Exclusive:Dog thefts: 'Disappointing' number of suspects charged in UK amid fears government crackdown is being shelved

Exclusive police figures shed light on the scale of dog theft across the UK, as campaigners voice fears that the government is planning to scrap a planned crackdown on the crime

Watch more of our videos on Shots!
and live on Freeview channel 276
Visit Shots! now

Fewer than 1% of dog thefts reported last year have so far resulted in criminal charges, an exclusive investigation by NationalWorld shows.

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 abandon 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, which is set to expire on June 8. The government said it takes the issue of pet theft very seriously.

The Stolen and Missing Pets Alliance said dog thefts were 'devastating' for owners. Image: NationalWorld/Adobe Stock/Mark HallThe Stolen and Missing Pets Alliance said dog thefts were 'devastating' for owners. Image: NationalWorld/Adobe Stock/Mark Hall
The Stolen and Missing Pets Alliance said dog thefts were 'devastating' for owners. Image: NationalWorld/Adobe Stock/Mark Hall

‘Our pets are members of our families’

NationalWorld sent Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to the UK’s 45 police forces, receiving data from 33 of them.  The results show at least 1,620 dog thefts were reported in 2022, with more than 1,750 individual dogs stolen.

Of the crimes where police provided an investigation status, just 14 (0.9%) had so far 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 dog thefts reported in 2021, the number resulting in charges so far is still below 2%.

Ms Matthews said this 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 cases 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.”

‘Her tail was wagging… it was quite emotional’

Bella the dog reunited with owner Allan Hough, right, joined by Allan's son, Lee, centre, and granddaughter Isabelle. Photo: Jim FittonBella the dog reunited with owner Allan Hough, right, joined by Allan's son, Lee, centre, and granddaughter Isabelle. Photo: Jim Fitton
Bella the dog reunited with owner Allan Hough, right, joined by Allan's son, Lee, centre, and granddaughter Isabelle. Photo: Jim Fitton

Pensioner Allan Hough was reunited with his beloved pet labrador Bella, nearly two months after she was reported stolen.

Allan, 73, from Halifax, West Yorkshire, had got Bella as a puppy following the death of his wife Josephine. She was reported stolen in December 2022 and the search for her not only involved the police, but also a local volunteer group, Busters Animal SOS Team West Yorkshire, as well as the general public who shared Bella-related posts on social media more than seven million times.

Bella was reunited with Allan after Busters SOS received an anonymous call. 

Allan’s son Lee, who travelled to collect her, told the Halifax Courier: “Bella stayed at our house that night and my dad came round at 7am. He came in through the front door and as soon as she heard his voice, the ears pricked up, her head was up and she shot to the door. She bolted towards him. Her tail was wagging, the lot. 

“She was unbelievably happy and it was actually like she had never been away. It was quite emotional.”

Two people were arrested and released on bail in connection with the case and enquiries remain ongoing, West Yorkshire Police said.

Dog thefts falling after spike during pandemic

The overall number of dog thefts 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.”

Related topics: