Published: 06:00, 19 March 2021
| Updated: 15:10, 19 March 2021
Attempted dog snatches across Kent have left owners frightened to walk their pets alone.
Police are investigating a number of recent reports of thieves trying to steal dogs, particularly in remote rural spots of Canterbury.
Last Thursday one walker was threatened with a stick in Blean Woods by a man demanding he hand over his dog, Lex.
Fortunately, the thief escaped empty-handed, and with a bite mark for his troubles as Lex protected his owner.
Days earlier, in Chartham Hatch, two men tried to steal a rescue dog being walked in an orchard in Primrose Hill.
But as they attempted to drag three-legged Mishka towards their van, his harness got caught on a tree branch and they were forced to flee.
Mishka’s owner, Natalia George, says it was sheer luck the 16-year-old cross-breed was not stolen.
“I knew when I saw the van pull up that something wasn’t quite right about what they were doing,” she recalled.
“I was on the other side of the orchard, so when I realised what they were up to there was no way I’d have been able to run across in time to stop them.
“They went to grab Mishka, but luckily his harness got caught on the tree.
“I had a security dog with me - a malinois shepherd cross called Florence - who I let off the lead and she went bolting over there.
“They saw her coming and heard me screaming and shouting and jumped back in the van and drove off.”
Mishka - who was saved from the dog meat trade in China six years ago - lost his collar and tag, but was unhurt.
Natalia, who runs an animal rescue centre called Flori’s Friends - knows how close she came to losing him.
“He was saved by that branch,” she said.
“It may sound strange, but I would have rather he had died than been taken. I couldn’t bear not knowing what they had done with him.
“These people just don’t care what they’re doing.
“They look at a dog as they would a bike - something they can sell quickly on Gumtree for £50 or £60.”
Natalia says she is now wary of walking her dogs alone, but has little choice, while the victim of the Blean theft attempt says he will now walk with his wife.
Natalia said: “It’s sad that people have been left frightened to walk their dogs.
“But until there are tougher penalties for people who steal them, this isn’t going to go away.”
Maggie King, 48, from Canterbury has described the scary moment she was approached by two men in a white 4x4, as she walked her lurcher on Wednesday morning.
'They look at a dog as they would a bike - something they can sell quickly on Gumtree for £50 or £60...'
Her young dog, who is still in training, refused to sit before they crossed Spring Lane, and Mrs King soon realised his eyes were fixed on a white BMW that had pulled up beside them.
"I thought it had pulled up to let us cross so I waved them on, but the car didn't move," she said. "I tried to get the dog to sit and put a treat right to his nose but he wasn't interested - his heckles were up."
A man in the car's passenger seat, who was wearing a high-vis jacket and spoke with a broad Irish accent, said: "It's OK, we can help you."
Mrs King said: "I was taken aback. He was very close to me, with the window rolled down. Then he said again, 'We can help you, shall we help you?' Then he said 'what breed is he?'"
Panicked, she rushed across the road with her dog and raced towards her car.
"I was really scared," she said. "I knew they weren't trying to help me get my dog to cross the road.
"As I approached my car then had driven up past me, turned around and drove past really slow."
Mrs King managed to take the car's registration, which she passed to the police.
"I'm not a drama queen, I don't over-react," she said. "But I knew they didn't want to help me.
"It did make me terrified because my teenage daughter takes the dog out on her own, and it does make me think 'God what if it had been her'.
"This was at 9.50am in the morning. It wasn't at night, I wasn't down a dark, dingy road. I was completely confident."
The incident was reported to the police.
Across the county people have reported similar incidents.
In response to a KentOnline survey about the worrying rise in thefts and whether punishments should be increased Sue Julian said: "I am extremely worried and yes sentences should be definitely be increased. Dogs are members of the family and not 'just' a commodity."
Effie Foreman agreed, adding: "I definitely think sentences should be increased. Dogs are like children to many people, I have two cats and honestly if they were stolen it would kill me. I'd do anything to protect them."
Mo Page offered a solution, saying: "It terrifies me and yes sentences should be greater. But there is a bigger picture, I think dog ownership should be more regulated so they can only be bought from licensed breeders or from licenced rescue centres. And bring back the dog licence for ownership, you could have exemptions for people with financial hardship."
While there are signs others are taking drastic action.
Sandra Inott said: "I take hair spray with me and bleach spray. I would not hesitate to use them if necessary."
Joanne Gallacher added: "I will defend my dogs if anyone comes near them and will do some serious damage if a dog thief even attempts to snatch them. I've taken items in a bag with me, I will use them if i have to. If I am charged with assault, abh or gbh, fine. I will do it and I will do it again. But my way of thinking is a dog thief is not going to report an assault on them by a dog owner because they in turn are going to have to tell police why they were assaulted in the first place."
Melody Wakelin pointed to a reason for the spiralling offences, saying; "The price of dogs should be lowered. People are stealing them because they are worth so much. Literally the prices have doubled if not tripled in the last year."
Others spoke of having to change their routines due to anxiety brought about by the spate of thefts.
"I'm extremely worried. I only walk mine in busy areas now. I carry a rape alarm with me and my dogs are done up in a harness, collar with anti theft leads on home made padlock," said Maria Walker.
Sharon Filmer added: "I don't go to parks or open spaces now, it's just not fair on the dogs. I tend to go very local and fear whenever a van or car passes and slows down. It should not be like this. It makes me so angry that they think they can just take someone's family pet."
Susan Upton said: "I carry a personal alarm with me and try not to go out on my own. It is taking all the pleasure out of walking our dogs. We have also frosted our front window as the dogs loved sitting there now they can’t see out and people can't see in."
A spokesman for Kent Police said: "Officers from Tactical Operations, including Dog Section, have increased patrols in the area for the foreseeable future to give reassurance and crime prevention advice."
Between October 2019 and September 2020, 121 dogs were stolen in Kent, but not a single person was charged in connection with the thefts.
Just 24 of the dogs were returned to their owners.
Nationally, the charity DogLost says there was a 170% rise in dog thefts between 2019 and 2020, from 172 incidents to 465.
Last month, the National Police Chief’s Council warned that criminals are exploiting the huge increase in prices and demand for puppies during lockdown.
Deputy Chief Constable Amanda Blakeman said: “Dog theft can be a devastating crime for families and causes considerable distress to owners. While it is still a very rare crime, it’s sadly something we have seen increasing recently.
“During the coronavirus pandemic criminals have adjusted their activities and are taking advantage of the big demand for pets over the lockdown period.
“The cost of a puppy has considerably increased over the past year making this a lucrative market for organised criminals to exploit.”
If anyone has any information about the recent dog theft attempts in Blean or Chartham Hatch they should call police on 01843 222289.
The suspect in the Blean incident was in his late 20s to early 30s, about 5ft 10ins, white, with short, mousey-brown hair. He was wearing a snood.