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Vigilance still the watch-word
The second Dog Theft Action Symposium


Nick Mays
DTA President Nick Mays (OUR DOGS Chief Reporter) pays tribute to
Margaret Nawrockyi for her vision in founding Dog Theft Action


DOG THEFT is still with us . . . but the tide is slowly turning. This was the upbeat message that came over loud and clear from the second symposium staged by Dog Theft Action last Saturday. In the two and a half years since DTA was founded, there has been exciting progress in the war on dog theft. Thanks to the catalyst of DTA, different canine groups and organisations are talking to each other, sharing information, taking action … the Government is listening too and at long last the horrendous, emotional crime of dog theft is being taken seriously by the authorities… and the message to do all they can to protect dogs from being stolen is getting out to dog owners.

Trevor CooperThe symposium was staged by kind invitation of Dogs Trust at his Highway Farm rescue centre in Harefield, Middlesex. There could possibly have been no better venue that the imposing conference hall inside a converted 16th century barn, complete with original oak beams. A place of history in which to debate the past and consider the future.

DTA presented an impressive line-up of speakers – all experts in their own fields – and the audience was hooked from the off. DTA Chairman Neil Ewart swiftly welcomed all delegates from numerous charities and organisations, together with private attendees including several dog wardens, rescuers and ordinary dog owners, many of whom had been victims of dog theft themselves.

The first speaker was Chris Laurence MBE, the Veterinary Director of Dogs Trust who took the audience via power point presentation on a whistle-stop tour of the current issues relating to stolen and missing dogs and the various pieces of legislation affecting the battle against dog theft and straying.

Standards

Chris explained that to differentiate stray dogs from stolen dogs was a massive undertaking in terms of data collection, and this was also affected by the variations in standards of dog collection services provided by local authorities around the country. They key message to all of this was responsible dog ownership and the best methods of preventing the chances of dogs being stolen, including microchipping and tattooing, whilst being mindful of new identification technologies such as retinal scanning.

Sarah FrySarah Fry, Sales Director of microchip company Pet ID, took up the technological theme. Ms Fry explained that in terms of identification of dogs, it was ‘the more, the merrier’. She reminded the audience that it was the law to ensure that their dog was wearing a collar and tag – although her own experience at nearly having one of her own dogs stolen had shown that thieves very quickly disposed of collars and tags. She urged owners reporting dog theft to the police to ensure that they were given an incident log number and a crime number.

Sarah went on to explain the need to update ay changes in the owners’ details, such as change of address – or even change of owner – and to let the given register know. Many people believed microchips to be a tracking system, rather than what it was – a passive ID system. She also pointed out a startling and little known fact; that no-one who takes in a dog – whether this is police, local authority dog warden or rescue group is legally obliged to scan a dog for its microchip, just to make ‘every effort to contact the owner’.

Debbie Matthews, founder of Vets Get Scanning spoke next, explaining how, rather like DTA Founder Margaret Nawrockyi, she became thrust into the frightening world of dog theft after her two Yorkshire Terriers Widget and Gizmo were stolen from her car in a supermarket care park….and this led her to founding the campaign group Vets Get Scanning.

Debbie told her story, and said that she was aware that it was the fact that her father was TV entertainer Bruce Forsyth which allowed her to get media access denied to most dog owners and, through this, be reunited with her beloved pets that had both been sold through the notorious Southall Market in West London, not far from where they had been stolen form her car.

In he course of her 10 day ordeal, Debbie made several worrying discoveries, including the fact that Southall market was known by local residents, as well as the police and RSPCA officers to be a hotbed for stolen animals to be traded, but that no RSPCA Inspector was on hand to check animals for microchips with a hand held scanner. The worst discovery as that no routine microchip scan is carried out on ‘new’ dogs coming into vets, coupled with the fact that many dog owners believe that vets voluntarily scan dogs when they come to their surgeries – this is not so. In fact, many vets have used the Data Protection Act as an excuse not to scan a dog.

Debbie had founded Vets Get Scanning to tackle this issue and had succeeded in getting agreement from the British Veterinary Association and Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons that scanning should be carried out and that vets would be protected from any legal liability by simply reporting any suspicions relating to a dog’s ownership to Petlog or whatever registry the dog’s microchip was linked to and they would then make further enquiries.

There were various questions from the floor at this point, in which is was suggested by Chris Laurence that many vets had a walk-through scanner which enabled dogs to be scanned ‘all over’ at the point of coming into the surgery. Meanwhile, a representative of the animal tracing organisation the Missing Pets Bureau indicted a willingness from the Bureau to join together with VGS and other agencies to self regulate the process of scanning as a matter of course.
The next speaker was Chief Superintendent Simon Ovens of the Metropolitan Police who explained how the long arm of the law was extending itself further into dog theft.

