How the pandemic is driving the heartless crime of dog theft in Lancashire - and what could be done to tackle it

Heartless crooks are exploiting the pandemic to steal – and sell on – dogs across Lancashire, police have warned.

By Michael Holmes
Friday, 6th November 2020, 3:45 pm
Updated Friday, 6th November 2020, 6:48 pm

With a lockdown-triggered surge in demand, prices for some of the nation’s most popular breeds have rocketed, with thieves pouncing on the opportunity to make some fast cash.

Owners have been urged to be vigilant, with Preston and Blackpool highlighted as hotspots in recent years, while experts called for a crackdown on nicked pets being sold over the internet, and for tougher sentences.

Becky Thwaites, head of public affairs at the animal welfare charity Blue Cross, which has a rehoming base at Myerscough College, Bilsborrow, said French bulldogs sold for around £1,500-1,600 pre-Covid but go for more than £3,500 now.

A file image of a poster appealing for help finding a missing dog

She said: “They were popular before the pandemic but, with the growth of people working from home, we know demand has increased.

"People are thinking it’s a good time to get a dog.

“People steal breeding bitches and puppies to sell them on because they know they can make a significant profit because demand is outstripping supply.”

The Kennel Club said searches for puppies for sale shot up by 168 per cent during lockdown.

Charities have been working with classified websites and social media sites to tackle the illegal and irresponsible selling of animals.

But Becky said that, while Facebook has banned pet adverts in its groups and on its Marketplace, enforcement is often left to members of the public, who can flag up individual ads to ask that they are removed.

Facebook said: "We do not allow the sale of animals on Facebook Marketplace.

"We encourage users to report any content they feel doesn’t belong on our platform using the reporting tools available.”

Tougher sentences for thieves could also help, Becky believes.

Currently, those hauled before the courts face the same punishment as if they had taken a possession, such as a mobile phone.

“The sentence could be up to seven years but it never happens,” Becky said.

“It’s likely to be a small fine.”

An average of three dogs a week were stolen across Lancashire in the first eight months of this year.

Since September 2015, that number stands at 660.

Some 159 thefts happened in Preston, with 123 in Blackpool.

The force refused to release details of a secret code crooks use to mark homes containing dogs, saying it “could provide a tactical advantage to offenders by enabling” them to “alter their habits ... to evade detection”.

Diane James runs a Blue Cross pet bereavement support helpline, which is open 12 hours a day all year round and manned by volunteers.

She said the chances of having a dog taken are statistically low – but that some people increase the risk by leaving their pets tied up outside shops, or inside their vehicles while popping into shops, or by having lax home or garden security.

And she warned that the likelihood of seeing a stolen pet returned is low, with police forces focusing on what they perceive to be more serious crimes.

When asked, Lancashire Police did not say what its process is for investigating dog thefts, how many dedicated officers it has tackling such crime, or what difficulties officers face when trying to reunite pets and owners.

Diane said that, while the death of a pet is heartbreaking in its own right, having one stolen can be especially traumatic.

“You never have closure because you don’t know what’s happened to them,” she said.

“You question everything and them never coming back is so difficult.”

Lancashire Police said: “Dogs are often part of the family and we appreciate the heartache and distress that having a pet stolen can cause.

“With the lockdown and more people working from home more people have become dog owners and demand has gone up – sometimes resulting in criminals taking advantage by stealing dogs to sell them on.

“We would urge owners to report all thefts to us but there are also precautions you can take to deter thieves and minimise the risk of your pet being taken.”