Narla was taken from Mr Gleadhill’s front garden in 2014
REGULAR Facebook users are accustomed to the almost daily plea from a distraught pet owner for help in finding their stolen dog. It is estimated that 60 a week are stolen in England and Wales – but this number could be much higher as many cases go unreported. So-called designer dogs are the pooch of choice for criminal gangs, who scour the country on the lookout for these high-value pets. Once taken from their owners, they are sold on the black market or to unsuspecting customers, in some cases, for thousands of pounds. But the emotional distress it causes owners, who are parted from their much-loved family pets, is unbearable.
One who knows this only too well is Freya Woodhall whose chocolate-coated sprocker spaniel disappeared from her back garden last September.
“One minute she was there and the next she wasn’t. She completely vanished,” says Mrs Woodhall, 43, from Homer in Shropshire.
The Woodhall family have the gut-wrenching feeling that their beloved dog, Willow, who is still missing, did not run off.
They believe she was stolen. “We all think it’s really out of Willow’s character,” says Mrs Woodhall.
“She just follows you around everywhere. It’s heartbreaking. All these questions race through your mind – how, why, what?”
Lenient jail sentences for those convicted is proving not enough of a deterrent and, according to DogLost, a not-for-profit organisation tasked with reuniting the pets and their owners, this is a lucrative business.
While the maximum prison sentence for pet theft can carry up to seven years, custodial sentences are rare for thieves, who are more likely to receive a slap on the wrist with a fine or community order.
After Willow’s disappearance, the Woodhalls knocked on doors and spoke to neighbours, as made appeals on local radio and on social media. But their search proved fruitless and eventually they reported Willow stolen to Shropshire Constabulary. Before Willow was taken, pet theft was not something they thought would ever happen to them.
Happy Adrian Gleandhill’s pet Narla is returned to him by Kent Police
“You never think it’s going to happen to you, especially where we live because it’s so small and quiet,” says Mrs Woodhall.
“But it’s like having a child. You wouldn’t leave a child outside in the back garden on its own and now I’d say the same about any dog. You think you’re in a safe environment but we’ve found out the hard way.”
She adds: “Willow was my shadow, she went everywhere with me and I am lost without her.
“We’ve kept her bed is in the same place as it was with her blanket on top. Sometimes I turn to fuss her and she’s not there. She’s never far from my thoughts. I feel totally hopeless.”
It’s not just Freya and husband Ross who miss Willow. Their four children have also had to deal with the loss of their dog.
“We have four kids who found it really hard. Our youngest in particular had just started school that September, and had no close friends to lean on. We all found it really hard.
“Last Christmas, their one wish was for Willow to be found and returned to them.
“How do you explain to your children that Santa can’t grant them that? How do you explain to them what has happened when you don’t know yourself?” she asks.
Five months on, now all they can do is pray that Willow is returned to them and keep the search alive through regular updates on their social media appeal page.
“I can’t give up searching for Willow, she’s part of this family and should be home with us. There have been recent cases of dogs being reunited with their loving owners after three or even six years so I hold on to that every day.” In 2017 almost 2,000 cases of pet theft were reported to the police, and shockingly a large number of pets are stolen from their own homes.
Another owner who knows this first hand is Adrian Gleadhill, 72, from Blackpool. At the end of last year Mr Gleadhill was given the wonderful news that his Staffordshire bull terrier, Narla, had been found four years after she was stolen. A nine-month old puppy at the time, Narla was taken from Mr Gleadhill’s front garden in 2014 by a woman posing as a rehoming officer from the RSCPA. The thief was already known to the police.
“We were absolutely gutted. She was only nine months old and she belonged to my niece, so I had to go and explain to her why the dog was missing,” says Mr Gleadhill.
“We heard on the grapevine where she had gone and that she had kept being moved on, and we were starting to think we were not going to recover her because we didn’t know where she was.”
After their agonising wait, the Gleadhill family had almost given up hope of ever recovering Narla, when in December they were contacted by a vet in Tunbridge Wells. Narla had been bought by someone, although Mr Gleadhill does not know how much for.
Freya is still waiting in hope for the return of her dog Willow, pictured with her
The new owner had then moved down to Kent, a seven-and-a-half hour drive from Blackpool. As part of a routine check-up, the veterinary nurses scanned Narla’s microchip, revealing that she was stolen and Mr Gleadhill was the registered owner.
“The lady that had her is also an innocent victim. She did not know Narla was stolen,” says Mr Gleadhill. With the help of Kent Police, Narla was finally returned to the Gleadhill family.
“When we were reunited with Narla it was like all our Christmases had come at once,” adds Mr Gleadhill.
● DogLost is a not-for-profit organisation run entirely by volunteers working to bring lost and stolen dogs home to their families. If anyone has seen Willow, please call DogLost on 0844 800 3220 quoting dog ID 134537
Willow disappeared from the Woodhall family house
HOW TO PROTECT YOURS
● Leaving your dog tied up outside a shop or locked inside a car makes them vulnerable to theft. Think twice before leaving them unsupervised.
● Microchip your dog and keep contact details up to date. This is now a legal requirement in the UK.
● Make sure your dog has a collar with an ID tag, with your name, address and mobile number on it.
● Take lots of photographs with your dog, in case you need to prove ownership.
● When at home, keep your dog in view if playing out in the garden and ensure that gates and fences are secure.
● When taking your dog for a walk, vary your times and routes as dogs can be targeted and stolen on walks.
If the worst happens:
● If you know or suspect that your pet has been stolen, contact the police on 101 and ask for a crime reference number.
● Contact your microchip company immediately and report your dog as missing or stolen.
● Call all local dog wardens, vets, rehoming centres and grooming businesses daily.
● Get in touch with DogLost, who will be able to give specific advice including leaving scent markers and if applicable, using a dog tracker.
● Search for your dog on foot and ask friends and neighbours to help.
● Don’t give up! – DogLost has been involved in cases where dogs have been found and reunited years later.