Gundog theft is an appalling but preventable crime. Caroline Roddis explains how to keep your gundogs safe and what to do if the worst happens.

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We are under attack. Across the country thieves are targeting the dogs we have invested huge amounts of time, money and emotion into raising, seeing them only as a route to profit with no regard to the fact that, for most of us, they are part of our family. It only takes one glance at a Facebook group such as Lost and Stolen Gundogs, where pleas for assistance are constantly posted, to see the extent of the problem.

Unfortunately, however, it’s easy to be unaware of the danger until it happens to you.

“I live in a rural area where everyone knows one another,” says Daryn Hufton-Rees, whose English springer spaniel and Jack Russell were stolen in October 2014. “Burglars were an alien concept, let alone the idea that someone might want to steal my dogs rather than my possessions. To discover the kennels empty was more than a shock, it was a bereavement.”

Gundogs are a target

Dog theft is a problem for owners of all breeds but, because gundogs are biddable, well-trained and often pedigree, they are at particular risk. The most commonly stolen gundogs are cocker spaniels, springer spaniels and labradors, with the south east and south west of England cited as particular hotspots for the crime. Not-for-profit organisation DogLost, which aims to reunite lost and stolen dogs with their owners, estimates that, in 2013, half the dogs registered as stolen on its site were gundogs. Although we will never have truly accurate statistics – police only record incidents if they have hard evidence – experts agree that it’s becoming increasingly common.

“The number of professional thefts is rising,” says Stephanie Kent-Nye, of Stolen and Stray Pet Recovery. “There are two types of theft: opportunistic, where someone might see a dog, steal it and sell it down the pub; and professional, where it’s planned.”

The two are not mutually exclusive: Kent-Nye cites a recent case where thieves broke into a venue to steal one gundog, then took seven three-day old puppies from an adjoining kennel. Fortunately, she was able to assist the owners and the puppies were later recovered when police raided a nearby travellers’ site.

Where there’s puppies there’s brass

There is no confirmed explanation for the increase in thefts, but representatives from Pet Theft Awareness have stated that, since the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 2013, dog theft may have replaced scrap metal theft as the crime du jour.

Whatever the reason, with only a five per cent conviction rate for dog theft and the fact that, in law, it is no more serious than stealing a laptop, thieves have every incentive to steal your dogs. There are high returns involved, too.

“There’s a lot of money involved in breeding stolen gundogs,” explains Sue Herbert, DogLost’s coordinator for Gloucestershire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire. “If you can have two litters a year, for around £1,000 a puppy, you’ve got a significant amount of money.”

Stolen gundogs not only end up on puppy farms, but are also sold on as valuable commodities in themselves, and anecdotal evidence of thieves forging pedigree documents, stealing dogs to order and shipping them abroad to an equally profitable market abounds.

Enemy at the gate

Disturbingly, it’s likely the owners will know who has taken their dogs.

“It’s not random. There’ll be a connection in the local community,” says Herbert.

The thieves may also be closer than you think. Advice issued to the gundog community by DogLost urges shoot owners to ensure all shoot day helpers are known and trusted – friends of friends turning up to save the day at the last moment may not be the knights in shining armour they seem.

Regardless of other peoples’ responsibilities it should, quite simply, be every gundog owner’s duty to ensure their dogs are as protected as possible. Prevention is better than cure, particularly because, according to a 2013 study by Dr Louise Grove at Loughborough University, 46 per cent of stolen dogs are still missing after a year.

“We have quite a lot of gundogs that don’t come back,” confirms Herbert, “especially spaniels.”

Think like a thief

There are many steps you can take to improve the safety of your dogs, both at home and on the move. The reason many gundog thefts occur is because the dogs are typically kept in kennels outside the house – an easy target for thieves. To mitigate the risk, build your kennels as close to your house as possible and try to disguise your ownership. This not only means making the kennels less visible, but also not boasting about your well trained gundogs in your local pub – word spreads fast.

Wherever your kennels are, it’s imperative to ensure your security measures are sufficiently high – a simple padlock won’t do. Many of us are familiar with having the police round to check our gun storage, so why not treat your kennels with the same caution and ask the crime prevention officer round to give you advice?

Gundog theft

Kennel security at home is vitally important. Think like a thief and install security lights, CCTV and proper locks.

Alternatively, think like a criminal.

“Look at it as if you’re trying to steal your dogs,” advises security specialist Kenneth Hall. “How would you do it, and how could you be stopped?”

Hall recommends a mixture of a kennel alarm system and CCTV, which can provide crucial evidence that might later be used to reclaim your dog or convict the culprit.

