There’s an episode of Judge Judy that’s super popular among dog lovers.
In the episode, the plaintiff claims that his dog was stolen by the defendant. The Defendant in turn says the dog, a sweet Maltese, is one she bought off a stranger on the street.
The reason the episode is so popular is because of how Judge Judy settles the case. She has the dog in question brought into the courtroom. As soon as he’s carried in and spots his real owner, his tail starts to furiously wag. When he gets set on the floor, he dashes to the plaintiff, who scoops him up with tears in his eyes as he says, “That’s my Baby Boy!”
The heartwarming moment shows how strong the bond is between a dog and his owner. But it also shines a light on a terrifying possibility for dog owners: Your pet can get stolen. And it’s not common for someone like Judge Judy to help you get them back.
Dog theft isn’t as rare as you might think. And what makes that reality even worse is that most states don’t have specific laws to address the theft of dogs and other pets. To best protect your pets, you have to know what you’re up against. Read on to learn about the scary lack of stolen dog laws, how to protect your dog from theft, and what to do if the worst happens and your dog gets stolen.
The Alarming State Of Stolen Dog Laws
According to Petfinder, as many as two million pets are stolen every year. What’s even more terrifying is that only 10 percent of them are ever reunited with their owners.
Dogs might be stolen for a variety of different reasons. Valuable purebred dogs might be stolen and then resold to unsuspecting new owners. They might also be sold to breed at puppy mills. It’s heartbreakingly common for stolen dogs to end up in research labs. Some other reasons dogs might get stolen include:
- For dogfighting or as bait dogs;
- For meat for exotic animals (or even humans);
- For their fur for clothing and accessories;
- For dissection;
- For sadistic acts.
Dog theft is often referred to as “dognapping,” but from a legal standpoint, that’s a little bit misleading. Kidnapping, or the act of taking a human against their will, is a serious criminal offense in all U.S. states. Dog theft, on the other hand, isn’t taken nearly as seriously in the eyes of the law. In fact, most states don’t have specific laws that relate to stolen pets — instead, pets are considered to be personal property, and fall under the state’s general theft and larceny laws.
What this means is that the severity of the punishment for stealing a dog in most states would be determined by the circumstances of the crime and the monetary value of the dog — the same way there are different types of criminal charges and penalties for stealing something small and inconsequential versus something extremely valuable. The problem with this is that many pet owners consider their dogs to be part of the family. How do you put a monetary value on a creature you love?
These 15 States Have Stolen Dog Laws On their Books
Only 15 U.S. states have laws that specifically address dog theft as being different from the theft of any other sort of personal property. Those states are:
- New Hampshire
- New York
- North Carolina
- Rhode Island
- West Virginia
Unfortunately, even though those 15 states have passed specific laws related to dog theft, in most cases, this crime is considered a misdemeanor that carries risk of relatively small fines and usually little to no jail time.
Only a small handful of states classify dog theft as a felony that can come with serious penalties, including large fines and jail time. These are some of the strongest stolen dog laws in the U.S.:
- Virginia: In Virginia, stealing a dog is a Class 5 felony punishable by up to 10 years in jail, regardless of the monetary value of the dog.
- Louisiana: In Louisiana, the severity of the crime when a dog is stolen is dependent on how much the dog is worth. But if a dog worth more than $500 is stolen, the penalties can be up to 10 years in prison, up to $3,000 in fines, or both.
- Oklahoma: Stealing a dog in Oklahoma can be considered a felony that carries with it the risk of 6 months to 3 years in prison, and a fine of up to three times the value of the dog.
- New York: In New York, dog theft is a Class E felony that could come with up to six months in jail, a $1,000 fine, or both.
- Mississippi: Mississippi’s dog theft law makes the crime a felony punishable by up to six months in jail, and a fine of up to $500.
How Do I Protect My Dog From Theft?
Whether you live in a state with stolen dog laws or not, it’s still up to you to do whatever you can to protect your pets from theft and other dangers.
Here are some ways to help protect your dog from being stolen.
Only Let Your Dog Off Leash In Secure Areas
Even a well-trained dog shouldn’t be let off leash in public unless it’s somewhere you can keep them close to you and safe. Even the best-trained dog can be caught and taken, so letting them out of your site on a walk or hike is never a good idea.
This goes for your yard, too. Before letting your dog out in the yard unsupervised, make sure it has a completely secure fence, and preferably one that’s high enough that a potential thief can’t see, reach, or climb over it.
Never Leave Your Dog Unsupervised In Public
It may seem safe to leave your dog tied up outside while you pop into a store or restaurant. But this actually leaves your dog vulnerable to getting loose and running away, or being stolen. You should never tie up your dog and leave it unsupervised in any public place, even for a moment.
Always Keep Proof of Ownership
Make sure you have some kind of proof that your dog belongs to you. This can take a lot of different forms: Registration papers, adoption papers, or vet records would all work. Even having a phone camera roll that’s full of pictures of your pet could help prove your case if you need to show that you’re their rightful owner.
Keep Your Dog’s Tags Updated
In a case where someone is targeting your dog specifically to steal, this won’t be as helpful. But if you’re a dog owner, you should try to always keep your dog’s tags updated with your most recent vet and contact information. In the event that your dog gets lost, this can help get them returned to you, rather than sold or turned over to a shelter to be adopted out to someone else.
Get Your Dog Microchipped
One way to find your missing dog (or prove that he or she belongs to you) is with a microchip, a tiny RFID chip inserted under your pet’s skin and containing an ID number that can have your contact information attached to it via a registry. Many adopted dogs come with microchips already inserted, but if your dog doesn’t have one, invest in getting one! Even for pet owners on a budget, many shelters and vet’s offices offer free and reduced cost microchipping events. Just make sure to keep your contact information up-to-date on the microchip’s registry.
What To Do if Your Dog Is Stolen
Even when a dog owner does everything right, the worst can happen, and their pet can still get stolen. If it happens to you, try not to panic. Here’s what you should do to help maximize the odds that you and your beloved pet will be reunited.
File a Police Report Right Away
Here’s the tricky thing about the lack of stolen dog laws in so many states: Some police officers may be reluctant to take a report about a stolen dog. If that’s the case, remind them that even in states that don’t specifically criminalize pet theft, dogs are still personal property and you’re entitled to filing a report if yours is stolen.
Don’t wait to file your police report — the sooner you do it after your dog is stolen, the sooner the police will be able to start keeping an eye out for your missing pet.
Post Classified Ads Wherever You Can
From flyers to online classifieds to social media posts and pleas on neighborhood network sites like Nextdoor, post about your stolen dog wherever you can. If the thief plans to try to sell your dog to a new owner to make a profit, someone might recognize him or her from your ads and can report the seller to you or the police.
Call Around to Shelters and Pet Stores
There’s a chance your stolen dog might end up abandoned, or that the person who stole them might try to sell them to a pet store (especially if you have a valuable breed of dog). Call around to shelters and pet stores in your area and give them a description of your dog (with photos, if possible). That way, they can be on the lookout for anyone trying to sell a dog that matches yours’ description.