How dog thieves are exploiting the lockdown trend for “pandemic puppies”

As pet prices surge in a nation desperate for companionship, dognappers are physically assaulting owners and posing as RSPCA officers.

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Upon discovering that five of his puppies had been stolen in the middle of the night, Will Bevan felt bereft.

“I see more of them than I do my family, so for me, they are my family… It’s such a great loss.”

Bevan, a shepherd who works at a farm in Gloucestershire, south-west England, says that the puppies were last seen in their outhouse stable with their mother late at night on Friday 5 February. They were gone the following morning.

“The worst part for us is how young the puppies are, because they’re only four-weeks-old – they’re still feeding off of their mother,” says Bevan.

Their loss evoked “the same sort of feelings” as when his father died. “It’s like somebody just punched you in the stomach as hard as possible – you just can’t take it in,” he says. “How low can you go to steal a four-week-old puppy?”

The incident is part of a surge in the number of dogs being stolen – to be sold for profit – since lockdown began. Dog thefts in the UK have reached a record high, increasing 170 per cent since last March, according to charity DogLost. Only 1 per cent of these offences make it to court, the charity says.

Demand for pets – especially puppies – has rocketed in the UK since the first lockdown last year. By April 2020, the Kennel Club (which runs the national register of pedigree dogs) was receiving 140 per cent more inquiries through its puppy portal. Lengthening waiting lists for breeders led to a national “puppy shortage”.

[see also: It’s not just you: Why the current lockdown is having an extreme effect on mental health]

Online pet marketplace Pets4Homes saw demand for puppies rise by 104 per cent at the peak of the first lockdown in May 2020 compared to the previous year (cavapoo puppies – a cross between a cavalier King Charles spaniel and a poodle – were the most popular), and during the second English lockdown in November, Dogs Trust found Google searches for “buy a puppy” had increased by 115 per cent compared to pre-pandemic levels.

Increased demand has driven up prices, with the cost of puppies more than doubling on average since lockdown began. Prices for some breeds have risen by as much as 134 per cent.

This lucrative market has attracted unscrupulous sellers (known as “dogfishers”), smugglers, greedy breeders and thieves seeking to profit from this trend.

There have been numerous reports of owners being attacked by thieves while out walking their dogs, and police forces are alerting the public to suspicious behaviour – such as potential thieves asking owners questions about their dogs. The RSPCA warned in January that thieves have even been posing as charity officers in order to gain access to people’s dogs.

Leila, 31, experienced dognapping tactics first-hand when out walking her new puppy (a blue Staffie called Kobe) in Victoria Park, east London in January. A woman hurried from across the path to get her dog’s attention, then began interrogating her.

“She asked me like a hundred questions: What breed? Is he pure breed? How big will he get? How old is he? It wasn’t like she’d just thought of these spontaneously, it was clearly a catalogue of questions,” says Leila.

“I get stopped all the time, people asking me about him because blue Staffies are quite rare and people like the look of them, but this was completely different – it was like she was pushing me to answer the questions, the energy was not friendly any more.”

As the woman continued, five men who had been standing further away began to surround them, one of whom crouched down towards the dog. “My adrenaline kicked in – I just pulled him away and ran away with him,” Leila says.

Afterwards, she burst into tears and reported the incident to the police.

Like so many people, Leila – who has also owned an eight-year-old mixed-breed Staffie called Lilly for four years – adopted her puppy during lockdown last November. He was a “pandemic puppy” she had been given by another family, who had bought him for £2,500 the previous month but could not manage the commitment.

[see also: It’s OK to complain about how much we’ve lost because of Covid-19]

“What concerns us is what’s happening to these ‘lockdown puppies’ now and what will happen to them over the coming months,” says RSPCA dog welfare expert Dr Samantha Gaines. She predicts a “major dog welfare crisis” down the line, as owners return to work or struggle during the recession – with dogs being “relinquished to rescue centres, sold online or even abandoned”.

Since nearly losing Kobe to thieves, Leila no longer walks her dogs alone and only lets them off the lead when she has a clear view of the area.

“They could take anything but if they took my dog it would be the worst thing that’s ever happened to me. I don’t care about the money, he’s part of my family.”

An RSPCA spokesperson commented:

“We’d encourage all dog owners to take extra precautions to protect their pooches from thieves by neutering their pets, ensuring they are microchipped with up-to-date contact details registered, ensuring they wear a collar with contact details embroidered or an engraved ID tag.

“We’d also advise that owners never leave their pets tied up outside shops or alone in cars, ensure their gardens are secure, with gates locked, and ensure their pet has a good recall and doesn’t stray too far when off-lead on walks.”

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.

She co-hosts the New Statesman podcast, discussing the latest in UK politics.

Harry Clarke-Ezzidio is a graduate trainee at the New Statesman.

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