Published: 06:00, 24 November 2020
Hundreds of dogs are stolen in Kent every year with only around one in four finding their way back home, it can be revealed.
Over the last five years at least 549 canine companions have been cruelly snatched from their home, driveway, garden or even while out walking.
Last year 121 pooches were taken between October 2019 and September with just 24 returned to their owners, according to a freedom of information request sent to Kent Police.
Of these dognapping cases only ten suspects were arrested and none were charged.
And it was a similar picture just a year before this, when between October 2018 and September 2019, just 36 dogs found their way home, resulting in 13 arrests – but again no charges.
In fact, over the last five years there have only been 14 charges brought for dog thefts, a statistic revealed by Dr Daniel Allen, a professor at Keele University and patron of the Stolen and Missing Pets Alliance (SAMPA).
Last month, Dr Allen alongside other campaigners, brought the issue for debate in the House of Commons after two public petitions calling for this "nasty crime" to be made a specific offence gained more than 260,000 signatures - the third year in a row it had achieved this feat.
SAMPA chief executive Debbie Matthews, the daughter of late entertainer Sir Bruce Forsyth, has been fighting for law reform ever since her two Yorkshire terriers, Widget and Gizmo, were stolen from her car in 2006.
The campaigner wants to see dog theft "elevated from the theft of a laptop and a mobile phone".
She explained the devastating emotional toll it was taking on owners, adding she could replace a mobile phone at the shop in 30 minutes, but not a "family member".
Speaking to KentOnline she said: "It has been increasing across the country - it is just getting horrendous. People are knocked over in parks and threatened.
"In some cases they are the only company that owner has got."
Thefts range from people being targeted by opportunistic thieves in their own homes to more organised criminal outfits who swoop on dog kennels, she says.
But Debbie hastens to add the statistics can be misleading as many forces fail to record full figures or mark the theft of multiple dogs as one crime.
"Some police forces are good and some are not so good," she said, adding Kent Police had been among the more proactive forces who had teamed up with the charity Dog Lost UK to designate specific liaison officers to help reunite owners with their pets.
She added: "To be honest 14 years on we are probably in the same situation because the law isn't there to help.
"One of the things I think that would actually help the police is if we had a separate definition for pets, a tick box for police rather than them being hidden in other thefts."
It follows a string of suspected dognapping cases across the county with lost pooches, a loaded shotgun and a machete among the finds police uncovered following a huge raid on a traveller site in September.
The same month a Meopham family said they were "over the moon" after being reunited with their missing dog - four months since they believe she was stolen - but were given no clues as to who was behind her return.
Should pet theft be a crime in itself?
But Dartford MP Gareth Johnson, who joined the Westminster Hall debate held last month, criticised at the Sentencing Council guidelines, labelling "2020 the worst ever year" for the crime after a sharp rise in cases during lockdown.
The Tory backbencher is a long term advocate of harsher penalties for pet theft and previously accompanied campaigners from SAMPA in presenting a petition to Number 10.
"The animals are stolen simply because the crime is low risk with a high reward," he told the debate.
"If someone knows they are not likely to be sent to prison because the value of the dog is less than £500, that is a very attractive crime to commit.
"That is why unfortunately we are seeing an increasing number of people carrying out the offence.
"It was happening before lockdown, and the numbers have shot up since because the value of dogs has gone up and there is an even greater reward, but with the same low risk for people carrying out these dastardly offences.”
SAMPA campaigner Debbie praised the support offered by the Dartford MP who she said had been a "strong voice in Parliament".
The government responded to the petitions this summer to say it was "sympathetic" to the "emotional trauma" but felt the current law was appropriate.
A statement earlier this year said: "All reported crimes should be taken seriously, investigated and, where appropriate, taken through the courts and met with tough sentences.
"The theft of a pet is already a criminal offence under the Theft Act 1968 and the maximum penalty is seven years’ imprisonment and so there is no need to introduce a separate offence.
"Sentencing is entirely a matter for our independent courts and must take into account the circumstances of each case.
It went on to add pets were a "personal item" but thefts involving them should carry a higher penalty when assessing the emotional impact on the victim.
Owners are being told to report the theft of their dog or cat to the database on which the animal’s microchip is registered, along with the corresponding crime reference number.
This way there is a much better chance the pet will be returned to its owners if they are microchipped and their records kept up to date.
But this is by no means full proof, says campaigner Debbie, as there is no legal requirement for anyone to scan a found dog or cat or a new patient at the vet’s.
And even if a dog is flagged up on the system as being stolen, the records can still be overwritten with a new owner’s details, making selling on much easier, she added.
Earlier this month an elderly couple near Ashford expressed their relief after their dog - believed to be stolen - was returned.
The cockapoo, thought to have been snatched from the garden, was found by police being kept in an outside kennel.
Most police records of stolen pets don't record the breed for the purpose of reporting the crime but last year cockapoos were the most highly prized type of dog targeted by criminals in Kent, followed closely by cocker and springer spaniels.
Maidstone recorded the highest number of dog thefts (16), followed by Medway (15) and Swale (9).
In June, another family's beloved pooch disappeared, a stolen cavapoo called Peanut but was found by police wandering along a busy road in Maidstone, three days after he was reported missing.