Katy Stickley and her partner Dean Orsmond were relaxing in their flat as the late August sun was beginning to set.
Stickley, 31, a teaching assistant had tucked sons George, 11 and Frankie, seven, into bed and Trigger, the family’s beloved two-year-old English springer spaniel, was playing happily in the garden.
"It was just getting dark when Dean spotted something outside and said to me: ‘That’s odd, did you see those two men walking past the fence with a long pole and a loop round it?’ Then we noticed that Trigger was no longer in the garden," she says.
"We called the boys to check if he was in their room and when they said no, we panicked.
"The fence to our garden is secure. There is no way Trigger could have jumped it or opened the gate – but he was gone."
Sadly, Katy and her family had become another victim of dog theft, a crime which is thought to have risen by 250% nationwide, following increased demand during the pandemic.
The charity DogLost says it helped search for 465 dogs in 2020, up from 172 the year before, and a recent survey of almost 125,000 people found that 22% knew someone whose dog had been stolen in the last year.
"We were absolutely heartbroken because Trigger is part of the family," says Stickley, from Hertfordshire. "We’d bought him as a present for George’s ninth birthday and he was such a good dog, really laid back and loves the sun, always ready for a belly rub.
"When we realised he’d gone, Dean ran straight out into the field opposite and actually bumped into the two men with the pole. They said they were fishing - but there are no lakes near us – and then they jumped into a van and drove off.
"Dean took a picture of the license plate as they disappeared, and that’s when we called the police.
"They were in no doubt that Trigger had been stolen when they spotted a chalk marking on our fence. They said that gangs watch different houses and leave marks – such as a line or a cross – on the houses that have dogs worth stealing. The thieves come along and know which house to target.
"It was so horrible to think he’d been kidnapped. Telling the boys that he’d gone was awful. They were in tears."
The family contacted DogLost and utilised social media straight away, making a Facebook page called Stolen Trigger. Within 24 hours, it had been shared 25,000 times.
Friends and neighbours in their community helped distribute posters but to no avail. Shockingly, the family were also subjected to several cruel pranks.
"I got a call from someone saying they had found a dog but then they laughed and said: ‘Ha it’s a joke!’ and hung up, while others have sent us on wild goose chases," says Stickley.
"People kept telling me stories of how thieves remove the microchips from dogs and that they had heard dogs were being ferried to places like Ireland where they were used for breeding.
"The price for a dog like Trigger has rocketed during lockdown. We paid £500 for him three years ago but now people are regularly asking £4,000, so we could understand why he might be targeted.
"We hadn’t had him ‘done’ yet because we still considered him to be a puppy."
Watch: UK dog thefts rise by 250% since the pandemic
By Christmas, the family had all but given up hope of ever finding their dog again.
"I kept telling the boys that he was with someone who loved him and was having a happy life but we had no idea," said Stickley.
"We bought another dog – Polly – in January because the house didn’t feel right. But we really missed Trigger."
But in April, a phone call came out of the blue.
"Dean answered and it was the microchip company saying they had some information about Trigger and could we ring the police in Wembley?" says Stickley.
"Dean rang and they told him that Trigger had been found and was now sitting under the police desk and they wanted us to collect him.
"Dean was in tears, I was in tears but I didn’t tell the boys – just in case there had been some kind of mistake."
But to their immense relief, the dog at the police station was indeed Trigger. He had been discovered trying to jump into people’s cars in North London and the police had picked him up.
"When he ran out of the van he went straight up to Dean and wanted a tummy rub straight away," says Stickley.
"Although he wasn’t harmed it was obvious he’d been kept in poor conditions. He was malnourished and his paws and tail were yellow," Stickley continues.
"The vet said it looked like he’d been kept in a cage sitting in his own urine. He had two eye infections and ear infections and his hair was matted.
"The police allowed us to wash him at the station. When I took him home, the boys were delighted. George broke down in tears and all Frankie could say was: "Is this Trigger?’"
The case looking for the dog thieves has come to a dead end but now Stickley wants the law to change and sentences to be harsher. At present, there is no law covering specific theft of animals.
"I went to the Houses of Parliament in November to ask for the sentence for dog theft to be increased to a minimum of five years,’ says Stickley. "Because this is not just a dog – you’re kidnapping a family member and the sentences need to reflect that."
Watch: Nottinghamshire Police appoint officer to investigate dog thefts amid rising cases