Protect your pet: Is your dog in danger of being kidnapped?
As the number of cases in the UK soars, leaving owners feeling helpless and heartbroken, best investigates…
Kirstie Mitchell-Dickinson will never forget the day her beloved dog was stolen. ‘We all adored Oakley. Even now, nine months on, we’re still devastated,’ she says, sadly. ‘It’s hard enough for me and my husband, Sam, but our two little girls, Hollie and Aaliyah, just can’t understand it.’
Oakley, a two-year-old papillon, escaped from their house in Fareham, Hampshire, when a man delivering meals-on-wheels for Sam’s grandfather left the front door open by accident on 31 January. By the time he had put down the food and followed him outside, he saw Oakley being picked up by a couple, then given to a man in a truck, who drove off.
‘The couple said that the driver had told them the dog was his mum’s, and they’d been out looking for him,’ said Kirstie. ‘They had no reason to disbelieve him, so they handed Oakley over to them.’
Despite informing the police, who traced the truck
to a travellers’ site, Oakley wasn’t found there and the investigation was dropped, leaving the family in a horrible state of limbo.
‘Oakley was far more than just a pet,’ says Kirstie. ‘He was a member of our family – even now, the girls will ask if he’s OK and if he’s being looked after. We have no idea what to tell them.’
The family put up posters and contacted Dog Lost, the UK’s largest lost-and-found dog service, but all to no avail.
The organisation claims that dog theft has increased by 24 per cent over the last three years, and that more than 60 animals are snatched every week in England and Wales.
Thefts of cocker spaniels soared after Kate and William bought their pet, Lupo, in January 2012, with more than 75 being stolen every week in the following year.
Other breeds that are popular with dognappers include Pomeranians, as pedigree specimens cost over £1,000, plus the Maltese, which is small and easy to whisk away, and the French bulldog – so popular that supply isn’t keeping up with demand.
From the data, it seems as though hounds aren’t safe anywhere. Statistics show that 52 per cent of dogs stolen are taken from gardens and 20 per cent from homes, while 16 per cent are taken while being walked, seven per cent while tied up outside shops, and five per cent from cars.
Dog owners face the problem that, under the 1968 Theft Act, dogs are classified as a possession. Disappearances are often recorded as ‘theft of goods’, and it’s hard to obtain a crime number unless there is actual evidence of theft, such as CCTV footage or actual signs of a break-in.
The Stolen and Missing Pets Alliance was unsuccessful in getting the law changed, but authorities are slowly waking up to the devastation that this crime is causing.
It was agreed that there should be greater emphasis on the impact of the theft on the victim, and these new guidelines were implemented in February 2016.
Sadly, almost 50 per cent of owners never see their stolen dogs again – a shocking statistic because, for most dog owners, including Charlotte Widmark, their pet is far more than just a possession.
Charlotte, 58, a former barrister, suffers from multiple sclerosis and was given Leon, a German spitz, as an assistance dog two years ago.
‘I adored him,’ she says. ‘From the start, he made a huge difference to my life. If he sensed I was going to faint, he’d stand in front of me to make me sit down. If I dropped anything while I was in my wheelchair, he’d jump down and pick it up.’
But, on 14 February this year, Charlotte left Leon tied up outside a shop in the early hours of the morning while she nipped inside to buy a pint of milk. When she came back out, he was gone.
‘I was hysterical,’ recalls Charlotte. ‘I called the police and, knowing these things aren’t always taken seriously, I impressed upon them immediately how thoroughly I wanted this investigated. Even then, I knew the chances of getting him back were slim.’
Thankfully, the culprit, Douglas Cawsey, was caught on CCTV footage, and police were able to return Leon to Charlotte within six days.
‘I couldn’t believe it when they opened the car door and he jumped out,’ says Charlotte. ‘I hadn’t been able to sleep or eat. The pain was unbearable, so the relief was incredible.’
Cawsey was sentenced to eight weeks in prison and fined £315.
It’s left both Charlotte and Leon feeling wary. When she takes him out for a walk, she is constantly looking over her shoulder, while Leon refuses to leave her side.
But Charlotte is one of the lucky ones. Many people never recover their dogs.
‘ We’ll never give up hope of finding Oakley, but, the longer it goes on, the harder it becomes,’ says Kirstie. ‘How people can inflict this suffering on others is beyond me.’
It’s a fact – almost 50 per cent of owners will never see their dog again
Thefts of cocker spaniels shot up after the young royals bought Lupo for their son, Prince George
Police reunite Charlotte with her pet, Leon Oakley the papillon hasn’t been found Kirstie and husband Sam still miss their stolen pooch Charlotte is one of the lucky ones