Are the legal penalties for dog theft in England and Wales really any deterrent?
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Are the legal penalties for dog theft in England and Wales really any deterrent?

Do you know what the legal penalties for dog theft in England and Wales are? There’s a good chance they’re far lower than you think. This article will provide a basic explanation of the penalties that apply to dog theft in England and Wales. Read on to learn more.

What is the status of dogs in law?

Something that comes as a surprise to many dog owners and which is a cause of great argument for obvious reasons, is that the status of dogs in law in England and Wales is as property. This might seem obvious in one way; because if a dog is not property (and so, not owned by someone or more to the point, one specific identified person) then they could not be “stolen” per se, and nor would they have a person who was responsible for them.

However, in the legal sense of the term when we say that dogs have the status of property, this means that the theft of a dog is viewed as property theft; not, say, kidnapping or “dognapping.” Ultimately, the fact that the dog is a living creature and that it may feel fear, distress, or anxiety, and that their owners will of course be living out a total nightmare as to us, dogs are family, does not factor into the status of dogs in law at all.

So if a dog is stolen, the law that applies to this is the theft law – law pertaining to an object. The same law used if jewellery or a car or a phone was stolen, with no special consideration of the emotions involved or the fact a dog is a sentient creature.

The only alternative or additional remedy in law that might in some cases apply to dog theft is if animal cruelty or animal welfare laws came into play too. This might happen if the stolen dog was hurt or neglected and this could be proven; for instance, as happens in rare cases, if a thief tries to cut out the dog’s microchip to make identification harder.

How seriously is dog theft viewed in law?

To understand the gravitas dog theft is viewed with in law, emotion has to be removed from the equation because the seriousness of the offence is based on one factor alone (aside from as mentioned if there is a legal animal cruelty or welfare implication) and that factor is the financial value of the dog.

Dog theft penalties are divided under the remit of the Theft Act 1968 into four tiers, based on the dog’s financial value.

This means simply that how much your dog is worth; such as how much you paid for them in combination with their age, future value (if, say, they were breeding stock) and so on, is the basis by which courts sentence convicted dog thieves.

A thief could be charged for a category four offence, the most minor theft offence, if your dog’s value in financial terms was deemed to be £500 or less, and there were no other factors in play; like the dog being taken in a burglary or by means of threats or menace, both of which up the penalties.

At the highest end of the spectrum, a category one theft offence would reflect the theft of a dog worth £100,00 or more (which is highly unlikely), OR a dog with high value (to be determined) in which the theft also caused significant additional harm; such as if the dog’s owner was hurt trying to protect their dog.

Is victim impact taken into account?

In England and Wales, the victim of a crime (so the owner of a dog that is stolen) has the right to submit a victim impact statement to the courts, in which they detail the impact and harm the crime committed caused to them. These can be very emotive, and allow the victim to tell the judges or jury ultimately how the crime harmed them, and even what they would like done to remedy it.

The victim impact statement must be made before sentencing, and may be taken into account at sentencing. However, nothing said within the statement can override the laws (so for instance even if you wanted the dog thief to be imprisoned for life, this isn’t an available legal remedy and so could not happen) and it is up to the sentencing judge (in the case of a guilty verdict) to decide if they take the victim’s views into account when they pass sentence.

What is the highest penalty for dog theft in England and Wales?

Under the current legislation for dog theft in England and Wales, the highest sentence or penalty for a dog thief is seven years imprisonment. However, this sentence would only be applied even in theory for a high value/high impact theft, and so in reality given that even expensive dogs fall low on the value scale for theft, penalties tend to be much lighter and often a custodial sentence is avoided entirely.

Put simply, a dog thief that stole a dog worth £500 would stand no higher chance of going to prison than a shoplifter that stole makeup worth £500.

What is the penalty for handling or selling on a stolen dog in England and Wales?

Something interesting about the theft and dishonesty laws in England and Wales is that the penalties for handling stolen goods are almost always higher than those for committing a theft in the first place!

The maximum penalty for handling stolen goods is 14 years imprisonment, compared to 7 for the theft itself. This means that say, someone who serves as an interim agent to re-sell, care for, or otherwise profit from a dog theft – like a person who pretends to own a stolen puppy and shows it to innocent would-be buyers – risks higher penalties in law than the person that stole it.

Again though, the chances of an interim party to a dog theft receiving this penalty is low.

Do the laws deter dog thieves?

While obviously no criminal would want to get caught or receive any kind of penalty or sentence, even a low monetary fine, most dog owners would agree that the penalties for dog theft in no way reflect the severity or impact of the crime.

Dog theft can be very lucrative, and a disappointingly low number of stolen dogs are ever found; and so it is in many ways a lower-risk crime with low penalties if convicted, all for a reasonably high payoff.

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