Dog thefts are on the increase across the country in what some are calling an epidemic of pet crime.
Luca the American bulldog is one of those who has gone missing and left a devastated owner behind.
For three months, Virgil Tatomir, 40, has left Luca’s toys and food bowls where they always were as he’s horrified at getting rid of them them after the five-year-old pooch was stolen on a walk in May, reports Mirror Online.
Virgil, from Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire, said: “Emotionally it’s destroying. All of a sudden the house is just a dark silence, an empty gap.
“Everything is to do with Luca; her bowl, her chair, her blanket, her food, her toy. Wherever you look, she is in my mind.”
“Her pictures are everywhere, in the hope she will one day come back.”
The incidence of much-loved animals being dognapped has been 65% higher during lockdown compared with last year, according to DogLost.co.uk, with 48 pets taken from March 23 until June 1 this year, up from 29 during the same period in 2019.
A 19-month-old golden cocker spaniel called Honey was another stolen – this time from her garden in Gravesend, Kent.
Owner Cintia Gardner, 40, says she went missing after a long walk on June 17, adding: “She’s part of the family, our first pet, we have no idea where she is and why they are holding her for so long.
“My kids keep seeing the posters for her everywhere and saying, ‘Look Mummy, it’s Honey!’ It’s heartbreaking.”
Adorable French bulldog pup Zara was snatched from 10-year-old Aironas Jurkus in Bedford on July 11 as the boy and pup played on grass near his family’s flat.
They’d had Zara for three weeks and she cost £700.
Aironas’ mum Rita said: “This guy walked passed my son and after a couple of minutes he came back and asked, ‘What’s the dog’s name?
“My son said her name and then the man just grabbed her.
“My son told him, ‘It’s my dog’ and the man said, ‘Better you stay where you are’.
“He keeps asking me, ‘When will the police bring Zara back?’”
One of the latest reports came on Tuesday (July 28), with the theft of six English springer spaniels aged between two and 12 years old.
Owner Grace Morgan says they were snatched during the night and that it’s been “devastating”.
Grace, 53, says: “They’re part of the family, some of them have been here since my kids were very young.
“It would be devastating enough to lose them, but to lose them like this is awful.”
Just over a week ago, six-year-old French bulldog-cross pug, Bessy went missing from her owner Richard Woodall’s back garden.
The adorable dog is presumed stolen by the 48-year-old roofer from Banbury, Oxfordshire.
Richard says: “I’ve got a 6ft walled garden, there’s no way she could get out. I know she’s been pinched.
“I am devastated. I’ve got a disabled child, she’s one of her best pals.”
In July, while their families were on their holidays, a total of 17 dogs were stolen from kennels in Suffolk.
And last week a litter of seven cocker spaniel puppies, worth £14,000, was stolen from a Cambridgeshire breeder.
Dogs are often found going for vastly inflated sums of money online, especially puppies.
Breeds like cocker spaniels and French bulldogs are currently advertised at double their usual price on site Pets4Homes and other sites, listed for up to £3,500 each.
But those who steal dogs often get off with minimal punishment as it’s not a specific criminal offence.
Justice Secretary Robert Buckland this week stopped short of making legal changes, although he did acknowledge the “deep distress” for owners whose pets have been stolen.
Following this blow, Animal Geographer expert Dr Daniel Allen of Keele University is working with the Stolen And Missing Pets Alliance to campaign for a change in the law and bring in proper penalties for perpetrators.
Dr Allen says: “Now there’s a bigger demand for people to have canine companionship while people are working from home.
“The increased demand has led to increased prices and seeing those increased prices has made criminals think, ‘We’re making money from dog theft, we can make a bit more’.
“Breeders are also putting prices up for dogs because they can.”
Dr Allen’s research has revealed that just 1% of 2019 dog thefts in the UK resulted in a charge being brought against a person.
He says he has uncovered a continual rise in numbers of dog theft from 2015 until 2018.
But these figures are up against a huge fall in prosecutions, meaning stealing dogs is less of a risk.
Dr Allen adds: “Any pet theft that goes through magistrates courts, the most they will ever get is six months.
“Even in crown court, where sentences can be bigger, they are rarely given out.”
A gang in one 2015 case admitted stealing 15 puppies in Lincolnshire – but were only given suspended sentences of 12 to 18 months.
“None of them went to prison,” Dr Allen says.
“In terms of punishment, it doesn’t reflect the severity or impact of the crime.
“Pet theft reform is basic – we don’t want a new law, we want pet theft to be identified as a specific crime in itself.
“That’ll make it transparent in terms of the future so we can see what’s going on.
“They’ve got it for bike theft, we know exactly how many bikes have been stolen because they’re classified in themselves. Dogs aren’t.”
Hidden in Sight works to bring animal abusers to justice and has 40 years’ experience analysing criminal motivation internationally.
Mark Randell from the organisation says dog thefts are rising because of the higher prices dog sales are netting.
He adds: “It’s a commodity. It’s low risk – it’s very hard to identify a stolen dog, a dog can’t tell you it’s stolen. It’s very good monetary value for the thief.
“French bulldogs were trading before the pandemic at £1,500 up to £2,500 a dog. In terms of monetary value they’re very attractive to steal and sell on.”
The former senior police officer warns some stolen dogs may end up being used for fighting.
“You have to look at the different kinds of dogs to help you identify the motivation of the thief,” he says.
“If it’s a French bulldog, it’ll be useless in a dog fight; it’ll be traded on. If it’s a Staffy, it could end up in a dogfight.”
Losing pets is always painful, and many owners never give up hope of finding their beloved dogs.
Freya Woodhall, from Much Wenlock, Shropshire, launched a campaign to find her spocker – springer-cocker cross – Willow.
Willow was stolen aged two from the mum-of-four’s garden in 2018.
“She’s got to be out there somewhere,” Freya says.
“I didn’t know how rife dog theft was until we’re in this awful situation. We named her, she’s part of our family, she’s loved and cared for, gave us her unconditional love.
“To suddenly have that ripped from you is indescribable.”