Dog theft is all too common — but what happens to stolen gundogs, asks Matt Cross
The social media post has become all too familiar: a picture of a dog, an appeal, a phone number, the details of the crime. The comments, too, are depressingly recognisable — promises to share, pictures of similar-looking dogs found online, condolences. Gundog theft has become part of the way of life for people involved in shooting.
Last month Shooting Times reported on the case of Emily Kretz and her boyfriend Francis Bere, a gamekeeper, whose springer bitch was stolen from a kennel in Somerset (News, 19 February). Emily called the theft “a punch to the heart”. Just a few weeks earlier, gamekeeper Reece Ronald had all four of his working dogs taken from his kennels.
The fact that gundogs are stolen is no secret, but one question has always remained unanswered. Who steals them and where do they go?
Two stories circulate persistently on social media about the fate of stolen gundogs. The first is that these unfortunate animals are used to train fighting dogs. The thought of a friendly spaniel or an easy-going Labrador meeting this barbaric fate is deeply distressing.
It is a fear that has been promoted in salacious tabloid reporting but there appears no evidence for it. A gundog is not only particularly ill-suited to dog fighting, it is also a valuable item. Consigning one to certain death is simply a waste.
The other persistent rumour is that gundogs are stolen for use in puppy farming operations, with Ireland often being cited as their ultimate destination. There is a little more evidence to support this claim.
Are puppy farms responsible for gundog theft?
Stolen gundogs certainly have gone to puppy farms. In 2010 a springer bitch called Biscuit was stolen from her owners’ home. It was a carefully planned operation, with the thieves cutting through the glass in a door moments after Biscuit was dropped off at home by a dog minder.
Eighteen months later and 150 miles away, a specialist dog-theft investigator recovered her from Surrey puppy farmer John Lowe. Lowe went on to achieve grizzly notoriety when he was convicted of the murders of his partner and her daughter.
Puppy farm horrors
The horrors of puppy farming are well known. In February 2019 James Kavanagh was sentenced to three years in prison at Carlow Court in the Republic of Ireland after admitting 30 counts of causing or allowing animal cruelty. The court heard that 340 dogs and 11 horses were removed from his property after the inspection.
Four horses and 20 dogs had to be euthanised. The prosecuting counsel described the dogs’ plight: “Many had no water, were living in stalls full of faeces, were feeding off dead horses and dogs, many dogs were living in cages with one another not giving them any room, there was no ventilation, with many infected with lice and worms.”
These are the fears that understandably haunt victims of dog theft. But puppy farms are not the destination of most stolen gundogs.
Wayne May is a director of the website Dog Lost and one of the country’s foremost experts on gundog theft. Wayne’s experience is deeply personal — in 2008 six of his own working gundogs were stolen. Wayne’s experience in helping to recover more than 200 stolen gundogs points to a set of uncomfortable truths.
“There are people specifically looking for working gundogs,” he said. “I refer to it as organised crime, where they will target gamekeepers, beaters and anyone with gundogs. You don’t know who these people are but they are watching you all the time. Social media is one of the main ways they identify targets. We all like to talk about how good our dogs are and the dog’s name becomes recognised.”
The most uncomfortable thing for the shooting community is what happens to stolen dogs. “They are sold on for quite a high value to people who shoot,” Wayne said.
One of his own dogs provides a case study.
“One of my spaniels actually turned up on the Isle of Wight,” he revealed. “It was the only spaniel I had without a docked tail. A gentleman had purchased her, as he believed legitimately, from a selling site. On the first day of the shooting season she injured her tail and the new owner took her to the vet. Fortunately, the vet ran her microchip through the computer and it flagged her up as stolen. The microchip company notified me and we went to the Isle of Wight and got her back.”
Wayne explained the motive is simple economics. “A springer spaniel puppy is worth £400 to £600 but for a fully trained gundog the sky is the limit.”
Websites that are used to buy and sell goods will often also carry hundreds of adverts for dogs, including gundogs, most of which are legitimate. As well as puppies, adult dogs are offered for sale, but some with no mention of paperwork, which should ring alarm bells.
If a large part of what is driving gundog theft is the ability to sell trained dogs on, part of the answer must be in educating potential buyers. Wayne is a keen shooter and knows the sport’s values. “Most people involved in shooting are honourable — they would never willingly buy a dog they knew was stolen and there are things you can do so you don’t end up buying a stolen dog,” he said.
So how can you keep your gundog safe and prevent dog theft? Here's some advice from Mike Jackson, rural crime officer…
Wayne advises anyone looking at buying a dog to insist they see the paperwork. If the dog is docked the tail-docking certificate should always go with the dog. Nearly all working gundogs should be chipped — a new law requiring all dogs and puppies over the age of eight weeks to be microchipped came into force in April 2016 — and the paperwork should also be present.
“If you can’t see the paperwork, ask the seller to accompany you to the vet to have the dog scanned,” said Wayne, and warns against ever picking up a dog anywhere except the seller’s home. “They will offer to meet you halfway at a cafe or a services and you might think it would save £30 in fuel, but the truth is they just don’t want you at their house.”
His advice to help victims recover their dogs is shaped by his own experience. Make sure you change the microchip registration from the dealer’s name to yours is his first and most important tip. If your dog is stolen he advises you to contact every dog warden in the country with your dog’s picture and details, register with a service such as Dog Lost, use social media to spread the word and check the selling websites every day.
It’s easy to blame others when bad things happen and dog fighters and puppy farmers make excellent scapegoats. But without willing buyers, gundogs would be much less appealing to steal.
We contacted several websites and they insisted they worked closely with the police. They confirmed that any adverts which do not fit terms and conditions — such as bitches in whelp or in season, whole litters sold together, multiple dogs on one advert — are rejected.
However, they also pointed out that it is impossible to tell if something is stolen from the images and information given on an advert. As always, it’s buyer beware.