‘He grabbed the lead and said: give me the dog’: can pet detectives stop the rise in animal theft? | Dogs

The village of Partridge Green in West Sussex on a gorgeous spring morning. The early mist has burnt off; a wood pigeon coos; a flurry of pink snow falls from a showy cherry tree; outside the butcher’s, an orderly, socially distanced queue has formed; a chap out for a morning spin motors along the high street in his vintage MG. It is, as my companion, Colin Butcher, says, a scene straight out of Midsomer Murders.

There are no murders today in Partridge Green, but it is a crime scene, and the crime is one that appears to be sweeping the nation. Butcher – ex-police (you can tell), then private investigator, now company director and chief investigator of The UK Pet Detectives – is on the case. He steps from his Range Rover wearing a fleece with an official-looking badge and “UKPD” emblazoned across the back; a twist on NYPD, except PD stands for Pet Detective. “I know the impact of seeing that UKPD – it’s such an international sign,” he says later, putting the jacket on before knocking at an address linked to his main suspect.

We’re getting ahead of ourselves, though. Butcher has been hunting for stolen dogs since his time in the police; his first successful assignment was the recovery of two German shepherd puppies taken from a breeder’s kennels in 1994 while he was serving as a detective sergeant with Surrey police. Now his services are available privately, and have been highly sought after this past year. The rise in demand for dogs during the pandemic is well documented, with a corresponding leap in the prices people are prepared to pay for them. And tagging along at the heel of the economic bubble are new opportunities for crime – with one survey putting dog theft up by a fifth over lockdown. The Pet Detective is busy right now.

Pet detective Colin Butcher with a missing poster for stolen dogs Reggie and Ruby.
Pet detective Colin Butcher with a missing poster for stolen dogs Reggie and Ruby. Photograph: Peter Flude/The Guardian

To the scene of the crime, then: the corner of Oakwood and Littleworth Lane. Here, exactly three weeks ago, two English springer spaniels were running loose. A passing local stopped, hoping to catch them and find the owner. But at the same time, a small truck – a red Nissan Cabstar – also stopped. One of the two men in the vehicle got out, said they knew the dogs and would take them home, and bundled them into the truck. Ruby and Reggie, mother and son spaniels, were not returned home.

Butcher thinks it was an opportunistic snatch, but these too are part of the coronavirus crime wave, driven by the rise in prices. He points out the security camera on the side of a house that captured the incident.

Next stop, just round the corner, is the home of Donna Botting, owner of Ruby and Reggie. Ronnie, her third springer spaniel, hasn’t been the same since, Botting says; he’s pining for his family. Ronnie is Reggie’s father.

Botting was at her mum’s when she got a call from a neighbour saying that the dogs were out. The latch on the living room window was broken, and a panel of the garden fence had come down in a recent gale. When Botting got home, Ronnie had come back in through the window, but Ruby and Reggie were nowhere to be found. She searched the village, calling for them, “completely beside myself”, she says.

She posted on the village Facebook page: “Has anyone seen my dogs?” People were kind and helpful, checking their CCTV, spreading the word. Botting, a nursing assistant at East Surrey hospital, moved to Partridge Green recently, after the breakup of her marriage. Her dogs are everything to her; she has three paws tattooed on her forearm. She describes a particularly gruelling recent shift on a Covid ward, when the last task of the day was to zip someone into a body bag. “I was literally sobbing driving home. I thought, this is ridiculous, pull yourself together, I’ve been here so many times, why has this one got to me so much? I walked in, and the dogs just went mental, licking my face, and I stopped feeling sad, ’cos I had purpose with the dogs. I went to bed and felt calm and relaxed. Of course, they all went to bed with me, which is the usual.”

Butcher plans to get maximum traction from what Botting does for a living, hoping it will appeal to people’s sense of decency and help get the dogs back. “I am a nurse working on an intensive care ward looking after very sick people who have the virus,” his poster reads. That goes out on his own social media platforms, and is then shared among groups of dog lovers. He also has a network of volunteers around the country – they might be veterinary nurses or breeders – that he can ask to make discreet inquiries in their area after a dog theft.

