Annie was – or, we can only hope, is – an uncommonly good dog. The three-year-old cocker spaniel is so calm, says her owner Darren Neal, that she is certified as a therapy dog. For hours, she would revel in the company of toddlers at the two nurseries Neal and his wife, Melissa Murfet, run near their home in Cambridgeshire.
Annie had formed an especially close bond with Neal’s youngest daughter, Beau, who is also three. They had become inseparable during the long weeks of lockdown. Beau enjoyed reading books to Annie. “She’s probably the most laid-back dog I’ve ever met,” Neal says. “She would just let you cradle her in your arms for as long as you needed.”
On the morning of 9 July, Murfet dropped Annie – as well as Betsy, the family’s cockapoo, and Storm, a golden retriever – at nearby kennels before the family headed to Norfolk for a few days by the sea. The animals had already enjoyed several holidays there.
Neal’s phone rang that evening. It was the owner of the kennels. Only hours after Murfet had left the dogs, thieves had crept in via a back road and fields, breaking padlocks and breaching fences. They stole 17 dogs, including Annie and Betsy. “I couldn’t believe what I was hearing,” Neal says now. “I just tried not to show too much emotion in front of the kids.”
Annie and Betsy – and the other dogs stolen that day, 13 of which were puppies – had become the latest victims of surging demand for canine pets. Just as little Beau had found comfort and distraction in her best friend while stuck at home, so thousands of us have sought the company of dogs.
From the start of lockdown in late March to the end of June, the Kennel Club, which runs a register of dogs, recorded a near tripling of searches for dogs via its “find a puppy” tool, compared with the same period last year. Classified sites and pet marketplaces such as Pets4Homes – the biggest in Britain – have noted a record increase in ads and sales. Breeders, as well as rehoming and rescue centres, are struggling to meet the demand.
Puppy prices have leapt higher than an excited collie. As I type, there are dozens of puppies on Pets4Homes priced at £5,000 or higher, including a £7,500 French bulldog. “They’re a good £2,000 over what they’d normally be,” says Wayne May, who runs Artisan Rare Breeds and Animal Rescue in Dartford, Kent. He has seen £600 dogs selling for more than £2,500.
We used to get an alert about one dog theft a day and now it’s nine or 10 in England alone
May also gives his time to DogLost, a lost-and-found website run by volunteers. Many of the pets it lists have run off and are eventually found. But others are stolen. “We used to get an alert about one dog theft a day and now it’s nine or 10 in England alone,” he says. “Just last weekend we had 30 or 40 dogs stolen.”
Data on dog thefts is scant, inconsistent and hard to come by. For a paper he published last year, Daniel Allen, a geography lecturer at Keele University and an expert on dog theft, requested dog theft data from police forces in England and Wales. Thefts went from just over 1,500 in 2015 to almost 1,900 – five a day – in 2017. May suspects the true level of theft is far higher. He says many owners, assuming police won’t treat thefts as a priority, don’t report the crime, preferring posters and Facebook appeals.
Jason Francis did call the police – not long before he called Neal. He and his wife had run Fiveways, the raided kennels in Suffolk, for 18 years without any threat to its security. Now it is shut indefinitely and Francis’s daughter is afraid to be alone in the garden. He believes would-be dog owners are less patient than they used to be. “I had my first dog 30 years ago and we had to wait two years to find the right match,” he says. “Now people look at it like buying a washing machine.”
Yet the reasons for the new demand are clear to anyone whose dog has given them vital emotional support during lockdown. Jo Stocks, 52, has lived alone since getting divorced six years ago. For the past two years, she has shared her home in Guildford, Surrey, with Maya, a black labrador. “I’ve cuddled up to her much more, as I went without any physical contact with another human for over three months,” she says. “A hug from Maya beats anything.”
Jess found Molly, a schnoodle (schnauzer/poodle) puppy, online at the start of lockdown. Jess has been working from home in south Wales while her partner does long shifts as a GP. “She’s been such a light and a laugh in moments when the world feels a bit surreal,” she says of Molly. “I never expected to love a little thing as much as I do her.”
Mark Powlett, a clinical hypnotherapist in his 50s, spent the first months of lockdown alone in Redditch, Worcestershire, with Coco, a rescue dog. “Being able to come downstairs in the morning to see him wagging his tail has helped immensely,” he says. “I often talk to my clients about how dogs are a great example for us. They live in the moment and enjoy every minute. They are the ultimate practitioners of mindfulness.”
Lacey, a 10-year-old staffordshire bull terrier, has been a lifeline for Deborah Tillett, an employment consultant in east Yorkshire. “She’s absolutely fundamental to my mental health,” says Tillett, who got divorced weeks after being diagnosed with terminal brain cancer in 2014. Since then, she has lived alone with Lacey, who came from Battersea Dogs & Cats Home as a puppy.
“Dogs are incredibly intuitive,” she adds. “When I’m feeling a bit rubbish or lonely, Lacey will come up and push her nose against my leg or drop a ball at my feet as if to say: ‘Hello, come out and play.’ That makes a huge difference because the temptation to sit and stare into space has been overwhelming.”
