By Jennifer Carlile Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 8/10/2005 7:55:57 AM ET 2005-08-10T11:55:57

LONDON — A young man and his girlfriend were walking his dog in West London. Given the midnight hour, they took 5-month-old Bailey down the main road, avoiding the park. They turned onto a side street, where a man in a hooded jacket and ski mask approached.

“He told me to stop and drop the lead (leash). I kept looking at him; I thought he was joking,” Dewayne Carrington said.

“He backed up a little and pulled out a gun. He pointed the gun at me and said drop the lead again.

“I gave it to him, and he said ‘Walk in that direction, don’t look around, don’t say nothing, just keep going.’”

With that, the mixed Staffordshire and English bull terrier was gone and Carrington’s girlfriend was “in total shock.”

The 23-year-old filed a police report, but said, “I didn’t think I’d see him again.”

‘Dognapping panic’
Bailey’s theft was not unusual here in Britain. The disappearance of Snoopys, Spots, and Benjys appears to be on the rise, and many owners fail to be reunited with their much-loved pups.

Carrington appears to be the first person held at gunpoint for his dog, but there have been multiple accounts of adult and child owners threatened with knives and pepper sprays by dog thieves. Hundreds more are stolen while tied-up outside shops or playing in gardens.

The recent high-profile suspected theft of model Liz Hurley’s Labrador puppy, Emily, has raised awareness of the issue, while tabloid coverage has spurred wary owners to keep their four-legged-friends under lock and key.

The Sun newspaper, the best-selling tabloid, recently reported the nation was “gripped by a dognapping panic.”

“I seriously think (dog theft) is going through the roof — I had four separate owners with four separate dogs all from the same street stolen in one day,” said Jayne Hayes, director of Dog Lost, an organization that locates missing pets.

According to media reports, and Hayes, around 50,000 dogs go missing in Britain each year. Most, they say, don't just walk off of their own accord. However, neither the RSPCA nor the police track the number of missing or stolen pets, which makes it difficult to grasp how widespread the problem is.

“Dogs are not classed as separate beings if you like — they’re classified as theft of property," said a spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Police, who spoke on the customary condition of anonymity.

In response, Dog Theft Action, a political lobbying group, is organizing a conference for the fall aimed at pressing the government to create a national policy on dog theft.

Where do they go?
According to Hayes of Dog Lost, the rise in dog theft has been attributed to the animals’ use as bartering chips by drug addicts.

“If you want 50 pounds ($90) for the next hit, take a dog and sell it,” she said.

“If the cops catch you, just say the dog walked up to you — you can’t get caught for it. That’s why the scale of it in the inner cities is going through the roof.”

“One in four dogs reported stolen is a Staffordshire bull terrier; they are very highly used by druggies to appear tough and cool,” she said, adding that they were an iconic status symbol “like your Nike shoes.”

The breed is of the same stock as the American Pit Bull Terrier, which has gained notoriety in the United States — unfairly according to owners — as being an especially violent breed.

“They sell them straight away in a pub to another druggie, who then sells it on when he’s out of money,” Hayes said.

Meantime, high-profile snatchings usually result in ransoms, and in some cases thieves have demanded sexual favors for the return of a pet, she added.

Helping others
Hayes created the volunteer organization after her dog, Hermy, was taken from her garden.

She spent six weeks tracking down the miniature French bull dog, who was passed through a chain of three or more buyers before landing in a home that refused to return him.

“My boyfriend had to steal it back, and got beaten up doing it,” Hayes said.

The stressful ordeal made her aware of how many people’s pets were being stolen and how little help was available to victims.

"I thought if I ever got my dog back that I’d do something about it," she said.

With Hermy safely home, she set up a Web site loosely based on the Amber Alert system for missing U.S. children. Members give their postal codes, and when a pet from their neighborhood goes missing they are sent flyers to post around the area and local search parties are deployed.

In two years, the organization has been alerted to around 3,000 missing dogs, and about half have been found. Out of those recovered by Dog Lost “80 percent were definitely stolen, and 10 percent were dubious — their collars were off, and they were missing their ID tags,” she said, adding that both the number of helpers and people with missing pets is rising daily.

Working toward a happy ending
Representatives from organizations across the canine world will be meeting at the Kennel Club's London headquarters this November to discuss ways to promote government and police action to combat the problem.

Mandatory microchip scanning by veterinarians and the use of collars with GPS locators may also be on the horizon, advocates say.

But, in the meantime, Dog Theft Action and Dog Lost offer owners tips to keep their pooches safe:

  • Do not to leave your pup unattended — not even in private gardens, outside shops, or in cars.
  • Microchip and tattoo your dog.
  • Keep multiple up-to-date photographs, along with records of distinguishing marks and veterinarian certificates.
  • Be wary of people hanging out in vans or asking too many questions about your dog.
  • Note that neutered or spayed pets are less likely to be targeted.

While many stolen dogs are never found, the story of Bailey, the puppy kidnapped at gunpoint, has a happy ending.

By chance, his owner's girlfriend spotted the dog out in the company of a neighboring family around two weeks after he was stolen and called the police. The family tried to conceal the dog, but he was confiscated by the authorities and reunited with his rightful owner.

"When he got back he was a little bit nervous, but now he’s fine," said owner Carrington.

But, he warned that dog theft "can happen to anybody."

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