Pet theft can often cause a great deal of distress for the owner and their immediate family. The emotional stress of losing a much loved pet far outweighs any financial loss.
However, in law a pet is treated as property with no specific offence or sentence to reflect the distress that is caused. If caught a perpetrator is charged under section 1 of the Theft Act, just as they would be for any other property theft. Some, like myself, feel that the law is weak in this area and that tougher legislation is required to protect family pets and to increase the punishment for those involved in their theft. Unfortunately the government does not agree with this and feels that the law as it stands is sufficient. It is true that a court will take into account any emotional harm caused to the owner when sentencing but this is often not enough to satisfy the victim seeking justice nor deter future offenders. If a ransom is demanded for the return of the pet a more serious offence may be committed. The charge can then change from theft to blackmail. Blackmail attracts a tougher sentence for the perpetrator, 14 years maximum compared to 7 years for theft. This has become known as dog napping, a term created by the media but having no definition in law. Additionally, if a pet has been mistreated whilst in the care of the offender, a further charge can be brought under the Animal Welfare Act 2006. This currently carries a maximum penalty of 6 months imprisonment and/or a £20,000 fine.
Without any specific offence for dog theft it is difficult to establish, with any degree of certainty, the number of thefts that have taken place over a given period. If reported and recorded as a crime by the Police it could be classified as Other Theft, Vehicle Crime, Theft from a person, Robbery, Burglary or Other Crime (blackmail) depending on the individual circumstances. It is worth mentioning that the criteria for an incident to be recorded as a crime is set by the Home Office. It basically states; An incident will be recorded as a crime, if on the balance of probability, the circumstances as reported amount to a crime and there is no credible evidence to the contrary. This is a point which is often overlooked and media reports can imply that the police are not interested in dog theft, this is not true. The police are not the organisation to contact if a dog has gone astray but if you are feel a crime has been committed it is important that the reasons for your suspicions are explained when first reporting the incident, so it can be recorded correctly.
In 2012 it was estimated that there were 3,500 dog thefts nationally, this would equate to something less than 0.1% of all recorded crime. If this figure holds true locally it would amount to about 100 dog thefts within Essex during that year. This may seem a high number but to put it into perspective during 2012, there were 14,330 burglaries recorded in Essex.
Although there is no substantiated figures for the number of incidents, it is acknowledged that dog theft has risen over the last few years. Trained working dogs being the target of choice with some evidence to suggest that such thefts are organised with certain breeds being stolen to order. Domestic dog theft tends to be opportunistic with dogs being taken from gardens, vehicles and from public areas when left unattended. The main reason for dog theft is to extract money either from the victim by claiming the rewards that are offered and via blackmail, or from unsuspecting buyers by selling on the black market and Internet sites. Other reasons for their theft may include illicit breeding stock and their use in other illicit activities such as badger baiting, hare coursing and dog fighting.
As mentioned earlier, if you believe your dog has been stolen, it is important that you can provide information that supports this belief so that the crime can be recorded. Once recorded the details will be placed on the NMPR (National Mobile Property Register) which is accessible by all police forces and contains identifiable features of any “property” stolen. In the case of a dog the most important means of identification would be the data retrieved from an embedded microchip. As from 2016 it will be a legal requirement for every dog owner in England to have their animal micro chipped. Owners that do not comply are liable to a fine of £500. This legislation was brought in to try and combat the cost involved in dealing with the thousands of dogs dumped and lost each year. Estimated to be £57m in 2011/12. Compulsory microchipping may also reduce the number of opportunistic thefts that occur, due to the decrease in the value of stolen dogs if sold on for breeding or pets. It is obviously essential that the data on the chip is kept up to date, so remember to change the information when you move house and ask your vet to periodically check that the chip is still responding to the scanner.
A point overlooked by many is the question of proof of ownership. If your dog is stolen and later recovered how do you legally prove it belongs to you. On its own a microchip containing your details is not proof and registration/pedigree documents may not be enough to prove ownership in court. Ideally you will need documents confirming a transfer of ownership when you first obtained the dog and photos taken showing any distinguishing features preferably ones which are date stamped. Photos showing the dog with family members taken at different times are also valuable. Keep them in a safe place and hope that you will never need to use them for the purpose intended It also worth mentioning that if you are in a relationship it is wise to agree between you who is the actual owner. It is not unknown that when a relationship breaks down for one of the partners to be convinced that they are the owner but have no documentation to prove this in court.
Like any other form of crime prevention, taking steps to safeguard your pet is a mix of commonsense and awareness. The basic principals are, to lessen the value of the “target” and increase the risk/reduce the opportunities for a potential offender. It is not possible to make anything 100% secure from a determined thief and any steps you take should be a balance between you and your dogs lifestyle and any potential risk.
Microchipping and tattoing are good for reducing the value of your dog to a potential offender but they are not deterrents, unless appropriate warning signage is displayed on your garden gate. Although it is sometimes unavoidable, leaving your dog in a vehicle or tied up outside of a shop will significantly increases the risk of potential theft. No one will take any notice of someone walking away with a dog on a lead and it takes only seconds for someone to break the glass in your car and grab anything of value, including your precious pet. At home it is wise to ensure garden boundaries are secure and access from public space is restricted, not just to protect your pet but to also deter other acquisitive crime. When leaving your dog at home, whilst you are out, avoid leaving them in a room that can be easily viewed from public areas. The “Blue Cross” Web site offers further comprehensive advice and also has tips on what to do if the worst happens and your dog is lost or stolen. Finally a word of caution, think twice before offering a reward for returning a suspected stolen pet. The chances are that the thieves are waiting for you to do so, it the easiest way for them to convert their theft into money. If you state a monetary value, it will be the starting point for any negotiation and you could end up paying far more than you need or can afford.
Although one dog theft is too many, it is rare and owners should not be overly concerned for the safety of their pets. Stories in the media can be misleading and often induce a fear of crime which is not borne out by the facts.
Dog napping is one such example.