The Gangs That Steal Your Puppies
My best advice that I could give a dog owner is to get yourself a hamster or a cat. Wow. In the loneliness and boredom of lockdown, there’s been a surge in the demand for puppies. Eurogroup for Animals estimates that 8 million new dogs are now required annually to supply the European market.
But only about 1.1 million are produced by official breeding facilities. This is creating ample opportunity for the canine criminal underworld of breeding and thieving. It’s quick. We get it. We sell it on. It’s done.
Bang, pile of money. According to the OCCRP, it’s one of Europe’s fastest-growing illicit markets, possibly even third behind narcotics and weapons. And unlike arms and drugs, this illicit economy is fluffy, bounces down the street in full view, and is a very good boy. What would you say to people who see their dogs as literally like their children? Yeah, you get attached to them.
Just don’t be too attached when we’re around. [Crimewave] [The Puppy Black Market] [Beware I’m Cute] I’m a dog owner, and I’ve heard that now because of the prices and the demand for dogs that he’s apparently worth about four grand now, and so really worth nicking, and it worries me a lot. I want to know who’s doing it, how they’re doing it, and ultimately, if this demand in lockdown puppies is actually being met by criminals. Since lockdown, puppy prices have increased by a mind-blowing 450 percent. For example, a golden retriever has gone up from around 500 euros in 2019 to almost 3,000 euros.
Puppy farms are the new goldmines. I’ve managed to secure a rare interview with an organized crime group who import puppies to the UK from Eastern Europe. In this COVID situation, the prices have gone up. We bring dogs over, we sell them on the market.
We also remove the chip and reinstate a British chip in there. We have transporters from Europe that are in touch with breeders over there, and we buy the whole litter and transport it to the UK. Why from Europe, though? There’s a lot of puppy farms in Europe, and we’ve got access to a lot of the puppy farms over there, and they’re mass-producing them over there for the British market.
And what’s the price difference with a dog, say, bought in the UK? Three hundred percent difference in the price. So a French bulldog, for example, in Romania? 250 to 300 pound. And the same dog here, 3,000, 4,000, 5,000. And what happens, though, when you get them to the UK? The only way to recognize an imported puppy is through a microchip because their microchips are registered in European countries. So how do you guys get around that then, to make your profit? Basically, what we do is we scan the microchip, remove the microchip, and reinstate the British chip.
Is he friendly? Can I pet him? -I’ve got a scanner here. -OK. And this lets me know by bleeping. -Did you hear that bleep? -Wow. So the microchip’s around here? -Yeah, yeah, yeah. -Is that right? But then with a wriggler like this one, how would you cut the microchip out? I mean, if it’s a puppy, then it’s easier because an older dog, it has to be put to sleep. It broke my heart to see how starved for attention the dog was and the conditions it was kept in.
They wouldn't tell me how many dogs they had there, but I could hear several whining around the back. Once you've located the chip, what happens next? When we find the chip, we pull it up, put a little slit in it, and remove the chip with one of the tweezers. It’s just a little cut, slight, little cut where the chip is, and just push it up to the surface and pull it out.
Once the British chip is in, the puppy’s British. -It must cause distress, right? -Yes, yes. Would they call it animal abuse? Call it what you want. It’s bread on the table. How can you guys guarantee the health and wellbeing of the dogs? After paying 5,000 pound, they definitely get looked after. Does that matter to you? Do you care about these dogs? To me, we’re in a different department. We’re not interested in the welfare and after the dogs have gone from us.
Do you think people buying puppies at the moment know where their dogs are coming from? The buyer has no clue, no. So if I just looked up a Frenchie online and bought it, it most likely has come from-- Romania. Sixty, seventy percent of the time, it’s an import. Do you think actually the people demanding all these dogs are kind of driving the business that you do? -Absolutely. -Yeah.
If the demand for puppies in the UK wasn’t what it is, would you guys still do this? Well, we’d find some other trade, wouldn’t we? Yeah. And as long as that demand exists? You’ll always be meeting people like us. The criminal underworld is not just cashing in on illegal puppy farming. Dog thefts went up by 170 percent in 2020. One of the UK’s dognapping hotspots is London parks. I’m meeting with Ceilidh and her dad, whose Staffordshire bull terrier, Eco, was stolen.
But somehow they managed to steal her back. So what happened with Eco? So I was walking through the park at 2 a.m. just to go for a last wee. We were here for about five minutes. We heard ushering, like [clicks tongue]. Like someone’s trying to call your dog? Yeah, it sounded like that, but as we both looked up, there was no one to be seen. Then we were like, “S**t, where’s the dog?” It was like a spilt second, so...