Butcher understands the power of social media. Old media, too – this is by no means his newspaper debut, and he’s often on the telly, usually accompanied by his own spaniel, Molly. Botting says it was someone on Facebook who told her about Butcher. “And my aunt messaged me and said, ‘I’ve seen this man on the telly, get him involved,’” she says. Normally he charges £100 an hour, but there’s no charge for Botting because of her job. Plus, it’s a good story.

Donna Botting with her dog Ronnie in her back garden
Donna Botting with Ronnie in her back garden – her other two dogs, Reggie and Ruby, were stolen in March. Photograph: Peter Flude/The Guardian

Botting called the police the morning after her dogs went missing. An officer came the following day and took a statement. But she hasn’t been overly impressed by their activity, or lack of it. Butcher says he works alongside the police, trying not to step on their toes. And he understands that they’re under-resourced, and don’t have the community networks or specialist knowledge that he has. Also they have to gather evidence in order to build a case and get a prosecution. “That’s not my job – my job is to get dogs back for people who are really distressed.”

But he uses skills from his own time in CID. He once did a four-week hostage negotiation course and he says he used that knowledge on a recent case of a stolen corgi. The dog thief was a hardened criminal: “Two or three stretches of serious prison time, drug dealing, crimes of violence – he had zero reason to negotiate with me. So I negotiated through his daughter and his wife. I made damn sure they knew the owner of the corgi was 95 years old.” The corgi, Amber, is now back home.

Intelligence has begun to come in about the disappearance of Ruby and Reggie; about the Nissan truck and its occupants. The day after the theft, there was another incident involving the same vehicle at a post office in a neighbouring village. Then a police raid in Surrey recovered 10 stolen dogs, but Ruby and Reggie weren’t among them. Botting received an anonymous phone call: a woman told her she knew who had taken her dogs, and where the truck was parked, on a Traveller site. But the police said they couldn’t act on a third-party tipoff. So Butcher, the home counties’ very own Ace Ventura, is going to make some inquiries of his own. And I’m going with him.

Dog theft is a lucrative business. The pandemic has seen the doubling, tripling and more of prices (I’ve heard rumours of £10,000 for an English bulldog puppy). People want dogs and will pay lots of money for them. There are other factors, too. New legislation known as Lucy’s law, named after a cavalier King Charles spaniel which was rescued from terrible conditions at a puppy farm, came into force last year. It bans the third-party sales of puppies, meaning you must buy directly from a breeder, or adopt from an animal shelter. It clamps down on puppy farms and people bringing puppies into the country from abroad. Organised gangs importing dogs from Ireland and other countries have also been restricted by Brexit and the pandemic.

And lockdown has been tough on career criminals like burglars; it’s hard to break into a house when everyone is at home. “There just wasn’t any crime for them to commit, so they either sat at home without any money or they adapted,” says Butcher. “The pandemic has displaced an awful lot of criminals across to dog theft.”

It’s hard to put accurate numbers on it, but Butcher reckons about 15 dogs a day are stolen in the UK. A survey by Direct Line estimates that 2,438 dogs were reported stolen to police forces across the UK in 2020, and that dog theft increased by 19% over lockdown. Spaniels, bulldogs, staffies and labradors were the breeds most targeted. Only 22% were reunited with their owners.

DogLost, a volunteer-run website that attempts to reunite owners with their missing dogs for nothing, has seen a 170% increase in reported dog thefts – from 172 cases in 2019 to 465 in 2020. And the figures for 2021 are already well up on last year’s.

One reason the numbers are hard to track is that a single crime might involve the theft of more than one dog. “So if a bunch of puppies are stolen, you get one crime reference number that the police allocate to that specific theft,” says Wayne May, a director of DogLost. May, speaking to me from his tractor on a farm in Kent, has been volunteering at DogLost since he had six dogs stolen from his home in 2008. (He subsequently got three of them back.)

