Pet owners in Leeds are living in fear after being held to ransom in a spate of attempted dog thefts.
Owners have been targeted by thieves demanding cash for the safe return of their pets. And a Leeds pensioner was left shaken after a man crept out of bushes in Roundhay Park with a “grasper” – a pole with a loop, used for catching dogs – and tried to grab her border collie.
I kept hearing about dog snatchers but I thought it was an urban myth. But it does seem as if there’s a lot of it going on.
Another of the city’s animal lovers watched in horror as two men slipped a lead on his boxer, told him it was their dog, then demanded £200 to hand him back. Several animals have been taken from back gardens while their owners were inside and there are reports on social media of thieves slashing leads with knives.
Some Leeds women are now too terrified to walk their animals alone, others will now only walk in groups, while many have started carrying rape alarms in a bid to deter the would-be dog-snatchers.
And the number of dog thefts is soaring across the country, according to the UK’s largest lost and found dog service.
West Yorkshire was last year named as the third worst dog thefts blackspot nationwide, after 211 dogs were recorded as lost or stolen by West Yorkshire Police – 80 of those from Leeds.
And in 2014, 162 hounds were recorded as lost or stolen – 49 from Leeds.
While the numbers show a drop, many owners believe the crime is on the rise and police are not doing enough to tackle it. They fear someone will get hurt, as few will give up their pets without a fight. Sara Cockerham, from Leeds charity Animal Ark Aid, told the YEP she had been contacted by numerous owners with distressing stories.
She said: “The effect of having dogs stolen is horrific. For lots of people these dogs are members of the family and losing them is heartbreaking. Every single one would fight tooth and nail to stop it.”
Dog walker Carole Williams, of Colton, said: “If something isn’t done in the near future I think someone is gong to end up getting badly hurt or killed because we are all very, very passionate about our animals. The stories about what’s happening are terrifying.
“Women are taking rape alarms out with them, which we haven’t done for many years, it’s that bad. It’s scary out there and the police are going to have to start taking this seriously soon.”
Leeds animal lovers have taken to social media sites like Facebook to warn each other. Sara said it was possible there had always been this number of incidents, but the rise in social media meant people were now more aware of them.
Not-for-profit organisation DogLost estimates 4,700 dogs were stolen in the UK in 2014.
A spokeswoman said: “It’s a big problem. Over the last couple of years we have seen a massive increase in dog theft throughout the country. Thieves see it as an easy crime with little detection.”
Chris Jones was in Roundhay Park when a pair of thugs grabbed his boxer and attached their own lead. He said: “I went up and said ‘you’ve got my dog’. They said, ‘no he’s our dog. we’ve always had him’.”
They took off his tag then offered to sell him back to Chris for £200. He got the dog back, but is now too worried to let him off the lead.
The 35-year-old added: “I was scared. My other half is scared to walk him on her own now. If it had been her walking him we wouldn’t have the dog now.”
He said the police told him that because he still had his dog “no crime had been committed”.
Leeds pensioner Lesley Hart has not felt safe walking her dog since she too was ambushed in Roundhay Park. She said: “I saw a man coming out of the bushes and he was brazenly carrying a stick with a kind of a noose on the end – like the RSPCA use.”
She added: “I shouted to the dog but she was sniffing around and ignored me so I set off faster and tried to get to her before he did.”
She managed to grab the dog and bundle her into her car, but said: “The man was trying to frighten me by saying, ‘what did you call your dog? Tess?’”
The 62-year-old added: “I kept hearing about dog snatchers but I thought it was an urban myth. But it does seem as if there’s a lot of it going on. People need to be warned. I haven’t felt good walking the dog anywhere since then as I feel vulnerable.”
A police spokesman said the incident had been logged but “no crime was recorded”, adding: “We take all reports of theft extremely seriously and work with householders and businesses to offer crime prevention advice. In particular with dogs, we would encourage their owners to get them micro-chipped and ideally keep them indoors or in secure premises when home alone.”
‘I’m very, very wary but I am not going to be frightened out of the city’s parks’
Professional dog walker Carole Williams believes she was followed from Bramhope’s Golden Acre Park by men in a van who were trying to see where she was dropping dogs off.
Carole, who has exercised dogs for hundreds of customers over the past decade, thought she had given them the slip but later found out one of her client’s homes had been marked with white paint that same day – a technique rumoured to be used by dog thieves to tell their associates where to steal dogs from.
“The owner had come home to find white marks all over the wall outside her home and there was something a bit fishy so she rang the police right away.”
The 61-year-old added: “I wouldn’t say I’m scared but I’m very, very wary. I’m not going to be frightened out of the parks.”
Boxer-dog owner Chris Jones also found a chalk mark on the gatepost of his Leeds home and believes it was left for that same reason.
Another Leeds dog lover told the Yorkshire Evening Post she had been too scared to take her German Shepherd out for days after two men closed in on them on an evening walk. The woman, who did not want to be identified because she is scared of being targeted again, went to a nearby house to ask for help and the owner escorted her back up to the main road.
She now carries a rape alarm with her on every walk.
She said: “I’ve walked my dogs for the past 18 years and never had a problem and this did emotionally affect me.”
She added: “I did buy a rape alarm and I now take it with me on every walk.”
Both West Yorkshire Police and not-for-profit organisation DogLost said the notion of criminals marking homes was “an urban myth”.
A police spokesman said: “We don’t have any record of marking of homes as a tactic in dog theft.”
The DogLost spokeswoman said owners were often terrified that their animals had been stolen for use as bait dogs in brutal dog fights but this was rarely the case. She said thefts were usually about money, so people either took them to breed from them, sell on, keep as their own pet that they haven’t had to pay for or to obtain reward money.
She said working and gun dogs were now the most commonly targeted as they can be worth more than £2,000 each. The rise in their thefts has been attributed to criminals being forced to find a new money-making venture following the clampdown on lucrative metal theft.
All dog owners are advised not to leave dogs tied up outside shops or left in cars or gardens.