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Research Article
25 April 2024

The experiences and needs of dog-‘owners’ affected by dog-theft

Abstract

Objectives: Pet ‘ownership’ is empirically evidenced to improve mental and physical health, with research suggesting an anthropomorphic bond between ‘owners’ and dogs that equal familial relationships, including children. However, bereavement of dogs, and especially dog-theft, garner scarce interest, leaving a huge population to suffer disenfranchised grief unsupported. This study aims to validate the overlap of emotional value in familial and ‘owner’-dog relationships, and grief between dog-theft victims and those with missing loved ones. The study explores the needs of guardians suffering ambiguous loss, how they cope with it, and the role of social media in this process, to grow existing literature on the topic and guide psychological support resources. Design: Qualitative semi-structured interviews were conducted, and secondary data was collected from participants’ Facebook and Instagram posts. Methods: Four primary caregivers for their dog who had experienced dog-theft were recruited through social media. Hour-long interviews were conducted over Teams and social media posts were collated post informed consent. Audio recordings were transcribed, and primary and secondary data were separately analysed through a critical-realist onto-epistemological approach, using reflexive thematic analysis. Results: Five superordinate themes from primary data, and two from secondary were extracted that evidenced an anthropomorphic relationship and associated intensity of grief among victims of dog-theft. Correlations were found between grief and coping with missing loved ones and dogs, and additionally feelings of disenfranchisement. Social media is reported as safe and popular for expressing and processing complex emotions. Conclusions: Dog-theft is traumatic for guardians and causes suffering without knowledgeable support. Psychological research should aim to inform best-practice resources providing suitable help managing grief, social disenfranchisement, and other psychological or physiological consequences of this trauma.

Introduction

A total of 17.4 million households in the UK have pets, 13 million of which ‘own’ dogs, making them the most popular animal companion or pet (Bedford, 2022). Pet ‘ownership’ has been found to improve physiological and psychological well-being (Barker and Wolen, 2008), correlating to reduced cardiovascular mortality, depression, and stress levels, and is a source of comfort to many (Zasloff, 1996). Pet affinity also acts as a social ‘buffer’ and reduces the negative impacts of ambivalence towards emotional expression on social support (Bryan et al., 2014), which can bridge those who struggle to express themselves towards social coping measures. Dog ‘ownership’, and dog-walking especially, greatly reduced the negative impact of loneliness experienced during COVID-19 lockdowns in the UK (Carr et al., 2021; Oliva and Johnston, 2021). This correlates to spikes in dog ‘ownership’ and theft during the pandemic (BBC, 2021; Policy Report, 2021) as loneliness and time and energy for pets influenced a rising demand for puppies and led to increased opportunity and motive for theft, with over 2000 reports of dog-theft during lockdown (Sabin, 2022).
The health benefits of pet guardianship are a consequence of the strong, often anthropomorphic (Boni, 2008) pet-guardian bond, which can be equivalent to or greater than familial ties (Barker and Barker, 1988; Beck and Madresh, 2015). Humanisation, or comparability to human relationships led to the application of attachment theory (Payne et al., 2015) – originally formulated for parent-child relationships (Ainsworth and Bowlby, 1991) – in the formation and improvement of pet-guardian dyadic functionality. Human-animal relational bond theory (Morley and Fook, 2005) argues that pets are an integral part of the family, contributing to a ‘cyclical and reciprocal positive relationship’ (Laing and Maylea, 2018, p. 222). Similar brain regions activate in women’s brains when seeing pictures of their child and their dog (Powell et al., 2019), indicating the nature and emotional intensity of the guardian’s perception.
Dog-theft can have a severely traumatic effect on guardians. Bereavement at the death of pets tends to parallel that of human families (Stokes et al., 2002). Grieving the loss of a pet is a ‘normative bereavement process’ (Cordaro, 2012, p. 284), however, there are additional layers of complexity due to anthropocentric societal attitudes that trivialise grief over pet-loss. This causes isolation and loneliness, termed ‘disenfranchised grief’ (Stephens and Hill, 1996). Dog-theft can be just as emotionally traumatic as death (Harris, 2018), even amplified by the additional worry about the dog’s condition, justifying ‘ambiguous grief’ in the guardian (Boss, 2000). The growing frequency of dog-theft in the UK, coupled with a legal system that still recognises pets as possessions (Allen et al., 2019, 2022), contributes to the disenfranchised nature of guardians’ grief and their subsequent isolation (Stephens and Hill, 1996).
Only one study has explored the impact of dog-theft on victims – Allen et al.’s (2022) qualitative exploration into the experiences and searching practices of victims uncovered the meaningful bonds between guardians and dogs, the effect the theft had on victims’ lives, the temporal and geographical limits within which reuniting with dogs were highest, especially with or without support from police and organisations, and the virtual spaces of searching on social media, all of which provides insight into the experiences of victims.
However, there is still a dearth of literature on grief in human-animal bonds. The growing academic understanding of their equivalence to interpersonal bonds justifies exploration into grief related to dog-theft just as much as research on missing human loved ones. This research looked to systematic reviews of psychological issues and coping mechanisms observed in people with missing loved ones (Heeke and Knaevelsrud, 2015; Lenferink et al., 2018; Kennedy et al., 2019) to explain the consequences of unexpected and uncertain loss, and aimed to explore whether this was paralleled in victims of dog-theft. The existing research finds that depression – characterised as intense sadness or sorrow, despair and hopelessness, and emotional pain and/or numbness, coupled with anxiety – including panic attacks, preoccupation with worry and loss, attention issues, and psychosomatic pain – are the most common and immediate issues observed, similar to those observed at the death of loved ones (Hollander, 2016). Alongside these symptoms, Prolonged Grief Disorder (PGD) and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) occur in especially severe cases of loss that span years (Heeke and Knaevelsrud, 2015; Lenferink et al., 2018; Kennedy et al., 2019), indicating hypervigilance and distrust, continued shock, sleeplessness, and nightmares. The absence of a missing loved one often causes fear; both for the missing one, and of their potential death. Anger at the world and frustration at its lack of understanding is a common emergent theme, as is self-blame and guilt (Kennedy et al., 2019). Preoccupation with these thoughts and emotions, unsupported by adaptive coping, can lead to a ruminative spiral, contributing to mental and physical illness. However, the most complicated emotional experience is hope – greater hope correlates with heightened psychological symptoms (Heeke and Knaevelsrud, 2015).
While these effects are expected in dog-guardians after traumatic experiences, research has not yet validated a comparable overlap of experiences between missing human and non-human families. Similarly, research has explored coping when missing human family into seven behaviours: support-seeking, problem-solving, escape-avoidance, positive cognitive restructuring, distraction, negative cognition, and depressive avoidance, the latter two commonly observed in PGD and PTSD (Lenferink et al., 2018; Kennedy et al., 2019), and there is equal justification for overlap in coping with dog-theft as well, which this study aims to explore.
Research has found a lack of compassion or sympathy from social circles and institutions, like the police (Allen et al., 2022), but the exacerbating impact of this on victims and their ambiguous grief could be explored to justify the ways the law and police procedures can change to better support guardians. Not knowing where and in what condition their dog is, compounded by subpar understanding and resources from society, can isolate victims and make support-seeking for emotional wellbeing more difficult.
Social media is gaining popularity among victims as a medium for expressing the complex emotional experience of mourning a pet (Laing and Maylea, 2018; Eason, 2021), and has the potential to provide guardians with a safe community that relates to, validates, and collectively explores their disenfranchised grief. The research exploring this is also scarce, but these platforms collate a wealth of knowledge around the experiences and needs of dog guardians, which can bridge the aforementioned gaps in literature and inform the process of healing, subsequently guiding therapeutic best practice. This study aims to explore the complexities of grief in guardians affected by dog-theft, to understand their psychological needs during and beyond the event, and in doing so provide an empirical overlap between grief in familial and pet relationships to improve the social understanding and justify the legal protection of victims.

