A lady was walking near her home, with her Dachshund on a lead beside her. A young man rushed up behind her, grabbed the leash, and tried to pull the dog away from her. It was only because she was so determined that he wasn't able to take the animal, and he ran off empty handed.
This summer, there seem to have been many shocking stories about dogs being stolen in Ireland. Social media has been the source of many of these tales, and many owners are now understandably anxious about the security of their own pets. And there is no doubt that there is an ongoing risk of pets being stolen.
Criminals recognise that pets have two values: first, a monetary value. A pedigree puppy can be sold for €1000 or more: as much as an expensive mobile phone. So if a thief is able to sell on a dog that they have stolen, they may be able to make a handy bit of cash.
Secondly, there is the emotional value of pets: for many people, pets are family. So there have been rare occasions where pets have been kidnapped, and in a roundabout way, a ransom has been sought.
The terminology is never as frank as this: an owner might be contacted and asked if they are putting up a reward for the safe return of their pet. But the bottom line is the same: the emotional value of the animal is being exploited by criminals to try to make monetary gain.
This year, due to Covid-19, there has been a surge in demand for dogs, because people have been spending more time at home. This has lead to an increase in the cost of puppies, with prices soaring two or three times higher than they were a year ago. And it has been said that this, in turn, has led to a surge in the numbers of dogs being stolen.
The truth is that the meme of dog theft is more media - or social media - hype than reality. It is true that the theft of pets is an ongoing risk, and pet owners should be aware of this. But when the real statistics for reported dog theft are examined, the current situation is not any worse than in the past.
The national dog population of Ireland is around 550000, slightly more than one dog per ten people. In 2018, 145 dogs were reported stolen, equal to 0.027% of the dog population or 1 in 40000 dogs. In 2019 that number was 210 or 1 in 25000 dogs. And so far, until the end of July 2020, 120 dogs have been reported as stolen.
Assuming an equal distribution across the months of the year, and if this trend continues, then the expected number at the end of the year will be 205. So based on these figures, there has not been any spike in dog thefts: this is an illusion created by publicity in social media and some other outlets. And the risk is low: you would be more likely to win a prize in the lottery.
The figures do still seem high: around four dogs per week in Ireland are reported as stolen. But again, to put it into context, around 130 mobile phones are stolen every week. The risk of dog theft is less than 4% of the risk of your phone being taken. And 9000 humans are reported to the gardai as missing persons every year, or over 170 per week. While there are many reasons for people being reported as going missing, the high number does make the risk of dogs being abducted seem far less dramatic.
And while people often feel that their missing dog must have been stolen, this is not the only explanation for an animal being absent. In 2018 (the figures for 2019 have not yet been published), approximately 9,000 dogs were admitted to dog pounds in Ireland (this may sound a lot but a few decades ago the number was over 30,000).
There are two reasons for dogs going into pounds: either they were found straying, or they surrendered by their owner because they were no longer wanted. This means that dogs were 62 times more likely to stray or to be given away than to be stolen. Now, if your dog has strayed or escaped from the garden while you were out, but due to media stories you believe your dog has been stolen, you may be more likely to report it as stolen to Gardai, rather than check your local dog pound or wonder about a farmer shooting your dog because it was chasing livestock.
It's easy for people to assume theft rather than considering a number of alternative explanations for the fate of a dog that goes missing from its owner's garden.
People should still take precautions to keep their pets safe and secure. Make sure your pet is microchipped and properly registered on an official database. Don't tie your dog up outside when you go to shops. Keep your dog secure, and always in sight (e.g. not in the front garden with a low wall onto the road). Consider CCTV as a deterrent. And join a local Facebook or neighbourhood watch, reporting any suspicious activity in your area to the Gardai.
Pet theft is rare, but simple preventive steps can make sure that the risk is reduced to almost zero.