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You - 2021-06-06

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DOGNAPPERS BEWARE: WE’RE ON YOUR TAIL

YOU INVESTIGATION

alking her devoted dog through the countryside near her Wigan home should have been the most relaxing part of the day for Tracey Bilski. Instead, she was on tenterhooks every time Charlie, a ten-year-old cavachon (a cross between a bichon frise and a king charles cavalier), disappeared from view. Tracey, 51, a professional dog-walker, had listened to so many stories about dogs being stolen that she feared Charlie could be next. ‘I heard about a man being attacked in the local park by people trying to steal his dog,’ she says. ‘He needed hospital treatment. Thieves also broke into a nearby house and stole seven french bulldog puppies when the owners were out.’ In January a lurcher called Socks had been bundled into a car by three men, leaving her owner distraught. Because of her work, Tracey is acutely aware of the special place dogs hold in their owners’ hearts. She knows the heartbreak that accompanies the loss of a beloved companion – and if that loss is through theft, she adds, the pain can be unbearable. ‘Weeks and months searching, not knowing your dog’s fate and thinking it’s your fault for not keeping a closer watch. I can’t imagine anything worse.’ Yet it’s a nightmare that’s increasingly coming true for owners in the UK. Incidents of dog theft went up by a fifth in 2020, with an estimated 2,438 dogs – that’s equivalent to almost seven a day – reported stolen to the police, although charities think the overall figure is far higher. The number of dog owners soared in lockdown, with 2.2 million people acquiring animals in the first six months of the pandemic. As demand escalated, so too did the price – which has risen to average of £800 per animal, though many do cost thousands. The most popular breeds (and most valuable to thieves) are staffordshire bull terriers, english bulldogs, cavapoos (king charles cavaliers crossed with poodles), miniature dachshunds, cockapoos (cocker spaniels crossed with poodles) and french bulldogs. While some dog theft is opportunism, there are also organised gangs that steal to order or to supply puppy farms. Unneutered animals are particularly attractive as they can be used for breeding – often kept in horrific conditions in filthy cages. While it’s UK law for all puppies over eight weeks to be microchipped, not all owners do this, and many puppies are stolen before they’re chipped. Savvy thieves also remove chips from older animals to hide their background from new families. Dogs have become such a valuable commodity that thieves will even use violence. In the past six months alone, a british bulldog Wpuppy called Spot was stolen at knifepoint in Southeast London, a nine-week-old american bulldog called Cairo was snatched by three machete-wielding thugs in Glasgow and a sprocker spaniel called Ted was stolen after thieves punched his owner in the back and pushed him to the ground. Some owners have successfully fought back (though police don’t advise risking your safety). Student Ally Knight, 22, got two black eyes after fending off two men trying to steal her pug in Plymouth, while former amateur boxer James Cosens refused to hand over his collie pup Rosi despite being threatened with a knife. Northwest England, where Tracey lives, has become a dognapping hotspot, accounting for 15 per cent of reported thefts last year. The area’s large open spaces make walkers easy targets and many women are becoming too scared to venture out alone, she says. Realising something needed to be done, Tracey discovered Doghorn (doghorn.uk), a grassroots initiative created to tackle the crime at a community level. Anyone worried about dog theft in their area can set up a local group online. Members band together into a neighbourhood dog-watch and walk in groups, wearing hi-vis jackets and lanyards to let thieves know that they’re alert. According to Doghorn founder Nigel King, these acts can be a powerful deterrent. If dog thieves know local owners are primed, they think twice about striking. Nigel, a 67-year-old former RAF pilot, launched the scheme last November after witnessing his friend’s distress at the loss of her springer spaniel Nora while on a walk near Druridge Bay, Northumberland. ‘She was one of four dogs being walked and the only one that disappeared,’ recalls Nigel, who has his own miniature schnauzer, Timber. ‘They’re very valuable gun dogs that always come when called – it’s for that reason we believe Nora was stolen. At first we hoped she’d just been lost – theft seemed too scary – but after four days of no sightings, we knew she’d been taken. We called the police but as we hadn’t witnessed a crime, there was nothing they could do.’ More than six months later, her owner is devastated. ‘Nora hasn’t been recovered and we don’t think she will be,’ Nigel says. Powerless to bring back his friend’s beloved companion, Nigel began wondering what he could do to help. ‘I was thinking, “What advice is there for someone who knows a thief is approaching?”’ he says. ‘It’s no good picking up the phone – by the time someone’s come to help, the thief’s a long way away. I realised the quickest way to gain assistance is through the use of sound. We came up with a loud whistle, normally used by football referees.’ Doghorn members are taught the morse code SOS distress signal (three short blows, three long, then three short). The theory is that the sound travels up to a kilometre, alerting other members in the vicinity to the problem. They can then come running to give support or be on the lookout for suspicious activity, logging descriptions of thieves or car number plates. The idea has clearly struck a chord with worried owners: since its inception, Doghorn has grown into a 10,000-strong force made up of 30 different groups all over the country. Anecdotally, it seems to be working, with no dog thefts reported in its areas of operation. Doghorn is something Lydia Rampin could have done with when her year-old cocker spaniel Lola was stolen in Buckinghamshire last March. Like most thefts, it happened in the blink of an eye. Lola was by Lydia’s side as she introduced her mother to a friend outside their house but, when she turned around, the dog was gone. ‘I instantly panicked because I knew she’d never have run off,’ says the 26-year-old physiotherapist. ‘She never leaves my side and she’s so well-trained she always comes when called. I looked for five minutes then called the police – but with nothing to go on, there was little they could do.’ The next few weeks were spent searching

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