Retired police officer Mike Jasper was walking through his local park with his spaniel cross, Ted, one morning last month when two men wearing facemasks approached him and started to ask questions about his beloved four-year-old pet.
Feeling uncomfortable, 66-year-old Mike started to walk away, only to find himself pushed to the ground while one of the men forced the lead from his hand and made off with Ted.
Mike has not seen him since.
The theft — out of the blue, in broad daylight, and in a South London park crowded with walkers and joggers — has left him devastated.
‘He is still in shock,’ his daughter Lucinda Jasper, 28, told the Mail.
‘He couldn’t believe what had happened. It’s not something you expect on a daily walk in the park.’
But sadly, the statistics suggest that it is becoming all too common.
Lucinda Jasper said her father, a retired police officer, has lost all trust in human nature after his beloved dog Ted (pictured with Lucinda) was stolen while out for a walk in a South London park
Cases of what is known as ‘dognapping’ are on the rise, with recent figures from lost and found organisation DogLost showing that thefts surged by 170 per cent in the UK last year.
The figures have been climbing for a while, but last year the booming market for ‘pandemic puppies’ — in a nation looking for companionship during lockdown — led to a surge in opportunistic theft, as well as more sophisticated gang-related crime — with dognapping gangs removing microchips, raiding kennels and robbing breeders.
What’s more, amid rising reports of assaults on dog owners, the cases appear to be ‘getting more aggressive in nature’, according to DogLost’s Justine Quirk.
‘We don’t want to scare people, but there is an element of “nowhere is safe” for your dogs on their own — not even in your own back garden,’ she says.
‘These stories are ever-more widespread — and behind every one lies heartbreak.’
Sadly, no one knows that better than Mike Jasper and his family.
Ted came into Mike’s life four years ago after his family decided a dog would be a good antidote to the anxiety and depression he’d been battling.
It worked, says HR manager Lucinda: ‘It was amazing to see the change Ted had on my dad. He just fell in love with him.’
Flora was stolen by two youths after she left for just a minute while her owner popped inside a a shop in Wakefield. Demand for so called ‘pandemic puppies,’ has seen a 170 per cent rise in dog thefts over the past year
Indeed, Mike and his ‘sprocker’ (with springer and cocker spaniel parents) were almost inseparable — until Ted was snatched from under Mike’s nose.
‘Dad phoned me five minutes after it happened,’ Lucinda recalls.
‘It was so distressing to hear how panicked and upset he was. He couldn’t believe that Ted could be taken in such circumstances.’
And Mike has fared little better in the weeks since the attack.
‘He’s not doing very well at all since it happened,’ Lucinda says.
‘It’s destroyed his mental health, which he’s struggled with for several years. Other than dropping my mum at work, he’s now housebound and is not talking to anyone other than close members of the family.
‘It’s destroyed his trust in human nature, but most of all he just desperately misses Ted and is worried sick about what has happened to him.
‘He also holds himself responsible because he was there when Ted was taken and, however much we tell him it’s ridiculous, he can’t stop himself.’
It’s a sentiment that the friends of Linda Johnson recognise all too well.
Linda, who is in her 70s, was walking her four-year-old cross-breed rescue dog, Buster near her home in Woodford Green, Essex, last month when she was approached by a man, a woman and three youths.
Like Mike, Linda is too upset to recall her story directly, but close friend Kaye Walker takes up the tale.
‘The lady bent down to pet Buster, then the man came from behind, unclipped his lead, picked him up and took him away while the three youths stood in front of Linda,’ Kaye says.
‘It was incredibly intimidating and the most terrible shock — she had no idea what was going on, but now she’s blaming herself for letting it happen, even though there was nothing she could have done.
‘It’s so sad because Buster was Linda’s lifeline, and the shock of it all has left her really unwell.’
LINDA did, at least, escape physically unscathed, despite the emotional toll: last month 22-year-old student Allie Knight was left with two black eyes and deep bruising after being violently assaulted as she walked her pug, Paddy, near her home in Plymouth one evening.
Shoved from behind by two male assailants, she fell to the ground and was punched in the face as the would-be thieves grappled for her dog’s leash.
But after bravely trying to fight back Allie was saved from further injury — and hung on to her pet — when the men ran off after hearing an approaching car.
Buster was taken from Woodford Green, Essex, last month, after his owner was approached by a man, a woman and three youths. Experts are now calling for new laws to make pet theft a specific criminal offence
In August, meanwhile, an unnamed man was hospitalised after thwarting an attempt to steal his bichon frise on an evening walk near his home in Audley, Staffordshire.
The victim — in his 50s — was stopped by a man apparently asking for directions while his female accomplice bent down and tried to unhook the dog’s lead.
Determinedly holding onto his dog, the owner was brutally assaulted, and suffered serious injuries to his face which required 18 stitches.
This all seems horrifyingly disproportionate, but the reality is that there are rich pickings to be made at a time when demand for dogs has outstripped supply from breeders during lockdown.
According to the Kennel Club, of those who acquired a new dog in lockdown, two in five bought a puppy.
The organisation recorded a near tripling in searches on its online ‘find a puppy’ tool during lockdown from March to June last year, compared with the same period in 2019.