-And she was just gone? -Absolutely vanished. She was just like, “Eco’s been f***ing stolen.” We went to do an online Facebook group, “Eco stolen Whitechapel,” and then her photo. And then people started to join the group, people that spend all their spare time looking for lost and stolen dogs. So the group that helped you get Eco back, what kind of lengths do they go to? One of these women advised Ceilidh, “You need to do a post that makes yourself cry.” Ceilidh did, and I read it, and I cried.
And that really pushed the profile up. And how did you get her back? I quite like to use the phrase that I kidnapped my dog back. A phone call came from this dog walker who said she saw a dog without a collar that matched Eco’s description being led out of an apartment to pee and brought back inside, so obviously being kind of hidden. We did this stakeout. We were sitting in the car, and then all of a sudden, the balcony door opened. It’s glass, so it caught the reflection of the lamp.
And that was the first movement? And we were like, “OK, something’s happening,” so we slowly got out of the car. As we were approaching, like, five foot before we get to the door, she then runs out in front of both of us, and we stop in our tracks. She didn’t even go for her pee. She stopped and ran straight towards me. So we just grabbed her, bundled her in the car, shut the door, and just took off.
We took a Facebook Live video. And I swear, I’ve never felt that kind of elation and euphoria. It was just pretty amazing. Whoo-hoo! We snatched her off the thieves, the f***ing scumbag thieves.
Eco! Eco! You know your name, don’t you? Yes, you do! Good girl, whoo! Look at the bond between Ceilidh and her dog, sloppy as it is. Any thieves who think dogs are replaceable, need to think again. And had you guys gone to the police about what had happened, and what was that like? I compare it to an iPhone. If you were to report your iPhone lost with the police, no one does that because it’s f***ing useless.
That’s how I felt. Even adult dogs like Eco are now targeted by gangs as they can be used for breeding or even in dogfights. Many gangs in London, where Eco was nicked, have pivoted from drug dealing to dog theft. The gang I’d arranged to meet brought a stolen XL bully and a puppy they’ve bred from it, which they were selling later that day. How did you get into this? I’d been in jail for a couple of years.
When I came home, I came home straight into a pandemic. So I found out about the demand for dogs during the lockdown and whatnot, and I knew a couple of people that were doing it, so I decided, you know what, I might as well set up my own little team. I’m still involved in other things right now. I do what we call “OT,” going out of town [selling drugs in rural areas], like, you know, what they call county lines and whatnot. Is it an easier business than the drugs? It’s an easier business than drugs right now, at least in this situation we're in right now. I would say the OT risk, it’s a lot more risk with that.
Is there a puppy trap phone? -Certainly. Certainly. -Yeah? We take dogs wherever we find them. Whether it’s actually going into a house or whatever to get them, whether it’s a dog in the park that we can lure away quickly, whatever way we can get them, we get them. My guy over there, Jack, that’s the guy that will get you any dog you need. He basically knows how to control the dogs.
If I went in there and he acted up, I might not know what to do properly, but he knows what to do. So if you saw me in the park with my Frenchie-- If I saw you in the park with your Frenchie, if there was a way to lure that Frenchie away from you without you realizing, we will do that. You said sometimes you’ve gone into properties to get the dogs. A lot of the time, that’s what we do.
We can scope a place out that’s got a dog that we know that’s got litters or something. Mainly litters. We want a puppy, mainly, because a lot of the time they don’t want a fully-grown dog. So your business is getting a dog that you can then breed from, and then that’s the investment, right? Yeah, that’s the investment. But obviously, you still just steal pups and all that.
But when you get a good one you think you can breed, like **** over here, we’ll grab him and say, “Right, cool, we’re going to keep him for a while.” Where did he come from? He came from someone’s house, basically. -Someone’s house? -Yeah. So someone’s looking for that dog.
Someone looking for all of them. It’s not a great feeling, obviously, but at the same time, you’re doing it for the money, ain’t you? But it’s not something to be prideful about. And do people who buy the dog, so like the person who’s going to buy her today, do they ask much about her background and the parents of the dog and things like that? No, not much, really. Not really, to be honest. People just want the dogs.
And would you tell them if they asked? If they ask, we won’t tell them anything. What do they need to know, we’re dog breeders? And do you make adverts and put pictures and stuff? Yeah, yeah. We got pictures and stuff with them. So to someone like myself, if I wanted to buy a puppy, it would all look pretty legit. Yeah, it’d all look pretty legit. Do you grow attached to any of them? I can’t lie. To me, the dogs are just some money.
