The North East of England is the dog theft hotspot of the UK, data obtained by NationalWorld suggests.
It comes as Freedom of Information (FOI) requests reveal there was a 13% increase in dog thefts recorded by police in 2020.
Three out of the five police forces with the highest number of cases per million residents were in the North East, the investigation found.
Cumbria was in first place with 87.9 thefts per million people. This was followed by Durham (81.6), Northumbria (67.6), Gwent (67.3) and Cumbria (64).
But only 28 out of the 45 territorial police forces in the UK, excluding British Transport Police, responded to the request or could provide comparable data, so gaps in the picture remain.
That includes the whole of Scotland, Manchester, Essex, London – which provided a count of dogs stolen rather than individual incidents, as other police forces had – and Liverpool.
The average number of dog thefts per million people across the forces that responded in England, Wales and Northern Ireland was 37.1.
Dog theft is not a specific offence in UK law, which makes collecting data difficult, as it is dependent on the level of detail police officers record, and FOI teams’ ability to retrieve that information easily from digital records.
Some police forces that NationalWorld spoke to said their figures could include instances of dogs escaping from gardens or of fraudulent puppy sales.
When approached for comment, a spokesperson for Northumbria Police insisted that every case its freedom of information team had identified had been domestic linked, such as custody disputes between warring ex partners – but could provide no evidence or data to back this up.
The increase in incidents last year may have been down to families or partners living apart in isolation during Covid, the spokesperson said, though it remains unclear why this would have affected people in the North East more than other parts of the country.
They continued: “We understand that residents in our area may find these figures concerning, however, they do paint a misleading picture of offences in our area.
“There has not been a single incident reported to police in 2020 where a dog has been stolen from an owner while walking their dog, so there is no need for pet owners in our area to change their behaviour.”
The data shows however that 45 cases were closed citing that a suspect had not been identified.
Gwent Police said their internal figures showed there had been a drop in incidents where the suspect was unknown to a victim – such as a criminal targeting a dog walker – and a rise in cases that may involve ownership disputes between people known to each other.
“However, we know that each and every one of these cases causes devastation to the owners and we are committed to investigating every such crime reported to us,” said Deputy Chief Constable Amanda Blakeman.
“In recent weeks, following multiple warrants executed in the Newport area, we recovered four stolen dogs that are now in the process of being reunited with their owners and we will continue our efforts to find and prosecute those committing these crimes.”
A spokesperson for Cleveland Police said social media buzz concerning dog thefts driven by an increase in reports nationally could have influenced an increase in reports locally.
The force also said the incidents often involve a named suspect and are domestic related.
And a spokesperson for Cumbria Police said there had been no reports of domestic pets being targeted by organised groups among the 32 thefts reported in the county last year.
“These statistics include rural crimes as well as domestic pets,” they said. “Cumbria is the third largest county in England, with vast areas of farmland and farms who may have a number of working dogs.
“Those 32 reported crimes are also just the top-line number with no context to the crime. Included within those 32 reported thefts could be a multitude of situations including ownership disputes or dogs escaping.”
The charity Dog’s Trust said “many dogs are taken from homes and gardens every year” and urged dog owners to take precautions to secure them.
"Given the high demand for dogs in the last year and the increase in prices, it is no wonder dog theft is on the increase,” a spokesperson said.
"Having your dog microchipped, and keeping your contact details up to date, gives owners the best chance of having their dog returned to them if the worst happens.”