Kennels and the breeders themselves are increasingly being targeted, says Butcher. He estimates that specialist dog thieves are now responsible for around three-quarters of thefts, and that it’s easy for them to find out who particular breeders are, and where they are based. “The amount of information available on the internet for organised criminals – that is why we are seeing such a large number of premises targeted,” says Butcher.

The examples are numerous. In March, a raid by Suffolk police on the outskirts of Ipswich recovered 83 dogs that were believed to have been stolen. In April, three people were arrested after an RSPCA investigation led to the discovery of 27 dogs, including eight puppies, at an address in Essex. In the same month, 21 dogs were rescued in Gwent, with police working to reunite them with their owners. And Nottinghamshire police, which became the first force in the country to appoint a senior officer dedicated to the issue, have investigated an attempted theft after which markings visible only under UV light were discovered on a tree in the dog-owner’s garden – a suspected method of marking potential targets.

Colin Butcher of the UKPD talks to dog owners about dog thefts in Partridge Green, West Sussex.
Colin Butcher, UKPD, talks to dog owners about thefts in Partridge Green, West Sussex. Photograph: Peter Flude/The Guardian

Under the law, there is no specific crime of pet theft; stolen dogs are treated just like other stolen property. “But a dog is part of the family,” May says. “You talk to them; you don’t talk to your wristwatch or your microwave.” Debbie Matthews, CEO of the Stolen and Missing Pets Alliance, which is campaigning for a change in the law, says this makes it hard to get precise numbers. “If it’s part of a house burglary, it will go in that folder; if it’s from a car, it will get hidden in that one. Anything they don’t know where to put goes into a Home Office file called ‘others’. I think it’s file 406 or something – it goes with wheelbarrows, laptops, garden pots, anything ‘other’. The reason for making pet theft a specific crime is so it gets its own folder.”

A specific pet theft crime would enable the courts to give out proper sentencing, says Matthews, to act as a deterrent. “If you’re going to be handed a fine of £250 and you’ve sold that dog for £3,000, it’s worth taking a chance, isn’t it?” she says. There have been petitions; former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith brought it up in parliament; and there’s talk of banning cash sales for dogs and reintroducing the dog licence to better regulate ownership.

Matthews – who happens to be Bruce Forsyth’s daughter – had two dogs stolen 15 years ago. She got them back, but vividly remembers the episode: it’s why she wants to help other people going through the same thing. “It’s the most dreadful experience. You don’t eat, you don’t sleep, you’re constantly worried. Are they warm, are they dry, are they still together? It never leaves you. You never stop hoping you’re going to get that call to say, ‘We’ve got your dog.’”

Back to Partridge Green. Actually, to the village of Hurstpierpoint, a few miles away. I’ve come with Butcher in his Range Rover to have a look at a house he has been tipped off about, where a car resembling the Nissan Cabstar Botting’s spaniels were seen being bundled into is sometimes parked. He says he wants the occupants to know he’s on to them.

During the drive, he tells me about some of the other cases he has worked on. He says specialist gangs are getting more sophisticated in their methods and planning: as well as researching breeders and kennels, they can geo-reference photos from social media posts. Once they’ve got an address to target, they might knock on the door – offer to jet-wash a drive, perhaps – in order to scope it out, see what’s there. They’ll come back again a week or so later, over the fields this time, at night.

And they’ll have a load of equipment with them. Butcher has seen a bag that was left behind by one gang. Inside was an expensive pair of bolt cutters that could get through any padlock, a mishmash of screwdrivers, dry liver treats, dog calming spray (you can get it for taking a dog on a plane), clip-on lights to work in the dark, gaffer tape, cable ties and a makeshift muzzle that traps a tennis ball inside the dog’s mouth. “It’s quite brilliant, really – the dog can breathe because its mouth is open, but it can’t bark, and it’s relatively happy ’cos it’s got a tennis ball in its mouth,” says Butcher. Sometimes, the thieves cable tie the dogs’ legs together and carry them upside down: “Truss them up like handbags, so they can carry three or four each.”

