Amid the first year of the pandemic in 2020, crime statistics in Victoria showed an increase in the number of dogs reported stolen. Since then, media reports suggest there’s been an increase in dog theft in Australia.
The price of dogs has increased during the pandemic given higher demand and decreased supply, particularly of purebred and designer dogs. Dog theft is said to be rising due to offenders exploiting this situation. Media reports suggest dogs are being targeted to be sold on the black market.
However, because of limited reliable data outside media reports, the true nature and extent of dog theft across Australia aren’t known.
In December 2022, South Australia became the latest Australian jurisdiction to introduce a standalone criminal offence of dog theft. New South Wales and the Northern Territory both have similar offences, and there are calls for other jurisdictions to follow suit.
But will specific dog theft laws actually help stop this awful crime? The practical effects are not clear cut, but such laws do have symbolic value, recognising dogs aren’t merely property.
How does the law deal with people who steal dogs?
Stolen dogs aren’t treated as cases of abduction or kidnapping in Australia. In other words, “dognapping” is not a specific crime. If someone is alleged to have stolen a dog, they are usually charged with larceny or theft.
The offence of theft captures the stealing of dogs because, in law, dogs are classified as property.
But when a dog is stolen, significant emotional distress is often caused to both the owner and the dog. Dogs are often recognised as members of the family, despite their legal status as property.
In both Australia and abroad, increasing attention is being paid to specific offences that seek to address the emotional impact caused when a dog is stolen.
New dog theft offences
Under the new South Australian law, the offence of dog theft carries a maximum penalty of $50,000 or imprisonment for two years.
The new offence of dog theft is targeted at people who seek to make financial gain from stealing and selling dogs. While the new offence has a much lower maximum term of imprisonment than general theft, it’s hoped the substantial financial penalty attached to the new offence acts as a strong deterrent to potential offenders motivated by profit.
Despite the higher financial penalty, the new offence is unlikely to make it easier for police to prosecute people who steal dogs. People who steal dogs are already being prosecuted under the general offence of theft; the new offence doesn’t fill a gap in the law.
However, a standalone offence of dog theft does have symbolic value. It recognises dog theft is inherently different from other types of property theft.
As South Australia’s deputy premier, Susan Close, said while reading the dog theft bill in parliament:
A new summary offence sends a clear signal that anyone who steals a dog will face serious consequences. It also acknowledges that dogs are not simply property but are deeply loved members of the family which cannot easily be replaced.
Meanwhile, the United Kingdom looks set to take a different approach, with pet abduction to become a criminal offence. The Pet Theft Taskforce, established to investigate the reported increase in pet theft in the UK, recommended an offence of pet abduction instead of pet theft.
According to the taskforce, this would better reflect the view that stolen pets are not mere property, but sentient beings.
Should dogs still be classified as property?
There’s ongoing debate whether the legal classification of animals as property in Australia is keeping pace with community attitudes.
There’s a shift towards recognising animals as sentient beings in the law.
In 2019, the ACT became the first Australian jurisdiction to recognise sentience of animals in legislation.
In family law, when couples separate, dogs are treated as part of the asset pool in property settlements. But there are calls for a new pet custody model that moves away from viewing dogs as property.
In the criminal law, a pet abduction offence such as that proposed in the UK would better reflect the view that dogs aren’t merely property.
However, beyond symbolism, in practical terms a change in the law may not reduce the frequency of the offence. The general offence of theft is already an adequate tool to prosecute those who steal dogs.