Cllr Selina Seesunkur represents Larkswood Ward on Waltham Forest Council and is a Conservative list candidate for the London Assembly.

I have two Great Pyrenean Mountain dogs: given that online meetings are all the rage now, you may have seen them. The cheeky one took it upon himself to make an appearance at the last London Board meeting in January. Pyrenees are wanderers by nature, they are Mountain Dogs after all, so teaching our dogs their names and recall are lessons we never stop reinforcing, even though they are over two and three years old. However, with the increase in dog theft, taking our dogs for a walk has become a rollercoaster, even when using a long lead, supposing someone snips it off.

There have been numerous reports which suggest that owning a dog can reduce stress, depression, and loneliness, as dogs love us unconditionally – they even help people recover from personal trauma. Dogs make us healthier, and according to Purina, “children with chronic illnesses often cope better with treatment when they have a canine companion”. The Covid epidemic has led to an increased demand for dogs, especially puppies. The Kennel Club reported a 168 per cent increase in people searching for puppies for sale on its website, from the beginning of lockdown up to the end of May, compared to the same period in 2019 across the UK.

It has been recognised that owners are finding it hard to breed their dogs due to restrictions – and demand is outweighing supply, making dogs a lucrative commodity for criminals. According to Country Living:

“Dog theft increased by a staggering 250 per cent in 2020 due to gangs cashing in on the demand for puppies during lockdown”.

I do not see my dogs as a commodity; they are well-loved members of my family.

This surge in criminal activity prompted a couple of residents (Dani and Steve) and me to start a local Pets group for pet owners. It is a digital space where they can form an online support network during the lockdown period, something I wish I had started pre-lockdown. On this group, messages from our local Sergeant about dog safety have been shared; I have created training flashcards to ensure the basics are not forgotten; and my colleague, Cllr Jemma Hemsted, shares key news stories. It is a real team effort and the admin team is made up of residents and local councillors. What this group has highlighted is the love people have for their pets and the anxiety people are feeling right now. People are scared and rightly so.

I have seen a petition which has been debated in Parliament, bought forward by individuals and organisations; however, there seems to be not only distrust, but also dismay at the responses provided so far. Hannah Louise Goldstraw started the petition: “Make dog theft a specific criminal offence”. It has been signed by over 166,000 people and a comprehensive response was given by Government suggesting the following “The theft of a dog is already a criminal offence under the Theft Act 1968 and the maximum penalty is seven years’ imprisonment’. The same act covers stolen cars, art, mobile phones, and many other objects.

In fact, the Act commences by stating:

“A person is guilty of theft if he dishonestly appropriates property belonging to another with the intention of permanently depriving the other of it; and ‘thief’ and ‘steal’ shall be construed accordingly.”

Unlike my car, my dog has a beating heart, it has legs and walks and barks. Surely they deserve better than to be treated like property. You would not class a child in the same way.

According to the Dog’s Trust, a mere five per cent of reported dog thefts led to a conviction in 2018; it is less now. What is wrong with the justice system that convictions are so low? I appreciate it is a balancing act of resources and priorities but both knife crime and dog theft are growing at a rate no-one wishes to endure and yet both suffer from ineffective sentencing.

I am really pleased that Sir Iain Duncan Smith, my local MP, has asked for dog theft to be made a specific crime and that Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, seems to be listening. Tom Hunt MP and Siobhan Baillie MP have also highlighted in their letter dated 10 February 2021 to the Lord Justice Holroyde the need for sentencing to reflect the crime and have asked for a review of the guidelines. Having written to all our Conservative Police and Crime Commissioners and Candidates, I am pleased to hear Katy Bourne, Alison Hernandez, Marc Jones, Philip Allott, Donna Jones, Roger Hirst, and colleagues are also taking action to tackle dognapping and sentencing.

Whilst the law does legislate for dog theft under the Theft Act 1968, our pets are not the same as a replaceable object. Pets have a heart, a personality, they are a major part of the family and I am yet to meet anyone who would tell you otherwise. Every time my dog gate-crashes Zoom meetings, I see a few beaming smiles; imagine what he is like to live with, I smile every day. My female dog is way too independent, but she bounces around and does the best “I am so excited to see you” dance, even if I am coming down from upstairs. These moments are priceless, and irreplaceable. Insurance won’t bring these personalities back. And this is why I, like many others “object to a dog being treated like an object.” We would like to see dog theft enforced robustly and for the legislation to be reviewed, so dogs and other pets are protected in their own right.

According to the Paw Report, 51 per cent of UK adults own a pet; there are an estimated 10.9 million cats and 10.1 million dogs. Why then has this debate about dog theft and sentencing been going on for years?  Surely with this spike now is the time to take action?