After driving past the address in Hurstpierpoint, which Butcher believes belongs to the parents of the Nissan’s owner, he parks round the corner. He tells me to stay in the car; two blokes would look threatening. On goes the UKPD jacket.

Fifteen minutes later, he’s back. “I’ll talk to you as we move out of the area – it’s probably not a good idea to hang around,” he says. Butcher tells me what happened. The person who opened the door was the suspect’s father. “He was very friendly to start with, then I said, ‘I’ve got a picture here of some springer spaniels,’ and straight away he was guarded. I said, ‘I don’t know who it is, but somebody in this area has told me a Nissan Cabstar parks up here occasionally, and that vehicle’s been involved in picking up two springer spaniels from Partridge Green.’ And he said, ‘If you know so much, I can’t fucking help you, can I, ’cos you know more than I do.’”

And so on. Butcher says the man and his wife, who was in the background with a toddler, probably their grandchild, now know that the woman whose dogs were taken is a nursing assistant who works on an intensive care ward. And their son will be aware that Butcher knows where his parents live, “so we’re making it personal”, he says.

Weymouth, Dorset, the following day, and I’m on a chilly morning walk. Honey, Annie and Izzy are, respectively, an alapaha blue blood bulldog, a patterdale and a cocker spaniel. Their owners, Anita Wingad, Sarah Wood and Amanda Hall, are all very aware of the dog-theft crime wave.

It was here, in Radipole Park Gardens, that a man with long hair and a red jacket tried to snatch Izzy from Hall a couple of months ago. “He came up behind me, grabbed the lead, said, ‘Give me the dog,’” she tells me. Hall hung on, Izzy barked uncharacteristically, and the man ran off, leaving Hall shaking like a leaf. “I wouldn’t say I’m over it,” she says. “I don’t enjoy walks any more; I’m always looking over my shoulder, and I’m neurotic about letting her off the lead.” She now alters her walk every day. Izzy, who was a rescue dog, has regressed and barked at men ever since. But at least she and Hall are still together. “She’s my life,” she says. “Losing her would have been the absolute end of me. She’s what gets me up in the morning.”

Amanda Hall with her dog Izzy, Anita Wingad with Honey (middle) and Sarah Wood with Annie on Weymouth beach.
Amanda Hall with her dog Izzy, Anita Wingad with Honey (middle) and Sarah Wood with Annie on Weymouth beach. Photograph: Peter Flude/The Guardian

Today, Hall, Wood and Wingad are wearing hi-vis jackets, plus bright-yellow lanyards and whistles around their necks. “It’s about a visual presence that acts as a deterrent,” says Wingad, who hands out leaflets to other dog walkers. Theirs is one of about 30 groups in England and Wales. It’s part of a scheme called DogHorn, dreamed up by a semi-retired 67-year-old called Nigel King, whose idea was prompted by the disappearance of his own spaniel, Nora, in what he believes was a theft. “There are three aspects to it: sound, teamwork and visibility,” he says on the phone from his home in Northumberland. “It might make a thief think twice, go, ‘Shit, they are DogHorn people.’”

There’s even a whistle code, based on a shortened version of SOS: short blast, long blast, short blast; dit dar dit. I’m not 100% sure that’s going to catch on; that people will recognise that dit dar dit means, “Help, someone’s stealing my dog!” Even if they were in the navy once and knew morse code, they’d read it as ETE. But anyway, I say, go on, give us a blast!

Wingad does, a bit tentatively, but it’s still quite loud. No one comes running to help. But I can see that the combination of that, the official-looking lanyard and the hi-vis might make a dognapper think twice. Wingad demonstrates her own twist on the DogHorn response, doing the internationally recognised action for kneeing her imagined attacker in the groin. Now it’s time to go down to the beach to hand out more leaflets.

