In this article I will describe the growing influence of organized crime on dog theft, puppy smuggling and illegal breeding and address the question ‘where have all the stolen dogs gone?’
Dog Theft is an absolutely shocking crime, which was how the home secretary Pretti Patel described the offence before launching the Pet Theft Task Force in May 2021. However instead of addressing the influence of organized crime on dog theft and illegal breeding. The Task Force opted to draft a handful of implausible recommendations amongst which included the compulsory microchipping of all ‘cats?’
A Record Number of Dogs were Stolen in 2021
Undeterred the dog thieves ploughed on with their awful trade. By the end of 2021 the country recorded the highest number of stolen dogs ever with an estimate of between 2,700 and 3,000 dogs being snatched in just twelve months. And that number is likely to be much higher because nine of the forty-seven police forces failed to provide their crime figures. An even more shocking statistic is the extremely low detection rate (two percent). This means most victims of dog theft will never see their dogs again, so where have all the stolen dogs gone?
Organized Crime is Controlling Dog Theft and Illegal Puppy Breeding
A common misconception about why dog theft has increased so dramatically is the so-called cost v benefit factor. This urban myth is based on the belief that a person actually thinks about the risks and financial gain associated with a particular crime before committing it. The theory is that if the risks are low and the rewards high then the crime will be committed more often.
This is nonsense. Most dog thefts are now committed by specialists who mitigate risk through careful planning. It also has no bearing on behaviour of organized crime because their primary consideration is ‘return on investment.’ An example can be found in how these gangs have been exploiting our customs controls.
Puppy Smuggling Gangs are Exploiting Loopholes in Customs Controls
In 2019 I drove through France after attending a book promotion event in Amsterdam. I had one of my spaniels with me, which meant I had to clear her through the Pet Reception Centre at Calais (PRC). I had just arrived at the PRC when a convoy of three white vans pulled into the car park. I watched the occupants climb out of their vehicles and huddle in a tight group at the rear smoking cigarettes. Several men broke away from the group and walked into the centre carrying a handful of documents and returned after 10 minutes but without taking a single dog into the Centre.
My curiosity got the better of me, which it often does in my line of work. I ambled across to the men pretending to be the type of goof who would buy a puppy in a car park. I walked up to them and asked, ‘Are the puppies for sale?’
After a slight pause a short wiry looking guy with a deep scar running through his left cheek and a neck decorated in faded blue gang tattoos stepped forward and replied. ‘They are not for sale.’ I pushed on regardless and said. ‘I will pay cash, id love to get my kids a little puppy.’ ‘They are not for sale’ repeated the shifty gang leader. ‘If you want a puppy, give me your number and I will contact you when I have more.’
I had anticipated this and dug my phone out of my pocket and switched it across to my second sim-card and gave him the number. I watched as he punched my number into his phone and then pressed call. He looked me in the eye and waited, obviously checking to see whether I had given him a genuine number. A few seconds later my phone started to ring. I glanced at the screen and noted that unsurprisingly he had withheld his number. I stuck out my hand and asked. ‘What’s your name?’ Without breaking eye contact he replied. ‘You can call me Drax.’ He held my gaze for a few seconds, ignored my handshake then said. ‘I will call you.’ He then barked a command in Romanian whereupon all the men moved towards the front of the vans.
Puppy Smuggling Gangs can make half-a-million Pounds Every Month
I turned towards my car and quickly scanned the rear of the vans counting three crates in each and five puppies per crate. I also noted that all the puppies were French bulldogs. Once safely back in my car I calculated the value of the cargo. Frenchies were selling for £3,500. There were fifteen pups in each van so forty-five in total a profit of £150,000. If the gang made a trip a week, they would generate over half a million pounds every month. Whoever coined the phrase ‘crime doesn’t pay’ was certainly not referring to the puppy smuggling business.
What I witnessed in the car park sent a cold shiver down my spine. It gave me an insight into how organized the criminals were at getting puppies into the UK. By having three men in each van, they were exploiting a loophole in the commercial movement of animal’s legislation and importing forty-five puppies in a single trip. The up-front costs for this operation were the vans, which were probably hired. The fuel, ticket costs and expenses for the group. Allowing for £1,000.00 per trip they were still securing a massive return on their investment and were not committing a single criminal offence.
Stolen Dogs are being Smuggled out of the UK
This experience left me pondering the question. What cargo would the gangs be carrying in the vans when they left the UK? The answer arose eight months later when a dog rescue charity in Poland contacted me. They informed me that they had recently picked up a stray working cocker spaniel that had two microchips. The charity explained they needed my assistance to establish who owned the dog as the UK database controllers had refused to cooperate.
I made a few discrete enquires and established the first microchip – which had migrated to the dog’s chest – was English. The second was Romanian. After much toing and froing, I traced the owners and reunited them with their dog named Bracken. They explained that Bracken was stolen in 2018 along with two other fully trained gundogs. They added that the theft was captured on CCTV revealing the balaclava-clad intruders arrived at 4am in two vehicles with the number plates hidden. They carried bolt croppers to remove kennel padlocks and took just two minutes to locate and steal the dogs.
Organised Crime is Targeting Dogs Kept in Kennels
This was clearly a planned theft committed by specialist dog thieves. They must have had overseas connections, access to Romanian microchips, pet passports and a means of transporting the stolen dogs out of the country. I concluded that the thieves had scanned the stolen dogs for microchips and missed Bracken’s because it had migrated to her chest. The dogs were then re-chipped and taken out of the country.
