, the pain can be unbearable. ‘Weeks and months searching, not knowing your dog’s fate and thinking it’s your fault for not keeping a closer watch. I can’t imagine anything worse.’

Yet it’s a nightmare that’s increasingly coming true for owners in the UK. Incidents of dog theft went up by a fifth in 2020, with an estimated 2,438 dogs – that’s equivalent to almost seven a day – reported stolen to the police, although charities think the overall figure is far higher.

The number of dog owners soared in lockdown, with 2.2 million people acquiring animals in the first six months of the pandemic. As demand escalated, so too did the price – which has risen to average of £800 per animal, though many do cost thousands. The most popular breeds (and most valuable to thieves) are staffordshire bull terriers, english bulldogs, cavapoos (king charles cavaliers crossed with poodles), miniature dachshunds, cockapoos (cocker spaniels crossed with poodles) and french bulldogs.

Tracey Bilski
Tracey Bilski with her cavachon Charlie

While some dog theft is opportunism, there are also organised gangs that steal to order or to supply puppy farms. Unneutered animals are particularly attractive as they can be used for breeding – often kept in horrific conditions in filthy cages.

While it’s UK law for all puppies over eight weeks to be microchipped, not all owners do this, and many puppies are stolen before they’re chipped. Savvy thieves also remove chips from older animals to hide their background from new families.

Dogs have become such a valuable commodity that thieves will even use violence. In the past six months alone, a british bulldog puppy called Spot was stolen at knifepoint in Southeast London, a nine-week-old american bulldog called Cairo was snatched by three machete-wielding thugs in Glasgow and a sprocker spaniel called Ted was stolen after thieves punched his owner in the back and pushed him to the ground.

Some owners have successfully fought back (though police don’t advise risking your safety). Student Ally Knight, 22, got two black eyes after fending off two men trying to steal her pug in Plymouth, while former amateur boxer James Cosens refused to hand over his collie pup Rosi despite being threatened with a knife.

Northwest England, where Tracey lives, has become a dognapping hotspot, accounting for 15 per cent of reported thefts last year. The area’s large open spaces make walkers easy targets and many women are becoming too scared to venture out alone, she says.

Realising something needed to be done, Tracey discovered DogHorn (doghorn.uk), a grassroots initiative created to tackle the crime at a community level. Anyone worried about dog theft in their area can set up a local group online. Members band together into a neighbourhood dog-watch and walk in groups, wearing hi-vis jackets and lanyards to let thieves know that they’re alert.

According to DogHorn founder Nigel King, these acts can be a powerful deterrent. If dog thieves know local owners are primed, they think twice about striking.

Nigel, a 67-year-old former RAF pilot, launched the scheme last November after witnessing his friend’s distress at the loss of her springer spaniel Nora while on a walk near Druridge Bay, Northumberland. ‘She was one of four dogs being walked and the only one that disappeared,’ recalls Nigel, who has his own miniature schnauzer, Timber. ‘They’re very valuable gun dogs that always come when called – it’s for that reason we believe Nora was stolen. At first we hoped she’d just been lost – theft seemed too scary – but after four days of no sightings, we knew she’d been taken. We called the police but as we hadn’t witnessed a crime, there was nothing they could do.’

Nigel King
DogHorn founder Nigel King with Timber the schnauzer

More than six months later, her owner is devastated. ‘Nora hasn’t been recovered and we don’t think she will be,’ Nigel says. Powerless to bring back his friend’s beloved companion, Nigel began wondering what he could do to help. ‘I was thinking, “What advice is there for someone who knows a thief is approaching?”’ he says. ‘It’s no good picking up the phone – by the time someone’s come to help, the thief’s a long way away. I realised the quickest way to gain assistance is through the use of sound. We came up with a loud whistle, normally used by football referees.’

DogHorn members are taught the morse code SOS distress signal (three short blows, three long, then three short). The theory is that the sound travels up to a kilometre, alerting other members in the vicinity to the problem. They can then come running to give support or be on the lookout for suspicious activity, logging descriptions of thieves or car number plates.

The idea has clearly struck a chord with worried owners: since its inception, DogHorn has grown into a 10,000-strong force made up of 30 different groups all over the country. Anecdotally, it seems to be working, with no dog thefts reported in its areas of operation.

DogHorn is something Lydia Rampin could have done with when her year-old cocker spaniel Lola was stolen in Buckinghamshire last March. Like most thefts, it happened in the blink of an eye. Lola was by Lydia’s side as she introduced her mother to a friend outside their house but, when she turned around, the dog was gone.

‘I instantly panicked because I knew she’d never have run off,’ says the 26-year-old physiotherapist. ‘She never leaves my side and she’s so well-trained she always comes when called. I looked for five minutes then called the police – but with nothing to go on, there was little they could do.’

The next few weeks were spent searching for Lola, following up every potential sighting, but with no luck. ‘It took over my life – every waking second was about Lola. She was my first dog, I was really proud of her and all my friends loved her. She’d been my constant companion. Now she’s gone and I miss her every moment of the day.’

