Has the recession turned Americans into Cruella de Vils? Like an indignant Pekingese, the American Kennel Club is yapping about a supposed surge in dognapping. Since January, the AKC has received 224 reports of stolen pets, up from 150 the same time last year—an increase of 49 percent. * The pace of dog theft appears to be accelerating: 162 dogs were reported stolen in the entirety of 2009, up from 71 in 2008 and just a handful in 2007.
"According to the database, I see two trends," says AKC spokeswoman Lisa Peterson, an owner and breeder of Norwegian elkhounds. "People are taking smaller dogs, like Yorkshire terriers, Pomeranians, and toy poodles. They're easier to take, and very popular." She continues: "Then, big dogs, a lot of pit bulls. Puppies are very popular too," she notes. "They're cute and adorable and people can't resist them."
The AKC theorizes that the bad economic times are to blame. Maybe the Cruellas can't afford adoption fees or the purchase price of a new pet. Maybe they want to sell the dogs for profit, to pet stores or even animal-testing laboratories. (Read Daniel Engber's Slate series about America's most notorious dognapping incident.) Sometimes, the thefts appear to be random. Peterson says one recent report had a woman emerging from a convenience store with a Maltese tucked in the crook of her arm. She just "swiped it," Peterson says.
The media is lapping up the story. More than three dozen news outlets have touted the statistics this month. Good Morning America ran a whole segment on how to keep your pets safe from thieves. Dognapping, it seems, is a particularly alarming recessionary trend.
But while the number of reports of dognapping is increasing, there is no convincing evidence that dognapping itself has increased.
For starters, the theory that the recession is causing a dognapping surge is dubious. Dogs are cheap or free to acquire through perfectly legal means but expensive to own. They need food, shelter, Frisbees, and veterinary visits. The recession seems like a reason not to have a dog, not a reason to steal one. Indeed, shelters report increases in the number of pets surrendered because their owners no longer have the means to care for them.
Moreover, the vast majority of dogs are not worth very much. If you happen to have a particularly handsome Tibetan mastiff, a litter full of Dalmatian puppies, or a trust-fund lapdog, you might be able to get some real money for it. And there are a few reports of expensive show dogs getting jacked and rich people's dogs getting ransomed. But that retriever mutt in your backyard? Priceless to you, worthless to everyone else. A recession-driven thief would be better off stealing a bicycle, and he would not risk getting bitten, either.
The AKC's statistics are also shaky, since it covers a rare, indeterminate, and underreported crime. (What dog owner surveying an empty backyard thinks "Sugar's been stolen!" rather than "Sugar ran off!"?) Peterson says that she compiles the numbers from news stories, police reports, and reports made to the AKC's Companion Animal Recovery service. The number of news reports is contingent on the number of dog thefts, yes, but likely far more contingent on awareness about dog theft. In other words, the AKC's continual news blasts about the rise in stolen animals may become self-fulfilling. Ditto for the number of police reports.
The truth is that there is no good way to know if more dogs are getting stolen. But there are good ways to prevent your dog from getting nicked and to make sure it gets back to you if it goes missing. The AKC reminds everyone to microchip their pets, keep them in secure areas, and make sure they are wearing a collar tagged with up-to-date information.
Correction, Aug. 25, 2011: This article originally misstated the increase in dog thefts as 32 percent. (Return to the corrected sentence.)