Fewer than 1% of dog thefts across the UK result in criminal charges, an exclusive investigation by NationalWorld shows.
In the North East, last year there were 51 dog thefts reported to Northumbria Police and yet no charges or summons issued.
In 2021, there were 65 reports of dog theft and only one offender charged.
The most stolen breed across the North East are Jack Russells.
The Kennel Club described the figure as “really disappointing” but police chiefs said it was often hard to identify suspects.
Campaigners also fear the government is backtracking on a heavily-publicised crackdown which would increase jail terms for dog thieves, with the RSPCA saying it is “increasingly worried” it could be dropped.
Ministers had announced plans in 2021 to make dog abduction a specific offence punishable by up to five years in jail, through the Kept Animals Bill.
But this hasn’t yet become law and campaigners say they fear the government will drop the idea.
A spokesperson for the RSPCA said: “It was really welcome that the UK government announced plans to make pet theft a specific offence under its Kept Animals Bill - offering more assurances to owners. However, the legislation has been in limbo for 500 days - and we’re increasingly worried these plans could be dropped altogether.”
Debbie Matthews, co-founder of the Stolen and Missing Pets Alliance (SAMPA), said “time is running out” for the Kept Animals Bill. The government said it takes the issue of pet theft very seriously.
‘Our pets are members of our families’
NationalWorld sent Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to the UK’s 45 police forces, receiving responses from 33 of them.
The results show more than 1,600 dog thefts were reported in 2022, with more than 1,700 individual dogs stolen - although with a quarter of forces failing to respond, the figure will likely be higher.
Of the crimes where police provided an investigation outcome, just 14 (0.9%) had resulted in someone being charged or sent a court summons.
This includes crimes still under investigation, so the charge rate will likely end up slightly higher, but of the thefts reported in 2021, the number resulting in charges so far is still below 2%.
Ms Matthews said this low rate showed why it was so important for dog abduction to be made a specific crime.
She said: “The prosecution rate is so low because dogs are still categorised as ‘property’ in law, the same as a laptop. Property theft is low priority to the police and the Sentencing Council; our dogs in law are merely second-hand goods valued under £500. This is precisely why we at SAMPA and the public have campaigned so hard to get a specific crime for dog theft. Our pets are members of our families and the law must reflect this.”
Dr Ed Hayes, head of public affairs at The Kennel Club, said: “It’s really disappointing to hear such a low rate in prosecutions.”
But he said the nature of dog thefts meant “it can be very challenging to identify suspects, especially in case of dogs being stolen from gardens, parks and open spaces, where thieves may be out of sight from owners”.
A spokesperson for the National Police Chiefs’ Council added: “In cases like this, investigators often face difficulties in identifying suspects and obtaining evidence, which can make seeking prosecutions difficult.
“We recognise, however, that there is a huge emotional impact on families who have their much-loved pet stolen from them. We investigate every such crime reported to us and work with partners such as RSPCA to ensure criminals feel the full weight of the law. By targeting prolific offenders, and organised crime networks, we are able to stop these offences from happening in the first place.”
Dog thefts falling after spike during pandemic
The overall number of dog thefts across the UK fell by 15% last year, compared with the year before, our investigation found.
Ms Matthews said the price of puppies had soared to around £3,000 during the pandemic as people rushed to buy four-legged lockdown companions, which in turn had led to a spike in thefts.
She said: “This is the first year we have seen a drop in FOI theft figures and we welcome this news but there are still a large number of dogs being taken and this is simply not acceptable. The pain and suffering caused to families by pet theft is devastating.”
The National Police Chiefs’ Council spokesperson said: “During the pandemic we saw the cost of a puppy rise considerably, although demand began to change as we returned to a more normal living pattern. This encouraged some opportunistic criminals to take advantage of unsuspecting people by stealing dogs for illegal breeding or resale.
“The police, together with the Home Office, stood up a national working group to tackle the issue. This was stood down at the beginning of 2023, as there had been a decline in the volume of offences, which are now more in-line with pre-pandemic levels.”
Dr Hayes said: “It’s fantastic to see the numbers of thefts declining year-on-year, with fewer families experiencing the heartache of having their dog stolen, although clearly substantial numbers of dog thefts are still taking place.
“We’ve seen significant falls in the prices for dogs over the past 12 months which are likely to have diminished the appeal of stealing a dog. In addition, there has been a lot of media attention towards dog theft over the past few years, which will have encouraged owners to be more vigilant and they will have taken more precautionary measures to keep their dog safe.”
A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) said: “The Government takes the issue of pet theft very seriously and we understand the pain and distress caused by the theft of a much loved family pet.
“We launched the Pet Theft Taskforce and are implementing its recommendations which include the creation of a new pet abduction offence; identifying and tracking cases of pet theft; and microchipping reform to strengthen the process of transferring keepership and prevent the creation of duplicate records.”
How to protect your dog from theft
There are steps dog owners can take to help protect their pets from being stolen.
The National Police Chiefs’ Council advises people to:
Check your social media privacy settings when sharing pictures of your pets online;
- If you are selling puppies, be aware of how you are advertising them as this can attract the attention of criminals looking to target sellers;
- Be vigilant of anyone acting suspiciously or watching your dog while you are walking them and don’t ever give someone you don’t know personal information;
- Avoid leaving your dog tied outside of a shop or other public spaces. If you have errands to run, leave your dog at home;
- Conduct proper research when using sitters and kennels by checking references and making sure you’re using a reputable company;
- If your dog is in your garden, keep an eye on them at all times and make sure side gates are locked;
- Never leave your dog alone in the car, as they could make a tempting target for a thief as well as risking overheating;
- Seek advice online before you buy a pet, making sure you check where it’s come from and that it is being bought legally.
The Kennel Club also advises owners to:
- Make sure that your dog is microchipped and their details are registered and kept up-to-date with a microchip database, such as Petlog;
- While out on a walk, make sure you can always see your dog and that your dog’s recall is strong. Be aware of strangers asking too many questions about your dog and report anything suspicious to the police;
- If your dog is stolen, it is crucial to act quickly and report the crime to the police, making sure your dog is correctly reported as stolen and not lost. Also, notify your microchip provider and alert your local authority dog warden if you have one, as well as nearby rescue centres and vets. Social media can be a helpful tool to spread the word quickly.
Read Newcastle’s news on the go with our free email newsletters - bringing the headlines to your inbox. Catch up on the day’s news and sport and enjoy even more from the NewcastleWorld team. Visit our website here to find out more and sign up.