What is the point of the new so-called “dog theft” law?

The government has introduced legislation to create a new offence of what it calls “dog theft.” If passed it will form one of the weirdest additions to the criminal law since the 1745 Profane Oaths Act.

Profane cursing, which the 1745 Act made a criminal offence was, no doubt, a common problem in 1745. The same cannot be said for dog theft in 2021 which is not a very common crime at all.

The number of dogs in the country is not known, but it has grown in the last 5 years and probably now stands somewhere between nine and twelve and a half million. The number of “dog thefts” reported to the police every year has hovered around 1,500, although as not all police forces record such reports the total is probably closer to 2,000.

Some of those reported “stolen” turn out to have been lost, run away, removed by an estranged partner or, as appears probable in the case of Rory Cellan-Jones 15 year old collie, Cabbage, taken by accident.

The idea that there are organised gangs of criminals cruising the country looking for family dogs to steal is widely believed, widely promulgated by people who should know better and unsupported by the evidence: it is an urban myth. Although puppies and a few adult dogs do have a significant monetary value, the vast majority of family pets have none, which is why thieves hardly ever steal them. That is why so many dogs are abandoned or given to dog shelters.

Even the government’s Dog Theft Task Force, the preposterous quango including two Police and Crime Commissioners chosen despite – or more likely because of – their alarmist political campaigns on the menace of dog theft, grudgingly accepted that “the risk [of theft] to dog owners is low,” and that there was at best only “anecdotal” evidence of “organised” dog thefts

It was for these reasons that some weeks ago I wrote a short piece in the Telegraph suggesting that there was in fact no epidemic of dog theft and that the existing criminal law was more than equal to dealing with any that did occur.

The Prime Minister referred to the article in his Party Conference speech.

I read a learned article by some lawyer saying we should not bother about pet theft. Well I say to Cruella de Vil QC – if you can steal a dog or a cat then there is frankly no limit to your depravity.”

His message was that the existing law was too soft on dog theft and that dog thieves (and presumably cat thieves too) should be locked up for longer.

Last week the proposed law was published as Section 43 of the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill. Large numbers of Conservative MPs took to social media in what was obviouslt a coordinated campaign to welcome the new offence of “Dog Theft,” with a maximum sentence of 5 years imprisonment, 2 years below the existing maximum for theft of anything else.

If sentences for dog theft are too short, creating a law which makes them even shorter is, to put it politely, counter-intuitive.

The explanation is that, despite the misleading publicity, the new offence does not target dog theft at all. It targets dog taking. That is a very different thing.

Let me explain.

For a taking to be a theft” in English law it must be accompanied by an intention to “permanently deprive” the owner. Without such an intention it is not theft; it is borrowing.

The proposed offence, to be known as “taking a dog without lawful authority,” will be committed if a person “takes or detains a dog in England:

(a) so as to remove it from the lawful control of any person; or

(b) so as to keep it from the lawful control of a person who has the right to have lawful control of it.”

Readers will immediately have spotted that an intention to permanently deprive the rightful owner of the dog is not required for the new crime to be committed.

It is modelled on the offence of taking a conveyance without the owner’s consent, known to police and lawyers as “TWOC.”

Typically, TWOC is committed by joy-riders who borrow someone’s car in order to go for a joy-ride, or perhaps to use in the course of some other offence. It is much less serious than stealing and the maximum sentence is correspondingly far lower – 6 months as opposed to 7 years for theft.

The activity criminalised by the new law, “dog-twoc,” boils down to borrowing a dog without obtaining permission.

There are to be some differences between dog twoc and vehicle twoc. For example “taking” a dog is defined to include “inducing a dog to accompany” someone other than its lawful keeper. One cannot induce a vehicle to accompany you, so this is to cover the villain who uses enticing words or bacon rind to persuade a dog that he is its friend. This offence is not so much dog-twocking as dog-grooming.

Even if the dog resists the inducement, the offeror of bacon rind will be guilty of attempted dog grooming, which will carry the same 5 year maximum sentence.

There are some curious exceptions where taking a dog belonging to some, but not every, member of your family will not be criminal at all. For example you will be legally able to take your half-sister’s dog with impunity, but taking your step-sister’s or your grandfather’s dog will be an offence.

Taking your estranged spouse’s dog without her permission will not be criminal. The aim, presumably, is to prevent the police from being dragged into rows about where a family dog should live after a separation. But this only applies up to the moment of divorce, and it does not apply at all to unmarried couples: taking your divorced spouse’s or ex-long-term partner’s dog, however temporarily, will become a crime. Politicians elected after promising to crack-down on dog theft will need to explain why it is a good idea to involve the police in these canine custody disputes, particularly where these depend on abstruse distinctions of kinship resembling Archbishop Cranmer’s 1662 Table of Kindred and Affinity. Every officer investigating these new crimes will be an officer unable to investigate a burglary, a rape or a murder.

So what is the point? Even if you think there should be longer sentences for dog thieves, this law does nothing to bring them about. If Cruella De Vil were to be charged under this law she would get off far more lightly than if she were charged under the existing law of theft.

