'They had the knife to my face and told me don’t move’: The dark side of Britain’s pandemic puppy boom

Jack Russell Terrier in harness walking on loose leash
Demand for puppies soared during the coronavirus lockdown, driving up prices and sparking a wave of dog-related crime. (Getty Images)

"They had the Stanley knife to my face and told me – don't move.”

Last month, masked robbers armed with a machete and an axe broke into the Glasgow home of David Waters.

The thieves had a single target: David’s nine-week old American bulldog puppy Cairo.

Waters answered the doorbell that evening to find three men wearing balaclavas.

He said: "Then they went into the living room and grabbed Cairo and ran down the street, and turned left, and jumped into a car.

"I had no power to do anything, had to watch him get taken off me. It was horrible."

David’s story is one that is becoming more common as dog thieves and fraudsters cash in on the lockdown puppy boom.

Nine-week-old American Bulldog puppy Cairo was stolen from his owners' home by masked raiders armed with machetes. (SWNS)
Nine-week-old American Bulldog puppy Cairo was stolen from his owners' home by masked raiders armed with machetes. (SWNS)

With people trapped at home with limited companionship but plenty of spare time, demand for dogs has soared since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.

Some 3.2 million pets were purchased by UK households in the year from the first COVID lockdown, according to the Pet Food Manufacturers' Association.

Demand for puppies more than doubled at the height of restrictions in May 2020 compared to the previous year, research by Pets4Homes shows.

And as demand has swelled, so have prices.

The average price of a new puppy more than doubled from 2019 to 2020, leaping from £810 to £1,875.

The average price of a puppy more than doubled between 2019 and 2020. (Flourish/Yahoo News UK)
The average price of a puppy more than doubled between 2019 and 2020. (Flourish/Yahoo News UK)

For some popular breeds, the hike has been even steeper. According to data from Pets4Home, Cocker Spaniels have seen the largest increase, with prices tripling from an average of £727 in 2019 to £2,230 in 2020.

English bulldogs are now the most expensive breed, with an average price of £2,995 for a puppy, up 81% on the previous year.

The prices of some dog breeds more than tripled between 2019 and 2020 (Flourish/Yahoo News UK)
The prices of some dog breeds more than tripled between 2019 and 2020 (Flourish/Yahoo News UK)

David believes his puppy was specifically targeted after he posted a photo of him on Instagram.

His partner Caitlin Maley said: “We have no idea what's happening. But it must be targeted. They know we stay here and know we have the dog and that's the only reason they came.”

The number of dogs stolen in the UK increased by a fifth in 2020, with an estimated 2,438 dogs snatched in total.

Staffordshire Bull Terriers were the breed stolen the most often, with 97 reports of dog-nappings in 2020, according to freedom of information requests by Direct Line pet insurance. Of all dog thefts where the breed was recorded, a fifth were Staffies.

The outcomes for dog thefts make for gloomy reading, partly due to the fact that there is no specific law covering it. Less than a third of stolen dogs are safely returned to their owners, and less than 5% of cases result in a conviction. In the rare cases that a prosecution is made, most result in non-custodial sentences or fines of £250-£500.

portrait of black staffordshire bull terrier on the background of green trees in the park
Staffordshire bull terriers were the breed most often involved in dog thefts in 2020, freedom of information reuqests revealed. (Getty Images)

These statistics show that the law needs to be changed, according to Liberal Democrat MP and Tim Farron.

He is campaigning for dog theft to be made into a specific offence with harsher penalties and improved reporting.

Currently a stolen dog is treated much the same as a stolen bike or iPhone, an oversight that fails to take into account the emotional ties people have to their pets, says Farron.

“The fact that dog theft isn’t a specific crime is deeply troubling,” he told Yahoo News UK. “As somebody who is a dog owner, we have two dogs, I know they’re an important part of the family.

“I think that to relegate dogs to the status of an inanimate object that you wouldn’t mind if you kept it or lost it just feels wrong. It doesn’t reflect who we are in this country and how we feel about our pets.

“We’re talking about huge personal trauma caused to families, and so we need to acknowledge the scale of the crime that’s been committed and not just consider pets as just another piece of property.”

Earlier in May, the government launched a taskforce to investigate the recent reported rise in pet theft.

