Maxine Ferrari’s beloved pup Scooby (pictured) was taken from her home while she was at work. As part of her search for the pup Maxine has set up a Facebook page which has nearly 3,000 followers
Maxine Ferrari was in the middle of a normal hectic day as a pre-school manager when the call came.
Panicked and breathless, her 22-year-old son told her he had just returned to their Surrey home to find the lower half of the front door kicked in.
Yet, inside, the house seemed untouched and nothing of value was missing — except for their beloved Yorkshire terrier-chihuahua cross Scooby and his little dog bed.
‘When I heard the words: “Scooby’s gone,” I screamed,’ recalls Maxine today. ‘I started shaking so much that I couldn’t drive myself home.
‘My boss had to take me instead. Then, when I saw for myself that Scooby’s pen was empty, and his bed gone, too, I collapsed on the floor, crying. There was no doubt he had been stolen.’
It’s just over a year since Scooby was taken — and despite a huge poster and social media campaign, it’s as if the tiny dog has vanished into thin air.
As well as the empty space in her living room where Scooby’s bed and toys once were, Maxine, a single mother with two grown-up sons, says there’s also an empty space in the heart of her family.
‘Every morning when I wake up the first thing I think is: “Where’s Scooby? Is today the day I will find out where he is?” And then horrific thoughts cross my mind: “Is he still alive?”’
Maxine, like most people, had heard the horror stories of beloved pets being used in organised fights. ‘Having a dog stolen takes you to some very dark places. The not knowing is terrible.’
Yorkshire terrier-chihuahua cross Scooby was taken more than a year ago but owner Maxine says she still wakes up worrying whether he is ‘still alive’ and what has happened to her dog
In her ongoing search to find her pet, Maxine has set up a Facebook page called Get Scooby Home, which has nearly 3,000 followers. Sadly, she is not alone.
Hers is just one of dozens of online pages featuring heart-melting images of vanished pets alongside appeals from their owners begging for their return. And there is no doubt that dog thefts are on the rise. Last year, 1,909 dogs were reported stolen, 121 more than the previous year.
And, while once it was a matter of opportunists untying dogs from outside shops and asking for money to return them, these days pets are no longer safe in their own homes. Just like Scooby, around one in five are now taken during house break-ins.
Many of these are planned to target specific breeds, which are then used to breed the most sought-after puppies.
Around half of the total number are snatched as they run around their front gardens. So how did dog theft become so commonplace and lucrative? The central reason is that the price of dogs — and not just pedigrees — has rocketed.
Dogs which would have once been considered mongrels, because they are a cross of two or more breeds — such as Yorkipoos, cockapoos and labradoodles — are now much coveted by the middle classes and can cost between £800 and £1,200 each.
And the trade is not just in puppies. Even adult dogs of sought-after breeds such as chihuahuas, French bulldogs, Yorkshire terriers and pugs are being sold on through community Facebook pages or websites.
Michel Akintiyo’s three-year-old dog Snuggles was taken from their home in Northolt, Middlesex. Luckily the pup’s microchip was scanned at a vets in Essex and she could be reunited with her loving owner
Just like Maxine, ambulance driver Michel Akintiyo also came home from work last year to find the front door of her home, in Northolt, Middlesex, kicked in. She quickly realised that her three-year-old pug Snuggles was gone.
Michel, 53, recalls: ‘Usually, when I get home, I hear Snuggles barking. But that day, as I got close, there was a terrible silence. The people who broke in were so organised they even brought wet wipes to erase their fingerprints.’
Pugs are among Britain’s most stolen breeds, having been made desirable by celebrities such as Holly Willoughby, David Beckham and Millie Mackintosh.
It was hell. I had no idea what kind of people had her or what they wanted her for
Police told Michel it was highly likely she’d been spotted walking Snuggles and targeted.
For six months, the mother-of-two and her family followed up every lead, searching parks, and websites.
‘It was hell. I had no idea what kind of people had her or what they wanted her for. Snuggles is a very devoted dog, so I also knew she’d be fretting and pining for me. When I couldn’t actually do any more, I just prayed and prayed.’
Those prayers were finally answered when Michel got a call at work from her dog’s microchip company.
They rang to say that a woman, who said she was the dog’s owner, had taken her to her local vet in Colchester, Essex, to get her some treatment for a skin problem. When Snuggle’s microchip was scanned, she came up as stolen.
Michel says: ‘When the thieves realised she was spayed and they couldn’t breed from her, they sold her on a website for £450, claiming she was still a puppy.
‘As pug puppies cost more than £1,000, that alone should have set off alarm bells for the person buying her. Police didn’t tell me who the woman was, but they issued a warrant to get Snuggles back.
Neil Varney trains gundogs and believes he was tracked by professional dog thieves who took three of his beloved pups from a trailer while he was walking others on the Wiltshire-Somerset border
‘When I was reunited with her a month later, it was like all my Christmases had come at once. I was so lucky she had been spayed because if she hadn’t been, I would never have seen her again. They would have sold her into a puppy breeding machine.’
Another owner who believes he has been the victim of professional dog thieves is Neil Varney. Neil, 53, who trains world-class gundogs, had driven to a beauty spot on the Wiltshire-Somerset border to exercise his animals one morning in June when he was targeted.
‘I took three dogs out of my trailer to exercise and left the rest inside. I had gone about 150 yards to give them a run, when I heard a lot of barking behind me which is unusual.
‘By the time I got back, the thieves had prised open the locked trailer doors and driven away with my two black stud labradors, Brooke and Gambit, and my springer spaniel Bonnie.’