Puppy prices have rocketed, with the most sought-after breeds, such as French bulldogs, pugs and spaniels, selling for up to £5,000 — more than five times what they would usually fetch from a reputable breeder.
It’s thought that dogs like Ted — bought by the Jaspers for £600 — could now sell for £3,000, or even more if he can be bred from.
What’s more, there is little in the way of deterrent to would-be thieves, because pet theft is not currently a specific crime.
Instead, under the Theft Act of 1968, animals are regarded as objects akin to a stolen phone. In the rare cases where offenders are prosecuted — only 1 per cent of all reported dog thefts in 2019 — those convicted are more likely to be given community service, a caution or a fine than a prison sentence.
In short, given the eye-watering prices stolen dogs can fetch, many criminals are deciding the risk is more than outweighed by the potential financial reward.
‘Money is driving this,’ says Dr Daniel Allen from Keele University, creator of the #PetTheftReform campaign with the Stolen and Missing Pets Alliance.
The campaign is calling for pet theft to be classified as a specific offence with tougher sentencing.
‘The prospect of a small fine is not going to stop pet theft crime,’ says Dr Allen.
‘Not when you could get little more than a £250 fine or a suspended sentence for stealing dogs that can, in some cases, end up breeding on puppy farms and making thousands of pounds.’
Mike Jasper is desperately trying to recover his beloved Ted after thieves punched him to the ground and ran off with the Sprocker Spaniel in Cannon Hill last month
He argues that the law does not recognise the huge bond we have with our pets. ‘These are not inanimate possessions but members of the family,’ he stresses.
That sentiment is echoed by Lucinda Jasper, who says that while the police swiftly attended her father’s home after he reported the theft of Ted, the family was told that unless they could give police a list of potential suspects, there was little they could do.
‘The law just sees this as the robbery of a possession worth £600,’ Lucinda says.
‘In fact, Ted is priceless because he’s a much-loved member of the family. For us, it’s more of an abduction.’
Little wonder that, as Justine Quirk puts it: ‘There’s real frustration among the dog community. Campaigners have been banging this drum for years and nothing has been done. What is it going to take for this to be addressed?’
She points out that for every targeted attack there is also a cunning opportunist: ‘I have stood outside shops where dogs have been tied up, waiting for the owner to come out to tell them they can’t be too careful.
‘People think their dog won’t go with a stranger, but sadly they do,’ she says.
Like Flora, an adorable four-year-old spaniel, who was stolen while tethered outside a shop near Wakefield, West Yorkshire, on Monday last week when her owner, civil servant, Tony Sutton was buying a pint of milk.
Like Mike Jasper, Tony, 60, is too upset to discuss what happened, but his niece, Claire McCormack, 50, told the Mail the sorry tale. ‘Tony lives on his own and he adores Flora,’ she says. ‘She was his life, particularly during lockdown.’
As he did every lunchtime, Tony had taken Flora for a walk, only briefly popping into the local Co-op on the way home.
‘There’s a dog hook outside for precisely that purpose,’ says Claire. ‘Tony is not on social media to see all the horror stories, so he had no idea of the risk. He also lives in a village where everyone knows everyone and was in the shop only a minute.’
But it was long enough for a vehicle to pull into the car park and two youths to grab Flora and drive off with her.
‘Tony couldn’t believe it when he came out. He couldn’t stop crying,’ says Claire.
It’s a heartbreak distressingly familiar to Debbie Matthews, CEO of the Stolen and Missing Pets Alliance, who says the distress people feel when their dogs are snatched away is enduring.
‘We know of people who have been waiting eight or nine years for their dog to come back,’ she says.
‘That’s why it is very sad that we have to exist and campaign to update the law: the only people who are going to be upset by the laws being tightened are thieves.’
Lucinda Jasper does not need to be told about ongoing heartache: her father remains shattered by the loss of Ted.
Like the owners of Flora and Buster, the family are pinning their hopes on the fact that Ted is neutered.
As he cannot sire puppies, he may be dumped instead of sold on.
They are offering a £5,000 reward for his return and have launched a search on social media.
It is a tactic that paid off for Tony Sutton: On Sunday, following a substantial search campaign organised by local dog lover Rachael Sanderson, Flora was found, rescued by a couple who found her abandoned, soaking wet and wandering the streets of a nearby village.
Unaware of the social media campaign, they looked after her overnight before speaking to neighbours who recognised her.
‘She was obviously too hot to handle, given the amount of people looking for her,’ says Rachael.
Flora and Tony have now been reunited.
‘He is over the moon,’ Claire told the Mail yesterday. ‘For once it’s a lovely outcome.’
It is also a rare one, leading Justine Quirk to urge pet owners — and prospective ones, too — to be aware of the dangers.
‘When you get a dog make sure you know exactly where it is coming from — and ask your vet to scan it to make sure it’s not registered to someone else.
‘People steal dogs and sell them to someone who doesn’t know what’s going on, and takes them to a vet who re-registers them under a new name. Lots of dogs slip through the net that way.’
In the meantime, sadly, there seems no sign of dog theft numbers falling.
‘Mike Jasper should have been able to walk his dog on a route he knew without risk of attack. As should everyone,’ says Justine.
‘But the reality is, we can’t be too careful.’