Published: 06:00, 22 February 2021
| Updated: 14:48, 01 March 2021
On the evening of September 19 last year, while eating dinner with her children, Cintia Gardner received an anonymous phone call instructing her to look in the back garden, before promptly hanging up.
That phone call signalled the end of a four month search for their 21-month-old golden cocker spaniel Honey, who the family believe was stolen.
Moments before the mobile rang, the family had spotted Honey, who had disappeared from their cul-de-sac after the garden gate was left open, sitting by their back door.
They don't know who dropped her off or took her, all that mattered was that their beloved pet was back where she belonged.
Mrs Gardner said: "A day doesn't go without me looking at her and saying how amazing it is to have her back. It was awful, when you have a pet they're part of the family, you wake up in the morning to make sure they're okay. Then suddenly you don't know if your pet has got food or water."
You only need to scrawl through Facebook for five minutes to come across numerous pleading posts from families who believe their dogs were stolen, to know the Gardners are one of many victims of this crime, which is on the rise.
Nationally, the charity DogLost has seen reports of thefts rise by 170% in the last year from 172 dogs in 2019 to 465 in 2020.
And earlier this month the National Police Chief's Council warned that criminals are exploiting the huge increase in prices and demand for puppies during lockdown.
In Kent, between October 2019 and September 2020, 121 dogs were reported stolen, with just 24 returned to their owners, according to a freedom of information request to Kent Police.
Of these dognapping cases only 10 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.
Dog thieves are getting more inventive and bold, says Dartford man Wayne May, a senior police liaison coordinator for DogLost.
'We are getting owners suffering from depression...'
DogLost is run by volunteers and has a huge online data base of missing and stolen pooches, and also helps distraught owners in their search.
Mr May has been with the charity for 10 years, after six dogs were stolen from his rescue shelter in Greenhithe, and he was run over while chasing after the getaway vehicle.
Part of Mr May's job is sifting through any information which the owner has been given or found, such as CCTV or number plates, which could help with the police investigation.
He acts as an intermediary between the police and the owners, collating the evidence and then passing it to the investigating officers, who might not have time or resources to field calls from anxious owners or members of the public.
"Sometimes I get 30 or 40 calls regarding the same dog in a one to two hour period," he said.
The owners who ring might need emotional support or help with their mental health, bought on by the theft.
"We are getting owners suffering from depression. I am increasingly finding we are having to contact Mind or Samaritans for advice and to get these owners help," he said.
Mr May says he has seen the method of dog thefts evolve over time.
"Right at the beginning most of the dog thefts I dealt with were opportunity thefts, people go to shops, leave their dogs tied up outside."
But with lockdown, the demand for puppies rose and with people in doors more, criminals took note, he claims.
'Dogs are turning up all over the UK, dogs stolen in Wales are turning up in Sussex...'
"There were more people staying at home, they wanted a companion, dogs and puppies just dried up."
He says more female dogs are being stolen for breeding and the stolen pooches would then be transported.
"Dogs are turning up all over the UK, dogs stolen in Wales are turning up in Sussex."
There is also a small increase in aggravated thefts across the UK, he says, giving a recent example of two men threatening an owner with a knife in Wales.
Shockingly, he has also seen a rise in dogs being returned for reward money by the person who snatched them.
Criminals are monitoring social media, waiting for a reward to pop up for the dog they've stolen, and will then get in touch.
"They are meeting people in laybys and garages, getting their dogs back," Mr May said.
He tells one story of a desperate owner handing over £1,000 in cash, with the person they met then opening the car boot to reveal the dog.
Mr May always advises owners to put a 'finder's fee' on the poster, rather than a specific amount, but he doesn't blame them for offering large rewards.
"If it was one of my dogs I would remortgage my house," he remarks.
'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...'
Dognapping is also a lucrative business, and holds less risk than drug dealing, he says.
He recalls that in one weekend a gang made £70,000 from selling puppies illegally.
The RSPCA has previously said it is "extremely concerned" about where many of the dogs being sold during lockdown have come from, how they've been bred and the conditions they've been kept in.
Puppy farms however are not a new phenomenon, even if they have increased during lockdown. In February last year, two brothers from Longfield were handed a heavy fine and suspended prison sentence for running a puppy farm and a cock fighting ring.
John Cook, 26, and William Cook, 30, pleaded guilty to a number of animal welfare offences when they appeared at Sevenoaks Magistrates' Court.
RSPCA officers executed a warrant at their property in July 2018 after a member of the public who had bought puppies from the family raised concerns.
In total, 18 dogs, including spaniels and beagles were removed along with two cockerels.
The RSPCA described how the dogs were kept in dirty, wet conditions with no bedding. Many also had health and dental problems.
There are calls for dog thefts to be classed a specific crime, rather than coming under the umbrella of theft offences.
This, Debbie Matthews, chief executive of the Stolen and Missing Pets Alliance (SAMPA), believes will result in appropriate sentencing and act a deterrent to dognappers.
Wayne May agrees the sentencing needs to change. He said: "If you're driving down the road and you're stopped by the police with five stolen pups, you're going to get a £500 or £200 fine and a slap on the wrist."
Dartford MP Gareth Johnson is a long term advocate of harsher penalties for pet theft and previously accompanied campaigners from SAMPA in presenting a petition to Number 10.
He told the House of Commons in October: "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.”
'Losing a much loved family pet can cause great distress and it’s a sad fact that criminals will seek to profit by this vile crime.'
Ms 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.
Due to her dad's fame, she was able to launch a huge public appeal for her dogs, and both were returned to her, but many, many, others aren't so lucky.
She remembers after her dogs were returned, scrolling through the Dog Lost website, watching as more beloved pets were added to the page and other pooches, while still missing, getting pushed further down the website.
Even when a dog is returned, the experience is traumatic, with long-reaching consequences, as the Gardner family can prove.
Mrs Gardner's son, now four, cries when Honey is let off the lead, for fear she will be taken or disappear.
"He was three at the time, I hope he will forget and won't be distressed," Mrs Gardner says.
Earlier this month, Policing Minister Kit Malthouse said pet thefts must be "confronted whenever it occurs."
Mr Malthouse said: “Losing a much loved family pet can cause great distress and it’s a sad fact that criminals will seek to profit by this vile crime.
“We are taking action to cut crime by bolstering the police with 20,000 extra officers and our £20 million Safer Streets Fund will provide Police and Crime Commissioners with additional cash to spend on crimes such as theft."
“Let me be clear – pet theft is a criminal offence with a maximum penalty of seven years’ imprisonment and it must be confronted wherever it occurs.”