This week is gundog theft awareness week. Find out how to protect your gundog from theft this winter

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This week is Gundog Theft Awareness Week, an initiative aiming to raise awareness of how you can prevent your gundog from being stolen and the warning signs of when a dog for sale may have been stolen.

Find out more on the Gundog Theft Awareness Week website.

The recently-formed Stolen and Missing Pets Alliance – which consists of Doglost, Dog Theft Action, Pet Theft Awareness, the Dog Union and Vets Get Scanning – is calling for greater penalties for anyone caught stealing an working dog or pet. It’s lobbying for the government to impose prison sentences on anyone found guilty of stealing a dog and urging for a minimum sentence of six weeks.

“We have already made a submission to the Sentencing Council and this has been supported by Neil Parish in his capacity as chairman of the Associate Parliamentary Group on Animal Welfare,” said a spokesperson.

The Stolen and Missing Pets Alliance is also championing for compulsory scanning of dogs once the law to microchip dogs comes into force. They want vets, rescues and animal wardens to scan any dogs they find and for any dead dogs found to be scanned by highways authorities and Network Rail.

The Stolen and Missing Pets Alliance

Marc the Vet, Angela Smith MP and Neil Parish MP with members of the Stolen and Missing Pets Alliance

There was a steep rise in the number of gundogs reported stolen in the first three months of the year, according to the Country Land and Business Association, which claims that gundogs are being targeted by thieves.

“In some cases kennels are being targeted; some gundogs are being left and some gundogs are being taken, which does show that they are being watched and gundogs are almost being stolen to order,” said Robin Edwards from the CLA.

Gundog theft: the facts

ShootingUK can exclusively reveal that gundogs accounted for 11% of all dogs reported stolen in 2013, according to data from police forces across England and Wales.

The London Metropolitan area saw the greatest number of dog theft reports last year (165), followed by Kent (128) and West Yorkshire (123).

“Social media may have inflated our awareness of dog theft but until we can get accurate statistics, we would be foolish not to assume that gundogs are a resaleable commodity,” said Arnot Wilson, director of the Dog Union, a lobbying organisation focused on dog health, welfare and theft.

Dog theft facts infographic

Click to enlarge
dog theft infographic

Theft on the rise

According to figures collated by advice service DogLost, numbers of gundog thefts have been steadily rising since 2009. In 2013, the organisation recorded a year-on-year increase of around 15 per cent and reported that half of all stolen dogs were gundogs.

Of almost 12,000 missing dogs registered with DogLost in 2013:

  • 723 were Labradors
  • 429 were springer spaniels, and
  • 426 were cocker spaniels

In the first three months of 2014, dogs registered as missing already include:

  • 160 Labradors
  • 97 cocker spaniels, and
  • 80 springer spaniels

Many involved in investigating the crime believe that some in the travelling community are responsible for many of the thefts but are reluctant to say so on the record. DogLost has noted a dramatic increase in thefts of valuable gundogs since changes to the law in December 2012 made metal theft less lucrative. It says that before the change in the law, organised gangs tended to target lurchers, Border terriers and Jack Russells, which are thought to have been for the thieves’
own use or to be passed around among their communities.

This trend seems to be continuing, according to DogLost’s figures, and both BASC and the Countryside Alliance have noticed an increase in reports of gundog thefts from members. The problem has even shown up on the BBC’s radar: it gave significant airtime to it in the 30 March edition of its weekly rural affairs programme Countryfile. And if that wasn’t bad enough, surveys suggest that almost half of dogs reported missing or stolen are still missing 12 months down the line.

Tricky to trace

But what, if anything, is being done to help owners hang on to their hounds? Dog theft is a tricky crime to deal with — it’s often all too easy for thieves to take dogs from unwary owners, and all too hard to track a dog down once it’s been snatched. With gundog theft, things are trickier still: their high monetary value and desirable abilities and breeding mean that they are targeted by highly organised gangs of thieves, who are even better at making dogs disappear than their more opportunistic counterparts.

