Detectives who sniff out designer dog nappers in high demand
‘Designer dogs’ are increasingly targeted by thieves in the UK, and this is where I come in
One Friday night in April 2017, a couple called Renu and Sachin took their sons Harry and Freddie out for dinner at a restaurant in north London.
When the family arrived home, they discovered their BMW was missing from the driveway and that their house had been burgled.
Cash, jewellery and handbags were stolen. Worse still, Buffy, the beloved family puppy – a white, golden-eared crossbreed called a Coton de Tuléar – was nowhere to be seen.
Yet when the police attended, they told the devastated family there was no proof their pet had been stolen.
“The patio doors are still open,” an officer pointed out. “The dog could have simply run off.”
When Buffy failed to reappear, Renu phoned me, distraught.
As a former policeman-turned-pet detective, it didn’t take me long to see this case for what it was: a dog theft.
When you’ve been on the scene of countless crimes, you know when something looks strange, and in this case the clues were not difficult to spot. Upstairs, a bed had been tipped over.
As a Surrey police CID officer for 15 years, I attended thousands of burglaries, but never had I seen a bed left like this.
Clearly, Buffy had hidden beneath it and the thieves had upended it to reach her. Another telltale sign of dog theft was the garden gates had been closed.
It seemed highly unlikely Buffy would have shut them behind her if she had run away.
Dogs like her are highly valuable. A pedigree puppy is worth about £1,500, making it attractive to criminals.
Last week, figures released by Direct Line showed the number of dogs reported stolen in the UK had risen for the fourth year in a row, with an average of five dogs believed to be stolen every day.
In fact, this represents only a small fraction of dog thefts. The true number is far higher, a fact obscured by the way they are recorded. That is, if someone breaks into a house and steals a dog, the crime is classed as a burglary, the dog as the “property” stolen.
If other property has also been taken, the dog theft might not even appear on the crime report – and so will not be added to the figures. For the past 14 years, it’s been my job to find much-loved pets and bring them home.
Having become an expert in crimes against animals – and an animal lover since childhood – it made sense as my next career move after leaving Surrey police. And so I set up UK Pet Detectives, a four-strong team that each year recovers hundreds of lost and stolen pets such as Buffy.
We weren’t taken seriously to start with. Anyone who remembers the 1994 Jim Carrey film Ace Ventura: Pet Detective can probably guess why.
But we took on some serious cases, including one on behalf of Sir Ian Botham when his dog went missing in 2011. Woody, a springer-cocker spaniel cross, had disappeared from a secure courtyard at the cricketer’s farmhouse in North Yorkshire.
His former daughter-in-law was subsequently arrested on suspicion of stealing it but ultimately released without charge.
We have also worked for Sam Fox, the former glamour model, who hired us in 2017 to find her cat, Maxi, after she was convinced he had been taken by the notorious Croydon cat killer.
In fact, it was a straightforward runaway case, and he was eventually found, alive and well, a few kilometres away. And we’ve worked for a Saudi princess in London when her high-value cat, Banksy-Moon, disappeared.
We tracked him down to the courtyard of a basement flat off Belgravia Square, having sustained a broken pelvis and broken tail.
Though we were unable to establish how he got there, he went on to make a full recovery.
No prosecutions were brought.
Then again, it is rare that they are, not only owing to the way that the crimes are recorded, but also the fact that those who steal animals have often committed other offences, too.
When they end up in court, they will commonly plead guilty to a greater charge; the one that’s deemed lesser – the theft of an animal – stays on file.
This belies how much misery the crime typically causes the owners.
As I record in my new book, Molly & Me, when Buffy went missing, her disappearance left the entire family anguished.
“It’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to me,” her owner told me as she choked back tears. “Who would do such a thing?”
The answer is: anyone who’s criminally minded and looking to make a nice sum. Even if a pedigree can’t be bred, those in the know can sell a stolen pet on.
It’s often houses with high-value dogs that are targeted.
This happens across the UK, and we have worked with police to recover dogs from travellers’ sites; we know who’s smuggling them out of the country, and we know that microchipping doesn’t deter them.
They just add a new one – it isn’t hard – and then ship the dog overseas. Having said this, our hit rate at recovering stolen dogs is close to 100%.
We receive such a large volume of calls, we are able to cherrypick the cases we take on. In each instance, we start off taking guidance from the owners.
If they don't wish to bring in police, we’ll recover the pet on our own, considering the most likely culprits and how they might react when approached.
Then we begin door-to-door enquiries to find witnesses and examining CCTV, handing out leaflets and posters, and putting out word that if the pet is handed in quietly, there will be no further ado.You’d be surprised how often this works.Last year, we recovered a dog that was being kept in a stable on a farm in Stroud. We snuck in at night and, once we had it, left the door ajar to make it look like he had escaped. The culprits never knew it was us.Not every thief we deal with is a specialist dognapper. Some are merely opportunists who see a dog tied up outside a shop, for instance, and make off with it. Then there are those we call occupationalists – people who work with dogs for a living.They might form a bond with the dog and want to keep it, or be aware there’s a high-value pet in their care and sell it on.We’ve dealt with dog wardens who would pick up stray dogs but not record any pedigrees, selling these ones for cash instead. There have also been kennel workers who have given a heads-up to criminals when a high-value dog is brought in.
And then there are the ones we call “crazies” – the spiteful ex-girlfriend or boyfriend who steals their former lover’s pet as revenge; the neighbour who grows so fed up with hearing a dog barking, they steal it and harm it in some way.
There are even some who kill dogs for no reason.
But the story of Buffy ends happily. After a lot of hard work, we tracked the thieves down to Stoke Newington, north London.
Through painstaking, on-the-ground inquiries, I located a man who’d changed the wheels on their stolen BMW.
It transpired he still had their details, so I pressured him to pass on a message: “Tell them that I’m on their case, and that, one way or another, I will find out what happened to Buffy.”
Two days later, she turned up at a dog rescue centre in Essex, handed in by some intermediaries, and her owners were ecstatic.
“Our family,” said Renu, “is complete again.”
– © Telegraph Media Group Limited (2019)