“You can connect the CCTV to your iPhone so you can keep an eye on dogs remotely,” he adds. “Any reputable alarm company will provide what you need, including budget-friendly options such as PIR lights, but remember to buy not rent, and don’t be oversold”.

Although Kent-Nye has found CCTV footage to be of great benefit to rescue work, particularly in terms of identifying thieves’ number plates, she cautions against complacency.

“If people want dogs they’ll have them – we’ve had people cutting through kennels and ignoring CCTV.”

It’s therefore hugely important you get your dogs microchipped.

“Dogs do come back from raids, but if they’re not chipped then you don’t have a chance – there’s no proof it’s yours,” says Herbert.

Once chipped, register your dog on petlog and create an archive of photographs and numbers to call should they go missing.

Always beware

Another vital part of preventing theft is constant vigilance when you’re out with your dogs. Sadly, you can’t trust anyone. Never leave your dog tied up outside, even if you’re just popping in for a shoot lunch, and never leave it unattended – even if it’s inside your car. (Ed. I can imagine readers raising an eyebrow at this suggestion as I read it. Our gundogs often spend the night in the car when we are away shooting.)

You should also be aware just being on a shoot day makes you a target. That early morning stop for petrol, for example:

“Thieves see a green Land Rover covered in mud and full of gundogs, all they do is wait until you go into a petrol station,” says Herbert.

Criminals may follow you home to see where you and your dogs live so, if possible, remove all external evidence (i.e. stickers) of shooting from your car, and watch for suspicious behaviour.

What if the worst happens?

If your dog is stolen, the most important thing is to act quickly. You should immediately call the dog warden, local rescue charities and the police to obtain a crime number. Unfortunately, this can be tricky, as Kent-Nye explains.

“Sam, a black spaniel, just vanished from a garden in Kent. He had no history of straying, but was an entire male and therefore good breeding potential. The house wasn’t somewhere you could just walk past, so, although it couldn’t be proved, it seemed far more likely he’d been stolen. The police had it as a closed case because there was no evidence, but we spoke to them, pointed out factors such as the nearby travellers’ site, and now have a crime reference number. We’re now passing on additional intelligence to them in the hope they’ll get a warrant.”

Gundog theft

A sad result of the increase in gundog theft is that even leaving your dog tied up for a minute or two while you go into a shop might be an unnecessary risk.

In fact, although the police are frequently cited as being exceptionally helpful, their rigid jurisdictional boundaries and limited budgets can be problematic. To search a site, for example, they need a warrant for every single building and caravan, as well as significant manpower. It may therefore be worth using professional pet detectives and organisations such as Stolen and Stray, who have significant contacts and can help police by providing information from across the entire country.

“We find that people will speak to us when they won’t speak to the police,” explains Kent-Nye. “We’re also the middle man protecting the owner, ensuring they don’t reveal too much personal information and keeping them safe.”

This can be particularly useful if you want to offer a reward without compromising your personal security.

You can also turn to free volunteer networks, such as DogLost, whose communities provide invaluable help in your search. On DogLost, for example, you enter your dog’s details and instantly create both a dedicated page and a poster for anyone to share. Coordinators like Sue Herbert will contact you with advice, while volunteers distribute your poster and alert you to relevant information such as suspicious ‘dog for sale posts’ on sites like Gumtree.

“I’m continually amazed by the support from strangers,” remarks Hufton-Rees. “Hundreds of people continue to help me in my search for Porridge and Twiglet, constantly sharing the details and sending potential matches that have been found elsewhere”.

Social media is a mixed blessing

One of the reasons that sites such as DogLost are so successful is that social media enables prolific, instant information sharing. Many people therefore recommend setting up large campaigns on Facebook and Twitter to make the dogs ‘too hot to handle’, but this can have a limited effect on the criminal community. It also has associated risks.

“Thieves also use social media,” comments Kent-Nye. “People can be very naïve and give away lots of personal information, as well as details about searches that the thieves can avoid.” She also explains distraught owners can be derailed by social media, particularly if others post distressing opinions about the fate of their dogs. You should definitely use social media if your dogs are stolen, particularly to alert the shooting community as dogs can be recovered a long way from home, but remember to be discreet.

Gundog theft is a terrible reality for our community and, although organisations such as the newly formed Stolen and Missing Pets Alliance are campaigning for more serious penalties for the crime, it’s something we should all be taking seriously. Let’s safeguard our pets, help each other and show the thieves we won’t be beaten.

Have you got any further thoughts on this disturbing topic? If so, email: will.hetherington@timeinc.com