What’s more, if the police or other agencies do manage to track down a dog, they still have to overcome the hurdles of proving its identity and ownership. Police and members of local communities often have strong suspicions as to whom is responsible but backing this up with solid evidence that can be used in court to secure a conviction is another matter. In response to a Freedom of Information request, Surrey Police stated that 25 dogs were reported stolen in 2013, but only four arrests were made and three charges brought for dog theft in that year.

Last October, charity Pet Theft Awareness held the first Gundog Theft Awareness Week, which was supported by the Countryside Alliance (CA), Kennel Club and DogLost, among others. It highlighted three key areas in which dog owners and rural communities can take action to combat the problem.

The first area was raising awareness — both of the problem itself and of relatively simple and inexpensive steps that can be taken to guard against it. The second was guidance — giving victims of the crime advice and sources of help for the best chance of being reunited with their dogs. The third was a campaign to change the law to make penalties for dog theft tougher and therefore a less attractive option for would-be thieves.

Raising awareness

There have been a number of initiatives to shake owners out of the “it won’t happen to me” mentality. DogLost has run awareness campaigns and the CA has issued guidance to its members highlighting the problem and preventative measures that can be taken, which includes useful links to other organisations (see bit.ly/gundog-theft). The shooting press has also run articles on the subject, offering advice and warnings, with increasing frequency in recent years.

Communities — both local and online — play a significant role in raising awareness and have the potential to be at the forefront of the fight in future. Social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter allow owners instantly to share details of dogs lost and found, suspicious individuals, vehicles and incidents with large networks of people via specialist pet-theft alert communities as well as via members of shooting and countryside organisations such as BASC and the CA. With the rise in smartphone ownership, photographs and videos give a clearer picture than ever before.

Initiatives such as Dogwatch Alert, set up in the Thames Valley, combine the two and have proved successful in giving the local community more confidence that they and local police are doing everything they can to outwit thieves. Under the scheme, members, who include local dog wardens, re-homing centres, animal search organisations such as DogLost, and several RSPCA inspectors as well as members of the public, work closely with Thames Valley Police to combat dog theft in particular and help reduce rural crime in general.

Reports of thefts and suspicious incidents — for instance suspected attempts to survey kennels and property — are circulated among the membership by email alerts, creating a network of eyes and ears, which can draw on a widespread web of resources and contacts. Thames Valley Police also holds quarterly meetings with scheme members and other interested parties such as the National Farmers’ Union.

Dogwatch’s Alex Dick says that the dog theft situation in the region has improved significantly since the scheme began and that the pro-active approach taken by local police has been instrumental in achieving this. While this is undeniably good news, there are some who feel that to tackle the threat properly things need to be taken to another level — a change in the law.

Currently, the theft of a gundog, or any dog, is the same in the eyes of the law as the theft of any other personal possession. A number of groups, including Pet Theft Awareness, feel that this is not enough of a deterrent to thieves, that it fails to reflect the emotional and psychological effects of dog theft, and that police should be given greater resources and reason under the law to pursue and secure the conviction of suspected dog thieves.

A recent petition on the Government’s e-petitions website, which attracted more than 13,000 signatures, called for the introduction of a specific offence of pet theft, with “punishment set somewhere between kidnapping and the theft of property or an object” because “the personal value of a pet is much higher than its saleable value and the law needs to reflect this”. As things stand, whether a Labrador or a laptop has been stolen, the sanctions available are the same.

Though the maximum sentences are tough, they are only handed down when a court considers that circumstances require it in accordance with sentencing guidelines, which do not currently make any specific provision for theft of a dog.

What the law says:

Whether a Labrador or a laptop is taken, the maximum penalties at law are the same:

  • Simple theft, say from a public place or car: 7 years in prison
  • Burglary, involving illegal entry into a building to commit the crime: 14 years in prison
  • Blackmail, for instance where a ransom is demanded: 14 years in prison
  • Minimum sentence: community service/a fine

Why aren’t gundog thieves being prosecuted?

Just 5% of those reported dog thefts led to prosecution last year, with 1.5% concluding in successful convictions, an exclusive investigation by ShootingUK has revealed.

Data from 23 police forces showed that there were only 98 arrests for dog theft last year. This led to 40 prosecutions and just 12 convictions for dog theft over the year.