Changing A Dog’s Appearance and Microchip (Flipping)
The practice of changing a dog’s appearance by cutting and dying its coat and removing and then replacing the microchip is know as ‘Flipping.’ I have experienced dozens of incidents recently where stolen dogs have been cut open with razor blades and had their chips removed. The wound is then sealed with super glue and a new microchip implanted. Trained working dogs are then shipped abroad and others are used in one of the numerous puppy mills popping up around the country. Those stolen dogs deemed not suitable for breeding are sold to unsuspecting buyers often through bogus dog rescue websites.
The microchip system is supposed to be robust and crime proof, but this has not been my experience. There are eighteen database companies some of which fail to implement effective control over their websites.
Dog Stolen Eight Years ago Recovered from Illegal Breeder
In December 2021 I helped recover a stolen dog from an illegal breeder in Chichester. Cassie a working cocker spaniel was stolen in 2013. She was spotted after the illegal breeder used an old image of her to advertise a new litter of puppies. During the raid on the site the police recovered Cassie together with three of the puppies all of which had been microchipped by the illegal breeder. When I logged into the database that had issued the microchips it was a simple task to register the puppies in my name. There were no checks on my identity. No proof of purchase required nor did I need register the name of the breeder. This is a direct contradiction of correct microchipping legislation.
The Microchip System is Failing Dog Owners
The microchip system is in free-fall and needs a total overhaul. The lack of effective control over the sale of microchip scanners and attendance of microchip-implanting courses has totally undermined the system and the criminal gangs have been quick to exploit these vulnerabilities. The illegal breeders that had possession of Cassie were also offering a host of other services. These included microchipping, canine fertility, dog sitting and dog transport. This veneer of respectability serves one purpose. It is is to dupe innocent purchasers into believing the puppy they are acquiring is healthy and legally bred.
My investigation revealed that Cassie had six litters whilst kept in captivity. Assuming there were six puppies to each litter this would have resulted in over £70,000.00 of untaxed profit from just one dog. This explains why so few stolen dogs are recovered. After the raid neither Surrey nor Sussex police brought any criminal charges against the breeders. Instead they left the matter in the hands of the already over-stretched local trading standards office. The day after the raid the illegal breeders posted on social media that they were off for a two-week holiday.
What can be done to Defeat the Criminal Gangs?
Forensic Dog DNA Database
First, we must identify and implement a more effective means of identifying a stolen dog than microchipping one that is tamper proof. The company Cellmark may have the answer. They are currently building a new forensic dog DNA database, one that identifies a dog via its DNA. When the police come into possession of a suspected stolen dog all they need to do is to take a sample of the dog’s saliva and send it to the lab for matching. The more dogs that are on the system the more effective it becomes.
The good news is that several police forces are supporting this initiative and many more are planning to join. The more dog owners that join the database the more effective it becomes, and anyone can register his or her dog’s DNA on the database. Just follow this link to find out more information.
National Record on Sale of Puppies
The golden rule in the investigation of organized crime is ‘follow the money.’ The lack of transparency in most puppy sales enables the criminal gangs to operate with impunity. The government should introduce an amendment to the current microchipping legislation. This will require all new dog owners to record the purchase price, bank account and name of the seller. This will enable the authorities to identify the illegal breeders and criminal gangs. Which should lead to more prosecutions and asset seizures through the Proceeds of Crime Act.
Introduction of Government Controlled Puppy Breeding Centres
Instead of constantly introducing new legislation to control the activities of tens of thousands of commercial puppy breeders (many of whom completely ignore the legislation). The government should introduce state controlled/approved breeding centres. This would ensure that puppies are bred responsibly and socialized correctly. Thereby safeguarding breed integrity and provide parent dogs with the best possible veterinary care. Existing commercial breeders would be encouraged to tender for a state license and only those meeting the highest possible standards permitted to remain in business. This initiative would force the gangs out of business.
What can you do?
A main drivers behind the illegal puppy trade is a trend on social media platforms. They often promote sites that show popular images and images of puppies are always popular. However numerous profiles are controlled by the criminal gangs. They are used to bombard users with breed specific images, ensuring a strong demand for the puppies they are breeding. My advice is unless you know the owner of the account then do not follow it. Also do not respond to requests on these platforms to collaborate as you may unwittingly help to promote their sites.
When the UK was in lock-down most dog thefts were committed by specialist dog thieves. They are the soldiers of organised crime and target kennels across the country often taking several dogs in a single raid. Older and neutered dogs were ransomed back to desperate owners, but many others were flipped and shipped abroad.
The Illegal Puppy Trade is Worth £90 million a Year
These gangs are well funded, organized, and ruthless. They monitor the progress of all new legislation and devise ways to defeat it long before its implementation. Currently it is estimated that these gangs are responsible for over 50 percent of all puppy sales in the UK that is 450,000 puppies annually. Assuming an average sale price of £2,000.00 (some breeds command much higher prices). This means the illegal puppy trade generates revenue of approximately £90 million a year.
What is needed to address the rising menace of organized crime is a radical change to how puppies are bred and sold in this country. Without it we are facing a bleak future. One where inbreeding and crossbreeding is rife and most of the dogs sold in our country are bred by criminals.
To get a better understanding of how Organised Crime is impacting on Dog Theft and Illegal Puppy Breeding then please follow this LINK to our short documentary explaining exactly what has occurred and how you can help to fix the problem.
Colin J Butcher
Leading Expert on the recovery of stolen and missing animals