A POLICE force has revealed an action plan involving monitoring social media to crackdown on criminals behind surging numbers of dog thefts since the start of the pandemic.

Darlington’s Neighbourhood inspector Chris Knox told a meeting of the borough council that dog thefts was an area the force had not been doing so well in over recent months, saying a spike in the offences had “been a bit of a learning curve for us “.

The charity DogLost saw reported pet thefts rise from 172 dogs in 2019 to 465 in 2020, but it is thought numbers of the offence spiralled last year.

Insp Knox said he believed the 19 dogs reported as stolen across Darlington and County Durham over the past year did not represent the volume of thefts because some owners were not reporting their pets’ disappearance to police.

He said police had raided a number of properties in response and about eight of the dogs had been returned to their owners.

Insp Knox said: “It’s a massive confidence issue. Dogs are part of the family and it hurts owners more than say their car being broken into or some damage to their premises.

“This is what I would class as a typical pandemic crime because since the beginning of lockdown a lot more people are wanting dogs and if you’re talking pedigree dogs they’ve gone up from say £800 to £1,000 a dog to £2,500 to £3,000. They are attractive for criminals to steal.”

Insp Knox highlighted how dog rehoming charities in Durham and Sadberge had been targeted by thieves who had stolen dogs.

He said a response plan was being developed in Darlington, which had been backed by council funding.

The meeting heard one dog warden armed with one microchip scanner was insufficient and so the force was looking to ensure that every team executing warrants would have a scanner.

The force is also profiling dog thefts in Darlington and will be monitoring social media accounts, particularly to identify people who have not reported suspicious activity to the police.

Police have warned pet owners to be careful posting pictures of their new puppy on social media, and for buyers to consider where the animal had come from.

Insp Knox said it was hoped to build confidence and theft reporting in the community by checking dog chips. He added other areas of Durham would be able to learn from Darlington’s crackdown.

He said: “We’ve recovered about five dogs over the last five weeks.

“It’s a massive community concern, my team really get that, so we’re going to do a lot of work around that.”

Guide dog trainer Cllr Hilary Allen told the meeting dog owners should attach a bell to their gates and not to tell strangers their pet’s name. She said: “If those people follow you into a park they can then call your dog and if it’s a friendly dog it will go to those people.”