S.44 of the Bill hands ministers the alarming power to extend the offence to other animals “capable of forming bonds with people who keep them.” The lonely old lady who kindly feeds a neighbour’s cat – which will certainly be capable of forming a bond with her if she gives it Whiskas – will then find herself investigated on suspicion of “inducing a cat to accompany her.”

Let nobody say that this government has lost its sense of direction. It has recognised that there are simply too few criminal offences.  The police don’t have enough to do. They are solving other crimes too quickly. Why take two years to investigate a rape when, if they had more dog crimes to investigate, they could make it three? The Magistrates Courts are of course the perfect forum for deciding where the former matrimonial dog should live, and it is well worth extending the backlog of Crown Court cases by filling the lists with allegations of dog grooming.

Thank goodness that at last we have a government with the courage to crack down on the hitherto unrecognised menace of unauthorised dog borrowing.

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Author: Matthew

I have been a barrister for over 25 years, specialising in crime. You may also have come across some of my articles I have written on legal issues for The Times, Standpoint, Daily Telegraph or Criminal Law & Justice Weekly

7 thoughts on “What is the point of the new so-called “dog theft” law?”

  1. I’m forced to admit that when I read about this law I totally fell for the hype, so this piece was a necessary antidote. I haven’t been so embarrassed since I was seventeen and bought into the then fashionable notion that aliens were responsible for the pyramids and the Nazca lines.

  2. This may be another well meant but useless bit of legislation. My skills don’t run to posting the link but Google dog theft travellers Essex to find 83 allegedly stolen pets in March 2021. I must declare ownership of a stunning but strong minded Beagle

  3. You must forgive me on two counts: this is not about dogs and I don’t know if it was actually you on the air this am. If it was, I think you may have missed the point about life sentences for murder of policemen and women, et al.

    In the days when we had the automatic death penalty for the killing of a policeman, hardly anyone touched a policeman. Remember the famous Bateman cartoon, “The car which touched a policeman”? It was essential that this was so, because otherwise the police could not go out and deal with crime. Now they don’t go out if they can help it. They stay on their computers, fighting internet rudeness instead. They won’t touch British Pakistani gang rape and torture of underage girls, for example, because they are terrified of setting off riots and they would not be able to cope with them. This has been the case since the eighties. It is the same with Hamas and Hezbollah. Too many videos of the police fleeing in front of these organizations have been released to make it possible for the orderly policing of these groups.

    Policemen were considered cannon fodder back in the early 19th century: now we are back there, but they are far more constrained in what they may do to defend themselves and there are nothing like enough of them. Now nurses, doctors, firemen, and ambulance staff have joined them in the ranks of those it is considered OK to beat up for being in uniform. It is the duty of HMG to do something about this. If a punch might land you in prison for life, you probably won’t throw it.

    You say, what about an innocent punch which results in death? That is where you are missing the point. No-one would dream of throwing an innocent punch at an armed policeman in most other countries. Our police are not armed, so they have to have something else to instil the same respect into the public, and the death penalty was that thing. The life sentence is the next best thing.

    1. Liza I understand your point, and that it’s not about dogs, but in the days when we had the automatic death penalty it was for murder of a police officer, never for manslaughter. A distinction between manslaughter and murder is as old as the common law, albeit the boundaries between the two offences have shifted around a bit over the years. This new law – the emergency workers law – blurs the distinction between the two offences.

      1. I know it does. It also separates the police and other emergency workers from the rest of us. It could be interpreted as valuing police etc lives above others. That used to worry me when I was a child. Now I see the point. It isn’t that their lives are worth more than ours: it is that their lives are far more at risk than ours and they have to be protected. That never used to be the case for firemen and ambulance crews but now it is. The first time this changed was in March 1980 when the St Paul’s rioters disconnected the oxygen hoses from the firemen. It seemed incredible at the time. It doesn’t now.

        The distinction I find unacceptable now is the one which arises from so called hate crime. It is apparently worse to commit crime against some people than against others, even though the former are in no greater danger. It would be interesting to know if you are familiar with a case where the manslaughter of someone from a protected group carried a greater punishment than the murder of someone from an unprotected group.

        I understand your argument about the special, historic status of manslaughter, and have always understood the distinction, but I am arguing for the special status of people very greatly at risk, and for them to be protected from assault as well as murder. After all, assault against people in uniform is a thousand times more common than murder, and not something the rest of us are facing day after day. Uniformed people should not be subjected to assault, and from all our point of view, tolerating this is a bad development because they have thereby lost authority.

  4. We had a dog when I was a boy, a pleasant mongrel with a bit of spaniel in him. Maybe if people stuck to mongrels rather than owning expensive breeds the non-epidemic of dognapping would wither away entirely.

    I’m never quite sure how sympathetic I should be to people who indulge in ostentation and then whinge when somebody nicks – say – their Rolex. Ostentation is bad manners, my Dear Old Dad taught me, and I suspect the old boy was right. Maybe a Labrador shouldn’t be equated to a Rolex. Maybe.

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