The shocking news this week that Lady Gaga’s dog walker was shot as two of her French bulldogs were stolen will be seen by some as an ‘American problem’ or even a celebrity story. But the incident highlights a pandemic-fuelled wave of violent dog thefts and assaults on both sides of the Atlantic. By the end of 2020, dog theft in the UK had skyrocketed by 250 per cent amid increased demand for canine company during lockdowns.
Sadly, it’s something my family has bitter personal experience of. Our two springer spaniels were stolen, alongside six others, while staying at a family friend’s kennel in Bedfordshire last September, and one is still missing.
My then 75-year-old father was going to Scotland on a fishing trip, and had taken them back to the breeder of the youngest dog, Tig, who was only four years old.
We’ve had Tig and Jess, our black and white, since they were puppies and they mean the world to us – they’re part of the fabric of our family life. Dad has trained them day in, day out for four and five years respectively as gun dogs and, in his words, they are the last pair he is likely to have.
I was there the moment Jess came home with us. She got a bit too adventurous on the patio and panicked, and when I laid down to calm her, she crawled into my hair, comforted by it. Ever since, it’s been the way we say hello to each other.
When Tig came along, they soon became firm friends, often sleeping cuddled up together, hanging half out of their respective beds. We adored them both, and they showed the same love and affection back.
So when the phone call came that day, at 7am, to tell us the dogs had been taken, we were distraught – my dad most of all. My mum’s blood pressure shot up so high she nearly called an ambulance.
Many have been shocked at the brutality of the assault on Lady Gaga’s dog walker, but this is a cold and calculated crime. The thieves were in and out in no time, scaling a 12-foot fence, smashing a fire door and taking just 10 minutes to steal the dogs, not caring about the CCTV.
They came late at night and took the eight dogs that were in the kennels, threatening the kennel owner with serious violence when he tried to stop them.
I’m surprised that the kennel owner – who I’m not going to name as his business and mental health has suffered enough – didn’t get hurt trying to defend the dogs, as he loves them dearly and I believe only real fear for his safety would have stopped him.
I knew the odds of getting dogs like this – pedigree, immaculately trained and unspayed (we were going to breed from them) – back without serious publicity were slim to none. My sister and I carpeted social media and brought as much pressure as we could on Bedfordshire police force.
We offered a reward, a decision we now regret, as it led to me being contacted for over a week by someone who I believe was leading me on in bad faith for the money.
Fortunately, the power of social media and the press partially worked. After two weeks, a joint operation was launched with neighbouring Hertfordshire police, which recovered 12 dogs – one of which was our Jess and, thankfully, the kennel owner’s last remaining breeding bitch – and resulted in two men and a woman from the St Albans area arrested on suspicion of burglary in connection with the incident.
A man in his 40s was further arrested on suspicion of criminal damage, while a man and a woman in their 30s were both also arrested on suspicion of possession of a firearm and an 18-year old man on suspicion of handling stolen goods and possession of a firearm.
When we went to collect Jess, she was a mere shell of herself, not even wagging her tail when she saw my dad. She just crept into the car boot and into her bed, shaking, battered, stinking and terrified. Despite being rail thin, she wasn’t even interested in being hand-fed one of her favourite biscuits by Dad. She just sat quivering, her eyes dull. Even when she got home, she just slipped into her bed, not even making an effort to clean herself, which was deeply uncharacteristic. My parents were stricken with grief at the state of her.
It took two days for her to start coming back to life. When I was able to come and see her she just wanted the quietest of cuddles. I cried into her silky ears at relief that she was back, but also with sadness that Tig was still missing.
Four months after her rescue, Jess still shows signs of the trauma, which makes me think about Tig, and how she is potentially being treated, which is simply heartbreaking. I am often awake at 4am, haunted by the fact that she probably came into season quite quickly after she was stolen and could be in a grotty cage somewhere right now, with her puppies being ripped from her so criminals can make a profit.
Dog theft is big business and the pandemic has only worsened the problem, with charities warning that owners should remain extremely vigilant. Dogs Trust has stated that puppy prices have increased by four to five times, with the added problem that people are not being diligent enough about the source they are buying them from – their research, undertaken late last year, showed more than a third of people bought their puppy without doing any research.
Despite the issue being debated a number of times in Parliament, part of the problem is the low penalty for stealing a dog – at the same level as for the theft of a lawnmower or a microwave – and with the courts and law enforcement already stretched to breaking point through funding cuts and coronavirus, it remains a low priority issue.
However, neighbourhood forums are alight with tales of dogs being snatched.
In January, student Ally Knight, 22, was left with two black eyes after two men attempted to rob her of her pug in Plymouth.
In December former police officer Mike Jasper’s dog Ted – a support dog for his anxiety and depression issues – was stolen by two men who pushed him to the ground, running off laughing.
Despite Home Secretary Priti Patel’s assurances she is looking into the problem, the calls for a change in legislation grow ever louder, with former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith recently adding his voice.
As for my family, my sister and I are still having to go through all the forums and websites where dogs are sold, searching for Tig. We all suffer from nightmares, insomnia and the thousand cuts of hope, because it’s not just a dog that these people have taken; it’s a member of our family, and a big slice of our faith in humanity too.
If you have any information about the theft of Tig, or any of the other dogs still not recovered from the same theft, Crimestoppers is offering a reward for information leading to their recovery – visit crimestoppers-uk.org or call 0800 555 111.
RSPCA advice on how to prevent dog theft
Never leave your dog outside a shop or in a car unattended.
Train your dog to come back when called, and never let them off the lead if you’re not sure they’ll come back to you. If in doubt, use a long-line lead, especially if you’re in an unfamiliar area.
Ensure your garden is secure; if you have a gate then fit it with a lock and a bell. Always keep your dog in view.
Have your dog microchipped and keep your contact details up to date on the database. Ensure they wear a collar with your name and address attached.
Keep recent photographs of your pet and note any distinguishing features.
Neuter your pet to reduce the likelihood of roaming.