‘Our dog was stolen from our back garden in lockdown - the law needs to get tougher’

Cintia Gardner, 42, was reunited with her family’s dog last year after she disappeared from their home. She tells Natasha Preskey her story

Tuesday 15 June 2021 09:58 BST
<p>Cintia Gardner, her partner Andy and their two children with their dog Honey</p>

Cintia Gardner, her partner Andy and their two children with their dog Honey

The pandemic has seen a surge in the number of people looking to buy lockdown dogs - and a rise in the number of dog thefts. DogLost, a UK charity that helps victims, reported a 250 per cent increase in the crime, with experts saying it was the “worst ever year [they’d] known”. The problem is so extensive that Nottinghamshire Police have even employed a specialist officer specifically to investigate dog thefts.

The rural cul-de-sac in Kent where we lived was so friendly that everyone would let their dogs out to play in the road together. There were only a few houses and we had no reason to believe our golden cocker spaniel, Honey, wouldn’t be safe.

One day last June, I left Honey out in the garden for 15 minutes alone and, when I came back, she was gone. Back then, I’d never heard of dognapping, and I had no idea there was such a huge market for stolen dogs.

Initially, I hoped someone would come across Honey and see my phone number in her collar, or take her to the local vet. I rang the vet’s every day hoping for news but there was nothing. I reported the theft to the police but received no help with our search.

My children would cry and ask me when she was coming home. My daughter, who was eight at the time, didn’t understand how someone could do this to us. I didn’t have an answer for her - I felt powerless.

Read more: How to keep your dog safe

Honey was stolen in June last year

I’d burst into tears on hot summer’s days thinking about her possibly stuck inside a kennel in the heat. I had no idea how she was being treated, and whether she was okay.

We physically searched the local area for a week and began a social media campaign. I posted in Facebook groups and was put in touch with charity DogLost, who helped with the search. The support we received reminded me how many good people there are out there.

“I’d burst into tears on hot days thinking about her possibly stuck in a kennel in the heat”

But there was a lot of crying in our household over the next few months.

Theft of a dog may be treated as legally the same as someone stealing “property” but animals are members of the family. The law needs to change - both in terms of how pet theft is classified and to make it harder for criminals to sell on stolen dogs.

When we got Honey two years ago, we paid £550 for her - now, the same breeder is charging £2,500.

Unlicensed dog sellers are everywhere online, and criminals often seem to get away with dog theft more easily than other offences, which are taken more seriously.

Three months after Honey was taken, our hopes of seeing her again had started to dwindle. But then, one day in September, she came back to us.

After months of searching and praying, with no warning at all, she just came to our back door. I screamed with delight when I saw her. When the phone rang, right after Honey arrived, I could barely hear it over the kids’ happy shrieks.

It was a private number. When I answered, a voice I didn’t recognise told me: “Go and look for your dog.”

Cintia Gardner’s son with Honey

To this day, I have no idea who I was talking to. I never found out if it was the person who took her, or some kind soul who had found her.

Thankfully, apart from having lost weight, Honey appeared to be happy, safe and well. She had a red marking on her ear, similar to those you’d see on a farm animal, and to me it seems likely that her theft was the work of an organised crime group [experts have reported an increase in targeted efforts rather than just opportunistic thieves].

Even though we were elated to have her back, Honey being taken has had a lasting impact on our family. We no longer let her out to play with other dogs in the road, and my children were quite affected by her disappearance.

Honey is a much-loved member of the family

Now, whenever she’s off the lead or goes to sniff in the bushes, my four-year-old gets extremely stressed. Even though he didn’t understand exactly what had happened when she was taken, it seems to have had an impact on him.

When Honey’s out of sight, he cries and seems desperate to get her back close to him. We’re hoping that, as he’s so young, he’ll forget in the years to come.

To us, Honey is a family member but it’s clear that, for some people, dogs are just a way to make money. While our story has a happy ending, what happened to her was very distressing for us all, and I hope that the law will one day get tougher on dog-nappers, to avoid this happening to another family.

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