Lack of prosecutions and convictions

Police forces were asked to comment on why there are so few arrests, prosecutions and convictions for dog theft. A spokesperson for West Yorkshire Police told ShootingUK that a small number of offenders could be responsible for multiple reported crimes.

“Charging people is also not always the most appropriate outcome,” they added. “Taking into consideration the express wishes of the victim and the public interest in formally prosecuting an individual, a number of out-of-court disposals can be used to deliver both criminal and restorative justice.

“We take all reports of theft extremely seriously.”

The Crown Prosecution Service was unable to comment on the 5% prosecution rate.

Neil Parish MP, chairman of the Associate Parliamentary Group for Animal Welfare, believes this is “an important issue and one which politicians need to recognise”.

He said: “Dog theft is a serious issue; its like having a family member taken and can cause huge distress for owners. However, what is so concerning is that nearly half of the thefts are from the home where the thieves are going into gardens and front yards to take the dog.

“Because this is trespass as well as theft — and then often ransom too — there need to be greater penalties and a lot more police work done to catch these criminals and prosecute them.

“Stealing a dog is not like stealing an inanimate television or mobile phone — they are not chattels but living creatures and I feel the severity of it must be recognised”

We need to know more

A lack of information is a real issue because it prevents us from ever really knowing how big the problem is. Police forces can’t give an exact insight into the number and breeds of stolen dogs because it’s not mandatory to note these details when recording a crime. To further complicate the issue, police forces record crime differently — there is no consistency across the UK.

And even when police do record the data, it can’t always be trusted. A recent report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary found that police forces under-report crimes by 20%.

Neil Parish MP said: “Until we have a clearer picture on the numbers of dogs and movements of dogs, it will be difficult to get to grips with any figures. However, we do believe that the police should be recording clearly the numbers of dog thefts and setting out the costs and resources implicated with this.

“It is important we understand why the dogs are being stolen; is it for the money gained from selling the dogs on, from the ransoms for the dogs or because they are being used for dog fighting or illegal practices? Whichever it is, it does seem that it all falls into the bigger issue which is better identification of dogs and better enforcement of the laws that already exists.”

In a response to a request under the Freedom of Information Act for numbers of dogs reported stolen, Surrey Police stated that: “the systems used for recording these figures are not generic, nor are the procedures used locally in capturing the data”. It added: “This force’s response to your questions should not be used in comparison with any other response you may receive.”

Campaign groups argue that creating a separate offence would have multiple benefits: acting as a deterrent to would-be-thieves, making punishment more suitable for the harm caused to victims and their dogs, and also making it easier to monitor the number of offences reported, charges brought and convictions handed down.

Given that the petition received more than 10,000 signatures, the Home Office had to issue a response. Unfortunately for campaigners, it stated that the Government has no current plans to change the law. It said the Government considers the existing legislation, which requires a court to take into account the particular harm caused to the owner as well as other relevant circumstances, to be adequate.

Dog Theft Action is calling for people to write to their local MP to raise this issue. You can also ask your MP to complain to a government department on your behalf, which is more effective than writing to the department yourself.

Keep your gundog safe

Most dogs are stolen from gardens, according to research by Loughborough University criminologist Dr Louise Grove.

Dogs kept in kennels are vulnerable and you should secure them with a good quality padlock. Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security by tempered steel or hardened locks because they can be cut with bolt croppers, Nick Ridley advises.

Watch this video for further advice on how to protect your gundog

Microchipping, tattoing and DNA-logging will make your dog more traceable – and more likely to be returned to you if stolen – and less attractive to thieves.

Gundog owners are also warned not to let their guard down during shoots. The theft of dogs from locked cars is more common than many might think, and Guns, beaters and pickers-up are all advised never to leave dogs unattended.

According to DogLost, thieves are known to monitor shoot-day traffic and target shoot vehicles and those displaying shooting-related stickers. Those who run shoots are warned to be particularly vigilant in making sure all helpers are known and trusted, and not likely to tip off potential thieves.

What to do if your gundog is stolen

Dog Theft Action advises you do the following if your dog is stolen:
•    Report it to the police and ask for a crime reference number
•    Report it to your local dog warden
•    Check local animal rescue centres
•    Spread the word