Tillett has outlived her original prognosis of five years. She wonders if Lacey is part of the reason. The dog seemed to know that Tillett was ill. “She’d get visibly distressed if I left the house for a hospital appointment, but not if I was just going to the shops,” she says. “And when I’d get back from radiation therapy, she’d be beside herself with excitement. She’s just incredibly good at reading what I need.”
The touch of another being has become even more vital in lockdown. “It’s just so comforting to sit of an evening and feel that breathing and heartbeat and that little furry warmth,” Tillett says. “Never mind that she’s slightly stinky. The other thing you notice is that the house is never silent. There’s always movement – a presence that I think helps massively.”
All the dog owners I spoke to had taken care to ensure their pets had come from happy homes. But soaring demand – and prices – make the dog trade irresistible to criminals. Allen says light punishment is a big part of the problem. Between 2015 and 2017 – the period for which police in England and Wales reported rising thefts to Allen – court charges relating to dog theft fell from 64 to just 39. Even when a case is pursued, Allen says, fines for stealing dogs can be a fraction of the resale value of a single animal.
He supports a campaign to classify pet theft as a specific offence with custodial sentences. A petition Allen launched in April has collected more than 60,000 signatures. “This is about animal welfare and recognising that these sentient family members aren’t just products,” Allen tells me while out walking Rupert, his labrador. He dares not imagine the daily toll of stolen dogs and devastated owners.
Sgt Brian Calver is part of Suffolk constabulary’s rural crimes team, which is investigating the raid at Fiveways kennels. He says criminals are local, organised and committing crimes at least once a week in Suffolk alone. Spaniels appear to be in particular demand. Mysterious chalk marks left on garden gates appear to match spaniel homes, he says.
As well as thefts, lockdown has boosted the illegal puppy trade. Over the past 10 years, the RSPCA has responded to almost 30,000 complaints about this dirty business, which often involves organised crime. Unfortunately, rules designed to fight it have been weakened by the need for social distancing.
Lucy’s Law, which came into force in England in April after a decade-long campaign, means that anyone getting a puppy must go directly to its breeder or rehoming centre. Breeders must show puppies to buyers alongside the dogs’ mother. The law is designed to cut out dealers and puppy farms. But, in lockdown, home visits have been forbidden. Video meetings are encouraged, but puppies can be delivered or handed over in public. Even if buyers know what to look out for, it can be hard to determine, while scrolling through Gumtree or Pets4Homes, which puppies come from legitimate sources and which may have been stolen.
At Fiveways, Francis tells me that he would be suspicious of any advert on Pets4Homes for a puppy from a seller who has just joined the site and has only one listing. It does not take long to find one. On the day I filter thousands of promoted ads by price, the most expensive dog is a £5,500 English bulldog. Its seller joined during lockdown and has only one ad. I message the seller, identifying myself as a journalist, and ask to talk about the dog. I get no reply, but three minutes later the ad is pulled. A reverse image search of the dog reveals the same puppy had been for sale on Gumtree for £6,500. That ad had also been withdrawn.
I share this with Pets4Homes, which tells me it has put the user under review while it gathers information. The 10-year-old company, which was acquired last year by a Swedish equestrian marketplace, says monthly visits to its pages have shot up from 10m to 18m in lockdown. It says its “trust and safety” team works hard to block suspicious ads, but it has recorded “no dramatic increase” in the number of first-time sellers. “We will never stop striving towards improving the safety of our platform,” a spokesperson says on email.
Critics of the quick-sale puppy market say it encourages not only theft, but also owners who are unaware of the challenges of ownership. Dog trainers and behaviourists are in high demand. “About six weeks ago, it just went crazy,” says Donna Connelly of Barking Mad Dog Training in Newcastle. She now offers training via video call.
Spaniels appear to be in particular demand. Mysterious chalk marks left on garden gates appear to match spaniel homes
As the country emerges from lockdown and owners spend less time at home, Connelly predicts many dogs will suffer from separation anxiety. She recommends starting the transition now. Tricks include tethering a favourite toy in another room and letting the dog go to it while knowing that its owner is not far away. “You’ll find the dog will slowly drift off more and more,” she says.
Connelly says she is already hearing about lockdown dogs being taken to rehoming centres. At Battersea, Becky MacIver, the centre’s rehoming and welfare manager, predicts that financial pressures, as well as unprepared owners and separation anxiety, may lead to an influx of abandoned animals. “This may be the calm before the storm,” she says.
Neal keenly understands the therapeutic potential of dogs. Annie had been due to start further training to become an assistance pet for children with anxiety. Now it is Beau who needs Annie the most. Neal and his wife put off breaking the news to their children for a few days. There were tears and questions. How are Annie and Betsy being treated? Who is looking after them? “It’s hard for Beau to even understand what’s happened,” Neal says.
Meanwhile, Storm, the golden retriever who was not stolen, has not been himself. “He’s jumpy and is missing his friends,” says Neal, who has no idea if the family will see their dogs again. He just wishes the understandable desire for a canine bond did not carry with it such a risk to dogs and families like his. “I get it – dogs are never in a bad mood, are they?” he says. “If you’re feeling down, they cheer you up. They just lighten the mood.”