Like many other owners in her position, after putting up posters locally and making appeals on social media, Lydia has suffered months of hoax calls from people claiming to know where Lola is – some even demanding money for her return.

Given the suffering that dog theft causes, the penalties are too lenient, say campaigners. When Amazon driver Levi Pislea, 22, stole a miniature schnauzer (while delivering dog food), he was given a 12-month community order by magistrates in High Wycombe. In Dundee the Sheriff’s court fined Andrew Alexander, 35, just £250 for taking a pug puppy. Meanwhile, a gang of four that snatched 15 cavalier king charles spaniels from a breeder in Lincolnshire received suspended sentences.

To date the police have offered limited assistance, although that is slowly changing. Nottinghamshire police recently became the first force to appoint a specialist dog theft officer. ‘I have dogs,’ says chief inspector Amy Styles-Jones. ‘I understand the impact of dog theft and want to make a difference and reduce that heartache.’

And last month, the government announced a Pet Theft Taskforce to recommend new measures to deal with this increasingly common crime.

Only a fifth of stolen dogs are reunited with their owners, but occasionally there is a happy ending. Last August, Katy-Ellen Stickley’s two-year-old springer spaniel Trigger was stolen from a ground-floor balcony at her home near Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire.

Katy-Ellen Stickley
Katy-Ellen Stickley and family were reunited with their dog Trigger

‘It was a hot summer’s evening and my partner Dean and I were sitting inside with the doors open. Trigger was lying on the balcony because he likes the sun on his face,’ says the 31-year-old. ‘Dean said he’d seen two men walk past with a pole. We live in a small village, where everyone knows everyone, but he didn’t know these two or what they were up to.

‘Trigger must have heard a noise because he got up and went out of view. A few minutes later one of my sons came into the room and asked, “Where’s Trigger?” I called him but he didn’t come.

‘We began panicking immediately – Dean started calling his name so loudly that neighbours came out to help us look. As we were frantically searching the streets, Dean saw the two men again and asked what they were doing with the pole. They said they’d gone fishing but there’s nowhere to do that round here so Dean took down the licence plate of their van.

‘We called the police and they noticed a chalk mark on our fence, which they think was made by the thieves on an earlier recce, so they would know which house to go back to. The police said they would have hooked Trigger out of the garden with the pole. They did trace the two men but they’d got rid of Trigger by then and there was no evidence.’

Weeks of agony followed. ‘It didn’t hit me for the first 48 hours as I was so busy searching for him,’ says Katy-Ellen. ‘But one night I sat down, saw Trigger wasn’t on the sofa and just cried. It was like having one of your children stolen.’ Her sons, George, 11, and Frankie, seven, were also badly affected. ‘Their teachers told me they had been crying at school.’

There was no sign of their dog until April when the family received a phone call. ‘It was Wembley police saying Trigger was sitting under one of their desks,’ says Katy-Ellen. ‘He’d been handed in to them because he’d been jumping into people’s cars. We’ve no idea what happened to him, but we suspect he was used for breeding because his paws and belly were stained with urine, which indicates he’d been kept in a cage.’

Trigger’s microchip had led to his family being traced but Katy-Ellen and Dean still weren’t convinced it was their pet until they drove to collect him. ‘He ran straight over to us and laid on his back for a belly rub,’ she says. ‘Even the police officers were crying – they said they had dealt with horrible dog thefts and rarely got to see a reunion.’

DogHorn’s members, meanwhile, hope that changes in the law – alongside an increase in their number – will prevent anyone having to go through what Katy-Ellen and Trigger endured. Until that time, they say, the dog thieves should be careful because the DogHorn community is watching…

Keep your canine safe

DogLost, the UK’s biggest dog-rescue community, has the following advice:

  • Don’t leave your dog locked in a car or van, or tied up outside a shop.
  • Never leave your dog in the garden on its own.
  • Keep good quality, up-to-date photographs in case your dog goes missing. Capture all angles and any distinguishing marks.
  • Make sure your dog is microchipped and that your details are registered and kept up-to-date.
  • Beware of social media – don’t post specifics of your dog’s location online.
  • Always keep your dog in sight and, if a stranger approaches, put it on a lead and walk near others.
  • Don’t let your children walk the dog alone.
  • Be vigilant, pay attention and don’t get distracted by your phone.
  • Always report attempted thefts and suspicious incidents to the police.

How to see off scam callers

In the past few months, more than 100 British families have been targeted by criminals demanding ransoms for missing dogs, says DogLost. Here’s what to do if someone contacts you claiming to have found your pet…

DON’T:

  • Transfer money to any bank or PayPal account.
  • Respond to texts requesting money transfers to Bitcoin wallets.
  • Meet the caller in person carrying cash.

DO:

  • Ask them to send you a photo of your dog with something in the image that shows the date (check it isn’t a picture you may have used in social media posts or missing posters).

For further help and advice, contact DogLost (stolen@doglost.co.uk).