If you build an attachment to a dog, you’re not going to want to get rid of it, so you’ve got to take that attachment out of it. That’s why, as much as people say she’s beautiful, she’s lovely, to me, she’s just a money thing. And that’s just how it goes. And if you did get caught, say, with the stolen dogs, what are you looking at? To be honest, I don’t even know.
But it’s not as high as drugs, so I don’t really care. Like, I couldn’t even tell you what kind of sentence they’ll want to give you for that. I don’t even know anyone that’s gone to jail for it. If they change that, would that affect your business, do you think, if they did tighten the laws? I reckon people would be more careful. I reckon maybe people might want to do it less. When lockdown’s finally over, and the demand, I imagine, will ease, is that when you’ll stop? As soon as the demand eases, we’re done.
What would you say to people whose dogs have been stolen? What I’d say-- Get a new dog. Get a new dog. This one would be a perfect one to nick, wouldn’t it? -Yeah, where is the owner? -Exactly. Where’s the owner? Where is the bloody owner? You’ve got to keep your eyes on your dog at all times. Don’t just let your dog run ahead of you and run around the corner before you because when that happens, we might be there. They don’t care about the police, and it’s not in the same way drug dealers don’t care about the police.
They know that this is just as lucrative, but the risk is so low to them with law enforcement and even said that they don't know anyone who's been banged up, sent to prison for it. If the laws were stricter, if people were asking questions, and if the money wasn’t so high, they wouldn’t even be doing this, and they’re expecting to stop it when lockdown eases. With gangs considering dog theft a low-risk, high-reward crime, part of the problem is with the police, who tend to record it as mere property theft. How big a problem is dog theft in the UK? Well, if you listen to the public, it’s huge. But if you look at the actual reports that the police are gathering, it’s not that big. But of course, the problem we’ve got is, it’s not specifically recorded as a crime, dog theft.
Yes. I totally understand the public feel really aggrieved. Their dog is not a piece of property.
And actually, if they lose the animal or it gets stolen, they go through all the grief that you go through if a family member dies. And what’s the longest somebody could be looking at? Well, allegedly, you can get up to seven years in prison. But of course, the big problem is we’re not seeing the convictions. And we’re not seeing the convictions because we’re not able to quantify how big the problem is. We’ve done something different in Sussex.
We’ve got Op Collar, Operation Collar, running. So since the beginning of this year, any theft that happens that involves a dog is properly recorded. My message to dog thieves is times are changing.
The message is coming right from government all the way down that dog theft matters. I’d like to see more convictions and these criminals caught and locked up. While Police and Crime Commissioner Katy Bourne is progressive, the rest of the country has yet to follow her lead. Many victims, like Ceilidh and her dad, are feeling neglected by the authorities, choosing instead to turn to the growing online army of self-proclaimed pet detectives. I’m going to meet Lisa Dean, who's basically the canine Sherlock of northern England. She has a team of over 3,000 volunteers across the country.
She's made a lot of enemies in the dog business, so she feels safer to meet at her HQ in the local pub. A new case involving two dogs has just landed in the pub HQ. These spaniels, they were stolen from Staffordshire. This is all the stills from the CCTV.
From that, we’re going to go over to the property. We’re going to get just a feel for the land and try and work out where they came in and how they got in and how they got out. Do you often make house visits like this? I do when I can, yeah.
We do like to touch base with the families, get a feel for how the dogs were stolen, and obviously give a bit of support to the family as well. Knock knock! Hiya, Lisa, you OK? Yeah. We meet at last. We do. I wish it was better circumstances, but still... Yeah, I know. Hiya. Nice to meet you, Lisa. So on the night time, there was a lady spotted.
She just seemed to appear over there. It was all dark, and she’s walked down this side of the road. And our dogs constantly bark if there’s anybody about, but there was no dogs barking. So we’re convinced that lady, she’s involved somehow or must have been feeding those dogs to keep them quiet. -Should we have a look then? -Yeah.
Let’s go and have a look round the back. So that was the hedge, the other side. So they’ve climbed over the one, over the second one to get into here.
And then they’ve come through that gate, propped that one open, come through this gate, propped this one open. They’ve got to here and know that camera’s there. They’ve literally unplugged it.
This is the final one. Opened that gate. The dogs were in here. That’s the kennel that some of them were in. And it’s at this point, I believe, they grabbed the two friendliest ones and then made that journey all the way back.
And the car was waiting for them that end. [Dogs Screaming] And you guys were just in there. We were just in the house, yeah. That’s when they start barking. And it’s at that point when Lisa comes out. She’s called the dogs back to her, and she’s found she’s only got three of the five.
