Dozens of dogs are being stolen every year in Lancashire – with fighting and breeding the main reasons why.
Latest figures show there were 44 dog thefts reported in the county last year compared to 36 the year before – a 22 per cent rise.
Since 2013, there have been 124 dog thefts, with Staffordshire Bull Terriers the breeds which are most targeted.
Although police say there is no reason for pet owners in the area to be unduly worried, action groups say the problem often goes under-reported because of the way it is dealt with in law.
Nicola Barlow, of Dog Theft Action, said: “It is very hard to get any accurate statistics on how many and in what area dogs are being stolen as we believe only a small number are recorded officially with the police.
“Unless you can show that your house has been broken into, or that the dog has been taken from you by force it is very difficult to prove they have been stolen and not just escaped from your garden or got lost on a walk.
If you’re exercising a dog, keep it on an extension lead
“However from the reports to our website and dogs posted on social media sites such as Facebook, this is a growing problem across the whole of the country.”
Just last month, Lancashire Police urged dog owners to keep an eye on their pets after two would-be dog-nappers were foiled in their bid to steal an akita-husky cross from its owner’s back garden in Blackpool.
Eleven-year-old Oliver Parker was shocked to discover a hooded stranger trying to force his beloved dog Diesel into a cage.
The man escaped by leaping over the garden wall and escaping in a van but the family were left shaken.
A police spokesman said: “We believe this incident is an isolated one and that there is no reason pet owners in the area should be unduly concerned.
“However anybody who feels they may have been victim of an attempted theft, or who sees any suspicious behaviour, is urged to contact us on 101.”
Days before, one-year-old French Bulldog Bubba went missing while being exercised in Holme Slack, Preston. A man on a quad bike was seen driving up beside the dog, then speeding off. Bubba somehow managed to get home of his own accord, but his owners are now keen for people to be more aware of the issue.
South Shore resident Claire Parker was mortified when her two children had to come to terms with the loss of their Labradoodle, Henry, on May 18 this year. Her eight and five-year-old boys have been left traumatised after the disappearance of their beloved pet.
Claire, a teaching assistant, said: “He was in the garden and a very obedient dog. He’d never gone out of the garden, been spooked, or anything.
“The gate was locked and he couldn’t jump over anywhere.
“But we lost him in the space of a few minutes, just before I saw a white van go down the street pretty quickly.
“I know someone took him.
“My two doted on him. He doted on them. He never wandered off, never went anywhere without us.
“It’s like losing a member of the family – me and my husband are upset enough, but the kids are devastated.
“Every time we see a doodle like him, I’m asking myself if it could be him, and it upsets the little ones.
“He was an expensive and very popular breed, and perhaps that is why he was taken. But who knows? It’s very difficult to even have it recorded as a crime because no-one has seen him taken.
“It’s terrible. I don’t think I could ever have a dog again.”
And back in 2014, Carleton couple Marc Rose and Jade Earley appealed for the return of their daschund puppy Richie, after burglars took property and their pet from their home.
A spokesman for Lancashire-based Goldbourne Showdogs, said the problem was rife across the country.
He said: “Thankfully we haven’t been targeted, but I get the dog papers and all the time there’s stories about pugs, bulldogs and French bulldogs being stolen.
“It is a problem and people are frightened to death.
“It’s big money driving it – some puppies that are rare colours can fetch £6,000 to 7,000. People steal them to send them to Ireland and turn them into breeding machines.
“We rarely sell puppies, we breed showdogs, but if I sell a puppy, I tell people they have to be very, very careful.
“They can’t be tying them up outside the bank or the Post Office and expect them to still be there when they come out.”
Claire Crossman, a breeder of Staffordshire Bull Terriers, urged owners to “use their common sense”.
She said: “Most Staffies stolen are between one and three years old, and it’s specifically for breeding or fighting.
“These low-lifes will teach a dog how to fight, and then when they can’t do it anymore, they are discarded. They will either be left to die or they’ll be put into shelters where nobody knows their background.
“Well-known breeders don’t tend to have a problem with thefts, it’s more those who are inexperienced breeders.
“If anybody has a litter of puppies, I’d recommend that they don’t advertise them on Facebook where anyone can see.
“They must also keep their doors and windows locked when they’re not in the house, and when they are, they must safeguard the property. Common sense is needed.
“Also, if you’re exercising a dog, keep it on an extension lead so you can pull the dog back in if necessary.
“Thefts can happen anywhere and if someone wants a dog to fight or breed, they will do anything to get one.
“I had a friend who was knocked on the head so someone could take the six-month-old puppy they had on a lead.”
Dog Theft Action believes dogs are stolen for many reasons, from the opportunists thief who takes a dog from outside a shop for ransom, to organised gang who target trained working dogs which can change hands for thousands.
Nicola Barton said: “The latest ‘designer’ dog fashions can mean bitches are stolen for breeding and used as a money machine, which is of course every dog owner’s worst nightmare.
“Dog fighting has been illegal in this country for 180 years but is still believed to be widespread across the country.
“To right minded dog owners, dog fighting has to be one of the cruellest forms of animal abuse imaginable, so the thought that your beloved pet could fall into the hands of these wicked people is unbearable.”
She added: “In law, dogs are classed as property like a TV, so sentences are low for taking a living creature away from its family and unfortunately, it can also often be seen as a low priority by police.
“Speaking from experience I can’t begin to describe the heartbreak for owners who love their dog as a family so please, anyone finding a dog must report it to the local authority failing to do so is classed as theft by finding.”
Pet Theft Awareness surveyed 3,067 dog owners about their thoughts on the most effective measure to prevent pet theft.
Four per cent suggested an increase in fines, 12 per cent wanted a government awareness campaign and 84 per cent called for a mandatory imprisonment for convicted offenders. The organisation, which is part of SAMPA, the Stolen and Missing Pet Alliance, submitted a recommendation to the Sentencing Council that a pet be categorised as ‘theft of a pet’ and that there be a difference between an inanimate object and a valued living possession.
But in February 2016, the recommendations were not accepted and the status quo remains.
Nik Oakley, spokesperson for SAMPA said: “In spite of much lobbying, and intervention by Neil Parish MP, past Chairmanof the All Party Parliamentary Group for Animal Welfare, we were unable to persuade the Justices to accept our point of view.
“We will continue our fight and we are delighted the matter was brought to the House of Commons by Gareth Johnson MP.”