The fact that the theft was so forensic led police to believe Neil may have been tracked.
‘They said it was possible they’d stuck a tracking device — a small magnetic disc which they could use to follow me via the GPS on their phone.’
The fate of the dogs, which are worth over £6,000 each, is unknown, but it’s believed they would have been shipped abroad to Ireland or France within hours, using fake travel papers which are rarely checked.
Pugs are one of the most stolen breeds in Britain and experts have said owners should vary the routes they walk and always make sure a dog’s microchip details are up to date. Pictured is Michel with Snuggles
There, they will be sold or bred from and the puppies sent back into the UK. Even though all three dogs were micro-chipped, Neil fears it will make little difference: ‘Professional thieves can now buy microchip scanners — so they can locate the old chip and then crush it with a pair of pliers through the dog’s skin.
‘Then they can use a microchip gun, which you can also buy online, to inject their own details — all for kit costing no more than £200. People may say they were working dogs, but Brooke, Gambit and Bonnie were part of my family. It’s frightening to know that I was followed.’
Colin Butcher is a former police detective inspector who has spent more than 15 years tracking down lost and stolen pets. He says dog theft is becoming terrifyingly organised and estimates that there’s a hardcore of at least 1,000 criminals throughout the country, using dog theft and breeding to top up their incomes.
Colin, who runs a private investigation agency called The Pet Detectives, adds: ‘It’s invariably stud dogs that get stolen and the puppies are the products. That’s where the real money is.’
Knowing they have to present a respectable front to middle-class buyers, the puppy mills they set up are kept well out of sight.
When the time comes to sell, criminals advertise through free ads and community Facebook sites, then find a suitable address where unsuspecting, prospective owners can visit.
‘We’ve come across people who take on an Airbnb property for a week from where they will sell about 20 puppies,’ says Colin ‘Then, of course, they disappear into the woodwork and the owner of the home is none the wiser.’
In order to breed cute puppies that will sell for high sums, thieves are targeting specific breeds.
Handbag-sized dogs are now the most stolen type. During his investigations, Colin has seen tiny puppies being bred in row upon row of rabbit pens to feed the demand for these fashionable pooches.
And thieves have taken to spying on owners and carefully choosing which dogs they steal. ‘Let’s just say they want to breed from a French bulldog. They may have seen the dog being walked and noticed the male dog is intact and able to breed. They then watch the owner leave the house and kick the door in .
‘They will take a few other items because they are burgling the house anyway. But really they’re after the dog.
‘Police will come, but say there is no proof that the dog hasn’t run off in fear after the burglary. So the problem then is that the crime is classified as a burglary, not dog theft.’
Thieves are also targeting dog walkers and their vans in urban areas because they tend to contain large number of high-value, sought-after dogs.
In one raid in South-East London in August 2016, three pugs, a chihuahua, a jug (a pug crossed with a Jack Russell) and a puggle, a pug-beagle cross, were stolen while the dog walker was returning a pet to his home.
Two white men wearing workmen’s clothes raided the van and loaded the animals into a black VW. Cruelly, those that could not be bred were pushed from a moving car a few days later — they miraculously survived — but one dog has not been seen since.
Some breeders of high-value dogs also tattoo dogs ears so they can not be stolen and sold
The Government has laid out initial proposals to ban the sale of puppies and kittens by pet shops or commercial dealers.
Under the suggested ban, anyone wishing to buy a pet less than six months old would only be able to from the breeder or a rescue centre. For animal geographer Dr Daniel Allen, of Keele University, who believes the UK is in the grip of a pet theft ‘epidemic’, it’s essential that the law treats pet theft more seriously, and that means changes to ensure animals are not treated simply as property.
‘Dogs are family. The law needs to reflect that. Dog theft is also a gateway to wider animal cruelty including puppy farming and dog fighting,’ he says.
Earlier this month, Dr Allen presented a petition with 100,000 signatures to Downing Street calling for this change: ‘Everyone assumes it won’t happen to them, but at least five dogs are stolen every day in the UK. Puppies, pedigrees, cross-breeds and rescue dogs are all potential victims.’
To keep dogs safe, experts advise owners to use different routes for walks — to make it more difficult to be followed — and never leave animals tied up outside shops or left in cars. If your dog exercises in your garden, make sure your perimeter is secure and keep a watchful eye if they are in the front garden with a road nearby.
Think twice, too, about letting your dog off the lead in densely wooded areas where they can be lured away with treats, as has been reported in some areas — and also make sure your dog is well trained to come back when you call.
Always make sure your dog’s microchip details are up to date — some breeders of high-value dogs also tattoo dogs ears so they can not be stolen and sold — and have your dog spayed or neutered if you are not intending to breed from it.
Other dog search organisations are calling for vet practices to scan and check microchip registration on all new dogs and cats on their first appointment to make sure the pet and owner match.
Despite this, Colin Butcher, who has seen first-hand the toll dog theft takes on its owner, believes as a nation we will need to go even further to stamp out this crime.
‘People now view the nuclear family as Mum, Dad, two kids — and the labrador. I have seen owners completely go to pieces when their dog is stolen. Dogs can be integral to people’s sanity. It’s a heartless crime.
‘The only way to deal with this is to regulate who is selling puppies. It’s that simple. If you can’t sell puppies unless you’re regulated, then there’s no money in it.’
For Maxine, the long wait for Scooby continues. She says: ‘I still look out of the window and wish him good night. And every morning, I wake up wondering if this is the day he’ll come back to me.’