Dognaps Terrorize London Pet Owners

The idea of a dognap may conjure up images of a blindfolded dog with a gun to its head, perhaps a voice growling into the phone, "Your money or your mutt."

But this crime is real, and it's no laughing matter.

Pooches are disappearing from London's streets at an alarming rate. Dognapping, even at gunpoint, has become one of the fastest-growing crimes in the city, with the rate of stolen dogs up 74 percent in the last year, according to the Metropolitan Police.

Some of the stolen dogs are later abandoned when the thieves realize how much is involved in caring for dogs.

In that case, the animals are sometimes found wandering the streets of London, and are picked up and taken to shelters like Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, which has noted a rise in the crime rate because of how popular and valuable these dogs have become in London.

"The Staffordshire bull terrier that has been highlighted recently in the MET [police] report," said Scott Craddock of Battersea Dogs and Cats Home. "It's very popular to breed from that dog."

Some thieves target rare breeds, which can sell for thousands of dollars on the black market. Craddock said people tried to sell them and "make a fast buck."

The crime spree has left owners to fret about their four-legged friends. Even celebrities have fallen prey to the dognappers: Actress Elizabeth Hurley and singer Lily Allen's four-legged friends were nabbed.

The pop star paid nearly $1,000 ransom to get reunited with her beloved dog, Maggie May.

Dog Detectives

Once a crime has been committed, some owners say the law does not take them seriously because it's difficult to prove a dog has been stolen.

In the eyes of the law, dog theft is the same as the theft of any property. In response, officers say they have sympathy for owners, but admit they have to prioritize.

To help distraught pet owners, two women have taken matters into their own hands. London's dog detectives are known simply as Pam and Phyllis, and they go on stakeouts to look for leads and hunt for stolen pooches.

The pair got involved after a friends' dog was stolen. They were helping the friend and learned about the crime spree on a Web site. When they saw how sad the crimes left the dog owners, they got involved.

"The police are not too helpful here," Pam said. "They don't realize how important a dog is to a family -- sometimes it's just an old lady and that [is] just her companion -- but the police don't seem to care, I'm afraid."

Both say it's rewarding and satisfying to reunite a stolen dog with its owner.

"To us, it's not really a possession," Phyllis said. "[It's] part of their family, and everybody who has had their dog stolen we've come in contact with -- they've been really emotionally upset. It's like they've lost their child."

She and her partner get tips for where the dogs may be, and then go out to search for the missing pets.

"There's a house round here that we've been watching for some time, because we had a tip-off that there was a small dog there that we were looking for," Pam said.

The dog detectives say they will continue to patrol the city, even though the work can bring them to dangerous locations.

Phyllis said at some of the sites they'd been to, there had "been some shady characters around."

If you are the proud owner of a pup and want to avoid a dognapping, there are a few things you can do: Get a microchip implanted in your pet so it can be identified, keep gates and doors at your home shut, and never leave your dog outside a shop or in the car.

"I think the most important thing is never leave your dog unattended," Battersea's Craddock said. "Dog owners should take heed of this advice because dog theft can happen to anyone."