Dogs Trust marks 1,500th smuggled puppy rescued

Befa the smuggled puppy
Befa was the 1,500th illegally imported puppy cared for under Dogs Trust's Puppy Pilot scheme. Image by Beth Walsh

Befa the Springer Spaniel puppy was five weeks old at most when she was almost smuggled through the UK border. Along with other puppies, Befa had been transported thousands of miles across Europe from Slovakia and was due to be delivered to homes in the UK.

Befa is now in the care of Dogs Trust, but not all the puppies seized that day survived – a stark reminder of how deadly this trade is, and how urgently action is needed to prevent further suffering. 

Launched in 2015, Dogs Trust’s Puppy Pilot scheme was set up to rescue puppies caught at the border while being smuggled in the UK. Befa was the 1,500th smuggled puppy to be rescued through the scheme since, and the charity is renewing calls for urgent action.

Befa the Springer Spaniel puppy. Image by Beth Walsh.

Illegally smuggling an underage puppy past the UK’s borders is easy, alarmingly so. The minimum age for a dog to legally enter the UK is of fifteen weeks, which would put them past the window of time in which they’re at their cutest and most desirable, and of course that wouldn’t sit well with those who see these pups as nothing but a potential gain. Since the rescue scheme began in late 2015, the street value of the puppies intercepted is more than £3 million.

Paula Boyden, Veterinary Director at Dogs Trust, said, “The 1500th puppy rehomed through the Puppy Pilot is a bittersweet milestone for us to reach. The scheme was originally set up on a trial basis in 2015, because there were not sufficient resources to care for the puppies being seized at the border.

“Five years on the need for our services is greater than ever as the demand for dogs during lockdown has further exacerbated the problem and, unfortunately, we know that the dogs we care for are just a small proportion of those that make it into the country illegally.”

Despite Dogs Trust’s calls to tighten control since 2014, this cruel trade is still flourishing, with thousands of sickly puppies forced to face a harrowing journey in cramped cages, with little water and no food, after being taken from their mothers far too soon – some as young as four weeks. Leaving the EU has changed nothing and, as demand grew during the pandemic, more and more puppies were smuggled in.

In 2020, Dog Trust saw a 66 per cent increase in dogs rescued through the scheme, compared to the previous year – from 204 in 2019 to 338 in 2020. The average age of puppies being seized in 2020 was around eight weeks, compared to around 11 weeks in 2019. Heavily pregnant mums are also being transported in the UK, putting their health and that of their puppies at risk.

In 2020, Dog Trust saw a 66% increase in dogs rescued through the scheme, compared to the previous year – from 204 in 2019 to 338 in 2020. The average age of puppies being seized in 2020 was around eight weeks, compared to around 11 weeks in 2019. Dogs Trust is renewing calls to rise the minimum age for puppies to travel in the UK from abroad to six months.

Tara the Labrador puppy was rescued along with Befa. Image by Beth Walsh.

The current minimum age – fifteen weeks – is designed so that pups can come in three weeks after receiving their rabies shot. An extension of that waiting time, the charity argues, would strike at the heart of the puppy trade. Not only it’s far easier to spot the difference between an underage puppy and a six-month-old one, thus increasing the likelihood of illegal pups being seized at the border, but it would also make smuggling far less lucrative: the demand for older puppies is non-existent compared to that of younger ones.

Boyden added,  “We held our first conference with relevant stakeholders, Defra and APHA representatives to highlight our concerns about the illegal importation of puppies over eight years ago, and our asks remain the same. Now that the UK has left the EU, there has never been a better time for the Government to raise the minimum age for puppies to be imported into the UK to six months to help make them less desirable. 

“We also want to see tougher penalties for smugglers, as only a handful of cases have ever led to a prosecution, with paltry penalties that are no deterrent.”


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