Lost Dogs and the Law in Modern Britain


, , ,

Sniffing the Past is delighted to host a guest blog from Dr Kate Smith.

After being launched in May this year, the UK Government’s Pet Theft Task Force published its findings in early September 2021. Following its recommendations, a new criminal offence for pet abduction is set to be introduced into UK law. The new law will recognise the distress caused to animals in cases of ‘abduction’ and that pets are valued as more than property by their owners. The recent rise in pet thefts instigated the setting up of the Task Force. Around 2,000 incidents of dog theft were reported to police forces across England and Wales in 2020.[1] The proposed change in the law is historically significant. It will be both a continuation of (much) earlier histories and a distinct shift in how the law reflects and shapes human relationships with, and understandings of, dogs.

I’m currently writing a book about lost property in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It examines what people did when they lost their possessions in urban spaces due to theft or forgetfulness. These seemingly mundane experiences are important, I argue, because they shaped what it meant to possess and own things more broadly. Looking to this period as an age of growing consumption, broader participation in property ownership, and imperial expansion, it is crucial that we understand everyday conceptions of possession and property. Loss and losing provide lenses onto such conceptions.

Sir George Hayter, 1792–1871, British, ‘Detail from Studies of Woman and Greyhound’, undated, Pen and brown ink, and graphite on medium, slightly textured, cream laid paper, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, B1977.14.5045

The ‘lost’ notices included in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century daily London newspapers show that from the 1750s people increasingly placed advertisements if their dog went missing.[2] They worked hard to get their dogs back. The shift mirrors Ingrid Tague’s findings that the term ‘pet’ first came into use in the eighteenth century and pet keeping really took off in the nineteenth.[3] Rather than being worked, animals started to be kept by a greater number of people simply for pleasure and companionship. People came to attach a wider range of values to dogs in this period. Although relationships to animals, and particularly dogs, were changing, the law was not much help if your dog went missing. Legal commentators remarked that it was easier to bring about a case for the theft of dog skins or dog collars, than it was the theft of dogs because dogs were not classed as property.[4] This was a worrying prospect when dog thefts were on the rise.

The law eventually did do something in response to the rising cases, just as the law is seeking to do today. In 1770 the Dog Stealing Act came into effect. However, dog stealing did not end. In fact, it boomed, particularly in the early nineteenth century, and particularly within the capital. In 1837 the Metropolitan Police produced a report on dog stealing in London, which identified as many as 141 dog stealers, 45 of whom they considered to live by the trade, 48 of whom used it to augment other occupations and 48 who were associates.[5] A Select Committee on Dog Stealing (Metropolis) was duly called in 1844 to investigate the continued problem around canine thefts. The question of whether dogs constituted property remained ambiguous at this point, explaining the need for the Committee and greater reflection on how to tackle such ‘crime’. A key witness for the Select Committee was one of the Chief Commissioners of Police, Richard Mayne, Esq. One of the problems Mayne identified was that dogs were not covered by the 1827 Larceny (Advertisements) Act because they did not come ‘within the legal meaning of the word “property”’.[6]

The other major issue that the Select Committee recognised was that it was difficult to prove that a dog had been stolen. In this period, dog owners would often allow their dogs to ramble through London’s streets alone or when on ‘walks’ they would frequently be off lead and could simply wander away. John Hardwick, Esq., the Chief Magistrate of Marlborough Street Court gave evidence to the Committee and noted the difficulties connected with prosecuting dog stealing – namely, that unless someone was caught in the act of forcibly taking the dog, it was difficult to prove theft. He noted that ‘very few cases’ had been brought before him as a magistrate.[7]

The Dog Stealing Act of 1845 sought to address these issues by clearly identifying dogs as property. The Act ensured that the law could be brought to bear on offenders and that the receivers of stolen dogs were also liable to punishment. It ensured that domestic dogs were recognised as private property and were legally protected as such.[8] The discussions of the Select Committee demonstrate the challenges at stake in identifying dogs as private property: the capacities and particularities of dogs made ownership difficult, as did the ways in which people and dogs lived in urban environments. As obvious as it might be, it is important to underline the centrality of loss within these legal conceptions of property and possession. The Acts of 1770 and 1845 were required because dogs were being stolen in ever greater numbers. Their absence prompted the need to see dogs as property. Feelings of loss forced the situation.   

Following the Pet Theft Task Force’s finding this year, another shift in this long story of dogs and the law is set to take place. After the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century wrangles to ensure that dogs were conceived as property and would receive protection from the law, in our contemporary world we seek to have dogs understood as more than property. The law will recognise dogs as sentient beings with complex lives. The change seeks to reflect our current relationships with and understanding of dogs, but it is important to remember that such relations have a long history, which was distinctly shaped by the law.

Dr Kate Smith is Associate Professor in Eighteenth-Century History at the University of Birmingham. She is an historian of eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Britain and empire. She researches how historical actors produced, consumed, and derived meaning from, the material world. She is currently working on a book provisionally entitled Losing Possession in the Long Eighteenth Century.

[1] Pet Theft Taskforce Report, 3 September 2021, 7.

[2] Kate Smith, ‘Lost Things and the Making of Material Cultures in Eighteenth-Century London’, Journal of Social History, forthcoming.

[3] Ingrid H. Tague, Animal Companions: Pets and Social Change in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Philadelphia, 2015), 3.

[4] Report from the Select Committee on Dog Stealing (Metropolis); together with the Minutes of Evidence Taken Before Them (July 1844), 13.

[5] Philip Howell, At Home and Astray: The Domestic Dog in Victorian Britain (Charlottesville and London, 2015), 57.

[6] Report from the Select Committee on Dog Stealing, 2.

[7] Report from the Select Committee on Dog Stealing, 11.

[8] Howell, At Home and Astray, 63.