More dogs were reported stolen in Hertfordshire last year, figures reveal, amid an apparent rise in dognappings nationally.
Animal welfare charities have welcomed a move by the Government to crack down on the "despicable" crime, with a new pet theft taskforce set to investigate a rise in snatchings across the UK.
Figures obtained through a freedom of information request reveal Hertfordshire Constabulary recorded 44 dog thefts in the year ending March 31.
That was up from 24 the previous year, and 23 in 2018-19.
Of the thefts reported in the latest 12-month period, the largest number – nine – happened in March.
The figures cover the number of dog thefts reported to police, but not the number of animals stolen.
Inspector Nicki Dean, from Hertfordshire Constabulary’s Crime Reduction Unit said: “Whilst dog thefts in Hertfordshire have remained relatively low this year, we are aware that across the country there has been growing concerns over the theft of dogs from homes and breeders kennels.
“During the pandemic there was a small increase in reports of dog thefts, but we have been closely monitoring these reports and many turned out to be related to ownership disputes, or dogs that had escaped or had been lost rather than confirmed thefts.
“Whilst actual thefts have remained low, we do advise dog owners to follow our advice and join Hertfordshire’s Neighbourhood Watch: www.owl.co.uk to get all the latest alerts and crime prevention tips.
“There are simple steps you can take to keep your pet safe, such as never leaving your dog unattended when out and making areas at home your dog can access secure.”
Nationally, at least 1,791 offences were recorded in 2020-21 by the 31 forces in England and Wales which provided comparable figures, an 11 per cent rise on 1,612 in 2019-20.
The national figure excludes data from South Yorkshire Police for March this year.
Sales platforms have seen a "considerable rise" in puppy and kitten prices over the last year as more people look to buy or adopt during the pandemic, the Government said – with reports suggesting the increase in demand may have fuelled a national rise in pet thefts.
Although many dog owners would consider their pet another member of the family, the animals are currently considered as property in law.
This means there is no standardised way for police forces to record or search for the number of dog thefts, leaving the true scale of the issue largely unknown.
But a petition calling on the Government to make dog theft a specific offence had garnered 316,500 signatures by its deadline on Thursday, May 20, meaning it is well over the threshold to be considered for debate in parliament.
Around 35,800 people across the East of England have contributed their signature to the cause.
The petition is calling for dog theft to carry an eight-year minimum sentence and a fine of at least £5,000.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson is considering tougher sentencing for the crime, which could see dog thieves prosecuted under animal welfare laws instead of the Theft Act 1968, The Times has reported.
Earlier this month, the Government launched a new pet theft taskforce to investigate the rise in thefts nationally since the start of lockdown restrictions.
It will also introduce a new law to recognise animals as sentient beings which can feel pleasure, pain and fear.
The Stolen and Missing Pets Alliance, which has long campaigned for reform of laws around pet theft, said it is pleased the issue "is being taken seriously".
Dog's Trust welcomed the announcement, adding that it would also work alongside the taskforce to crack down on the "despicable" crime.
"We would like to see tougher penalties to act as a deterrent to pet thieves, pet theft treated as a specific crime that reflects the emotional trauma it causes and more accurate recording of incidents by the police so we can ascertain the scale of the problem," the charity said.
Hertfordshire Police has issued this advice on keeping your dog safe:
> Ensure your dog is microchipped and registered with up to date information and has a collar and dog tag (use your surname rather than the dog’s name and your telephone contact details).
> Neutering your pet might ensure they don’t get targeted for breeding purposes, consider adding “I am neutered” tag to their collar.
> Take plenty of clear photographs of your pet and especially of any distinctive markings.
> When walking your pet, try different routes and keep your pet in sight at all times.
> Never leave a dog unattended in the garden, in the car or outside shops.
> Don’t give details of your pets, your location or your favourite walking spots on social media and make sure your security settings are set to friends only.
> When out, always know where your dog is. Be mindful of anyone who may be trying to distract your attention from your dog or attract your dog’s attention away from you.
> If your dog is stolen - report to police on 101 and to your local authority dog warden if you have one in your area. Notify your microchip database provider immediately and add to www.doglost.co.uk or join the DogLost Hertfordshire Facebook group, alternatively you can join Hertfordshire’s Dog Watch Scheme for alerts and advice.