She’s screaming, “My dogs have been taken. My dogs have been taken.” How are you doing? -Not very good. -Yeah, yeah. Our life’s changed since that night. I mean, Lisa’s sleeping downstairs on the settee so she can listen out for the actual dogs. So I can get to them then.
I couldn’t get to them that night. I’m sorry. She’s not happy coming out in the dark.
Were you aware of dog theft? Had you heard that there’s been this surge in-- Yeah, there’s a surge in dog thefts, but you don’t actually think that they’re going to be taking them from your garden. Your dog’s part of your family, and you’re relaxed most with your dog. And at the minute, nobody can relax with their dog when they’re out walking. It’s completely changed dog ownership.
Oh, totally. What needs to change? Awareness needs to be raised further. People need to know that they’re buying puppies and dogs from unscrupulous sites and unscrupulous breeders. Pet theft needs to be a crime in its own right.
The penalties need to be increased so that there’s a custodial sentence attached so that there’s a consequence. Prices of dogs need to be capped so that it’s not such a lucrative business for the thieves. Somebody shouldn’t be paying 4,000 pound for a dog.
If it was, you know, if it was saying the maximum’s 200, 300 pounds, they wouldn’t be stealing them to sell them, would they? What would you say to the people who’ve currently got your dogs? Just please bring them back home. We don’t care how much money you’ve had to pay to have them, we’ll just give you the money. Just bring them back home.
Bring them home. This family’s story is just one of hundreds of dog thefts that are happening up and down the country. I want to see how stolen dogs are kept before they’re sold on.
I’ve managed to gain access to a property where a gang is temporarily keeping the animals. Apparently, they keep changing the locations. Can you talk me through each of them? What about the larger dogs, where did they come from? I can’t be too specific about where they come from, but what I can tell you is they were both taken recently.
One of them, the lad there, he’s very young, and he’ll go quick. Why do you think he’ll go quick? He’s a lovely, gorgeous little dog, and he’s young. That’s the point. He’s young.
I was unnerved to see the dogs were wearing electric shock collars. I’ve noticed the bigger dogs here, they have these electric collars on. I imagine from what I know about these kind of collars, that these dogs are a lot more manageable under control like that.
What are you saying? That that, whatever it is, is abusive? It’s a device by which they keep the dog calm. I think it’s the sensible thing to do. I’ll speak about this little fellow here. Yeah? So tell me about-- I’ve had him about three years.
He belonged to someone else originally? Yep. He did. OK. But you’ve had him three years. Why is that? I just couldn’t bear to part with him, really.
Does he mean a lot to you now? He means everything to me. He’s number one for me, yeah. -So you understand that love-- -He’s my number one responsibility. Of course, yeah. That’s how I am about my dog. But my dog, I didn’t take him off someone else, you know? Yeah. Don’t you think that the people who own these are going to feel exactly the same way about their dogs as you do about this one? Well, OK, I’m going to conclude here by saying that...
we’re getting into the morality now, and if I felt any way about the rights and the wrongs of it, I wouldn't be doing it. So you don’t feel any kind of way about it? I don’t justify. I don’t-- It’s what I do. It’s what I do. Times are hard. Times are hard. I’ve got a conscience, but this is what I do for money, and I don’t really think I’m actually harming anybody.
I imagine the owners, the former owners are absolutely brokenhearted. OK, you know what? I’m going to... -You’ve had enough? -I’m going to say yeah, thanks, guys, because there’s nowhere really to go from here.
I’ve been as frank and as honest as I can with you, and it’s actually been quite painful. It’s actually been very painful. Why painful? Because, you know, this is not an easy thing to do. It's not an easy thing to talk about. You know, it’s a business, but it’s not a business I’m proud of.
It’s how I make my money. Anyway, so look, I’m going to say thank you and bail out now, yeah? Think we should leave. It was interesting to see how he just could not handle those tougher questions. And I think this is a guy who does this all day, like he says, bread and butter, but he can’t answer those questions even to himself. I’m sure he just puts it in the back of his mind and cracks on.
And as soon as I asked the obvious, he shut down. And, you know, he clearly wanted us to leave. The importers, the thieves, the victims, the pet detectives, and even the police have all agreed that stealing dogs right now is literally a walk in the park. With prices up to staggering levels, the police not prioritizing it, and potential buyers not asking enough questions, it has created the perfect storm. I hope this crime will be taken more seriously and that, as the pandemic eases and demand goes back to normal, that we will see an end to the explosion of dog thefts and illicit puppy farms.
But most importantly, before you buy a dog, make sure you really know where it's coming from.