News from Partridge Green, a couple of days later: Butcher says he went down to the area where the owner of the Nissan lives. The vehicle wasn’t there, nor its owner, “AKA dog thief”. But he spoke to a woman he thinks is the man’s wife. “I said to her, ‘Look, I don’t know if you’re aware that the owner of the dogs spends 12 hours in intensive care every day, saving people’s lives.’”

He got a look at the dogs there, none of which were Botting’s spaniels Reggie and Ruby, and he left. But half an hour later, his phone rang. The caller didn’t identify himself, but Butcher is sure he was his suspect. “He told me I’d threatened his kid, that he didn’t appreciate that. I said, ‘There were no children on the site.’ He said, ‘Yeah, you went round to my old man’s house. I’ve got nothing to do with these thefts.’ I said, ‘Look, I did not go in the house, I did not intimate anyone, you’re not getting the right news here. All I want to do is get these dogs back.’ He said, ‘Nothing to do with me,’ and hung up.”

The next morning, Butcher got another call – he doesn’t know who from, but it sounded like a teenager – shouting: “You got your dogs back, you got your dogs back.”

Donna Botting at home with Ronnie.
Donna Botting, who is a nursing assistant, at home with Ronnie. Photograph: Peter Flude/The Guardian

Botting also got a call that morning, from a number she didn’t recognise, in Gravesend, Kent. “I thought, oh God, that’s probably someone I owe money to,” she tells me on the phone, and she ignored it. But it rang again. This time she answered: they said it was Meopham veterinary hospital and they had a male spaniel, which they’d scanned for a chip and it had come up with her details. “I didn’t know whether to laugh, cry, scream. Honestly, I don’t even know how I wrote the name of the vets down, I was shaking so much.”

Reggie had turned up abandoned in a field, looking lost. A man walking his own dogs had come across him – Reggie had played with his dogs and then jumped into the back of his Land Rover. Botting says: “That’s Reg, he’s already been stolen once, and he just jumps in another car!” She didn’t have any money and her fuel tank was empty. “I phoned my mum, said, ‘Do you fancy a trip to Gravesend, you might have to put the petrol in the tank, but they found Reg.’ She said, ‘Get your backside round here now.’”

Once they arrived at the vets, they called to say they were outside and Reggie came out, dragging a veterinary nurse behind him. “She almost came home with us,” says Botting. “My mum sat in the back with him the whole way back and he kept licking her face.”

Back home, Reggie was reunited with Ronnie. They were all over each other, father and son. Botting is ecstatic to have him back, though the joy is tarnished with worry about Ruby, who is still missing.

It’s now nearly eight weeks since Ruby was snatched. During that time, more than 50 dogs have been registered as stolen on the DogLost website, including several spaniels, staffies, cockapoos. And Bear, a German shepherd puppy, snatched from outside Tesco in Poole and taken away by a man on a rental bicycle.

Anita Wingad, of the Weymouth DogHorn group and owner of Honey the alapaha blue blood bulldog, knows about that one, it’s just up the coast. Her group now has nearly 800 members. The prime minister, meanwhile, has said he will carry out a “ruthless” crackdown on pet theft, throwing his weight behind a taskforce set up after the surge in dognapping.

Colin Butcher, UKPD – whose video on how to prevent a theft during a country walk has now had more than 100,000 views – isn’t very hopeful that Botting will get Ruby back now. A raid by Surrey police, part of an operation that prevented him from pursuing some of his own inquiries, recently unearthed 26 suspected stolen dogs, but Ruby wasn’t among them. Colin suspects that she will have been moved on or sold. He would like to remind the dognappers of the pain they cause. “It’s a very, very heartless soul that can turn a blind eye to that,” he says.

Pain that perhaps is not just the preserve of a bereft owner. At Donna Botting’s house, the two male dogs, Reggie and Ronnie, know there’s still something not quite right. Reggie has been lying by the front door, just where Ruby used to hang out. “He can obviously still smell her scent,” says Botting. “They keep looking at me, as if to say: where is she?”

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