Simon OvensChief Supt Ovens referred to the statistics unearthed by the BBC under he Freedom of Information Act earlier this year that showed a 74% increase in dog theft in the London area over the past five years. He said that it was important to place this in context, and by a power point presentation showed that there were around 500,000 dogs living in London and that, of these, 187 had been stolen in 2002, rising to 210 in 2003, 255 in 2004, 345 in 2005 and 413 in 2006, and that these were the figures for reported crimes where dogs had been specified.

Interestingly, the bred accounting for the highest number of thefts were Staffordshire Bull Terriers, with 266 dogs stolen over five years, accounting for 51.9% of all dog thefts, whilst Labradors were the numerically lowest and accounted for only 1.4% of all thefts.

Chief Supt Ovens answered many questions from the floor, some of which accused various police forces of not taking dog theft seriously, with the attitude being ‘it’s only a dog’ and officers not issuing crime numbers. Whilst being sympathetic, he pointed out that very often it was a case of resources and that not all police forces can investigate dog thefts to the same degree. However, dog theft was a crime and it would be investigated.

He concluded by referring to the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act which would remove responsibility for stray dogs from the police and place this firmly with the local authority. Now that funding had finally been agreed by Government, this part of the Act was due to be enacted in April 2008, although dog theft would still a crime and that it would still be investigated by the police.

The next speaker after the lunch break as well-known dog solicitor Trevor Cooper who outlined the practical points of law relating to dogs. The biggest element of the law in relation to dog theft was Who Owns A Dog? In law, a dog is a possession, an item, a chattel. There was no one document to assert ownership of a dog, but there were several different ways to assert ownership, including a KC Registration document, an adoption certificate, a transfer form, microchip and tattoo details, certification and evidence of who pays for a dog’s insurance, veterinary records and anything relating to who walks, feeds and cares for the dog.

Trevor then went on to explain how, through the law, you can lose a dog. In relation to straying and dog theft, if a local authority dog pound or rescue hold a dog for the statutory seven days it remains unclaimed in that time – or is not scanned and thus the owner not informed – then the dog becomes the property of the kennels and may be rehomed, in which case it becomes the legal property of the new owner. Even if the original owner comes forward, the new owner is under no legal obligation to hand the dog back, and in law there is no such thing as access or contact orders for a dog.

Celia WatsonCelia Walsom of Petlog spoke briefly next, outlining that Petlog held details of 4 million animals on its database and had, so far this year, registered 375,000 animals. Of the total number of animals registered, 60% were dogs.

Celia explained that Petlog and the Kennel Club worked closely with Dog Theft Action and Vets Get Scanning and had long since wanted to be able to create a unified database that would enable all agencies with responsibility or an input into dog theft and reunification – as well as private individuals – to share and access pooled information.

To this end, she introduced Paul Burridge, founder of a new Internet database The Missing List to explain the ethos of this new initiative and how it would b a valuable tool in the fight against dog theft. (see feature on page 3 of this issue).

After Paul’s fascinating – and well-received – presentation, all the speakers gathered on stage for a Question & Answer session, in which there was lively – and often humorous – audience participation.

Chris LaurenceThe symposium as closed by DTA President – and OUR DOGS Chief Reporter Nick Mays who thanked the speakers for their attendance and oversaw them being given thank you gifts by DTA. (This prompted a comment from Chief Supt Ovens that he hoped no one thought he was accepting a bribe, which led to a roar of laughter from those present). He also thanked Dogs Trust for the use of their wonderful venue and related how he and his fellow DTA officers had ‘ambushed’ Chris Laurence at in the KC Members’ lounge at Crufts, where he was trying to quietly read his newspaper. (‘I think he offered us the venue just to get rid of us!’)

Nick then paid tribute to the vision of Margaret Nawrockyi who had founded Dog Theft Action through her own heartbreaking experience of dog theft when her dog Astrid was stolen. Margaret had been shocked by the lack of official response to the crime and the lack of cohesion between the various agencies, so thus had set out with a small group of helpers to ‘do something about it’. The result was Dog Theft Action, a prime example of what ‘the little person’ could do if they set their mind to it.

She also thanked everyone who made donations of raffle prizes and well stocked gift bags including the Dogs Trust, the Kennel Club and OUR DOGS.

Margaret was given a tremendous round of applause.

Although dog theft would always be with us, he observed, perhaps the tide was now turning, especially with such tremendous initiatives as Vets Get Scanning, Jester’s Law (relating to roadside casualties) and now The Missing List. It was up to everyone as dog owners to spread the word and continue the great work of the organisation.