Home Secretary Priti Patel speaking in the House of Commons, London, in the aftermath of last Saturday's vigil for murdered Sarah Everard on Clapham Common. Picture date: Monday March 15, 2021.
Priti Patel announced the creation of a traskforce to tackle pet theft in May (PA Images)

Home secretary Priti Patel said: “Having callous thieves steal a much-loved pet is heart-breaking for families and it is deplorable that criminals seek to profit from this cruel crime.

“We are already taking action to combat such lawlessness by bolstering the police with 20,000 extra officers but this new taskforce will ensure we know how best to combat the driving forces behind this distressing crime and clamp down on the perpetrators.”

Watch: Dog thefts rise 250% since start of pandemic

Puppy farm boom

With a quarter of lockdown purchasers admitting to buying a puppy with little research, unethical breeding practices are on the rise.

The Kennel Club estimates that one in four dogs bought during lockdown could be from a puppy farm.

Ellen Clarke, a 32-year-old from London, bought her puppy Bella via Pets4Home after “a bad week at work”.

She told Yahoo News UK: “I guess I’m the classic lockdown puppy purchaser, it was a very impulsive decision.”

Animal Rights Action Network hold a protest in Dublin city centre to call for tougher measures from the government in the upcoming animal welfare bill due to be released early next year.
Animal rights protestors demonstrate against puppy farms. As many as 1 in 4 dogss purchased during lockdown came from unethical breeders, according to estimates from the Kennel Club. (PA Images)

Clarke visited the litter in a flat in London, where she was able to meet what she was told was the mother of the litter. Feeling reassured, she went ahead with the purchase.

But three days after Clarke took her home, Bella started to become seriously unwell.

The puppy was rushed to the emergency vet, who confirmed she had a parasite and needed immediate treatment costing up to £750.

Fearing the other puppies in the litter would be affected, Clarke attempted to contact the breeder, only to find the phone number she had been using was no longer connected.

"At that point it did seem dodgy," Clarke said.

Furthermore, a DNA test revealed that Bella was not the breed she was sold as.

Clarke said: "She was sold to me as a Cocker Spaniel crossed with a Jack Russell, and was meant to be under 10kg. But she just kept growing."

The results revealed that the puppy was a Springer Spaniel crossed with a Whippet.

While Bella is now healthy, Clarke has concerns about where the litter was raised.

"It is possible they were bred in a farm somewhere and then put into that flat for sale," Clarke admits.

Behavioural problems among lockdown puppies

Hannah Greeno, dog trainer and founder of Canine Needs, warns that widespread behavioural problems are set to add to the issues created by the pandemic puppy boom.

"The obvious problem is separation anxiety and separation related behaviours," she told Yahoo News UK. "Dogs have got so used to having people at home all the time that when they start going back to work thats going to be a huge shift."

Experienced dog trainer Hannah Greeno warned that behavioural problems among lockdown puppies are likely to include separation anxiety. (Hannah Greeno)
Experienced dog trainer Hannah Greeno warned that behavioural problems among lockdown puppies are likely to include separation anxiety. (Hannah Greeno)

Separation anxiety often involved whining, digging, barking and damaging items around the house, and can have a deep impact on owners' lives, Greeno says.

"Before lockdown that was the only problem that people have ever really called me in tears about.

"You can't leave the house and the neighbours complain, and especially built up places like London which is where we're based."

Limited supply has also seen a rise in people buying unsuitable dogs, particularly in cities, she adds.

"There has been a surge in people getting puppies, but it's the wrong sorts of puppies.

"So people getting things like husky crosses in the middle of London, which don't really work as a dog for most people. They're very demanding and need a lot.

"People don't seem to be researching properly what the best dog for them would be.

Greeno advises would-be owners to wait until prices have come down before going ahead with a purchase.

"If we start paying £3,000 for a puppy, where does it go from there?" she says. "Prices won't come back down if people are willing to pay it. They'll only go up, which encourages worse breeders, and the good breeders will stop because they don't like the way it's going.

"You could just be left with bad breeders, and if you exaggerate that even more you could end up with essentially dogs being banned.

"If all the dogs are badly behaved, and they all have to stay on the lead, then every dog loses its privileges in the city and nobody can walk dogs any more. It's not too much of a stretch to see how that might happen."