Methods

DESIGN

Premised on the in-depth and multifaceted exploration of the emotionally unique and sensitive experience of dog-theft, this study used qualitative methodology (Bukowski and Lisboa, 2005). To understand the shared realities of dog-guardians experiencing dog-theft and operationalise that into psychological support resources, a critical-realist onto-epistemological analytical approach was adopted. Semi-structured interviews were formulated to sensitively encourage introspection and discussion of their personal traumatic experiences, and also the introduction of relevant overlooked aspects within the topic (Adams, 2015). Additionally, participants’ social media posts about their dog, on their personal accounts, from after the theft (and retrieval in one case) were also collected as secondary data and evaluated to understand social media’s role in emotional processing.

PARTICIPANTS

Data collection occurred from October to December of 2022. Convenience sampling (Given, 2008) and snowball sampling (Etikan et al., 2015) were combined with internet recruitment methods (Leighton et al., 2021). Moderator- and ethics-approved participant recruitment adverts were posted on the Facebook group ‘Stolen Dogs UK’ and DogLost UK forums, and on researchers’ Twitter accounts. Known contacts were requested to participate or refer those eligible. Candidates were requested to email the researcher, who then sent an acknowledgement, the ‘Participant Information Sheet’, and ‘Consent Form’. Participants were encouraged to review the documents, clarify queries, and sign. Once consent was obtained, the interview was scheduled. Within the data collection period, four participants who fit the inclusion criteria were interviewed, and their respective public social media posts were screened for secondary data; this provided adequate rich data for explorative analysis and resulted in a conceptual saturation of codes and themes, as per Guest et al. (2006).
Only UK adults who had lost their dog during adulthood were recruited, focusing the study on the experiences of primary caretakers likely most responsible for the dog, therefore having the strongest attachment, and most likely impacted by theft. This excluded many potential participants who had lost their dog when young or had a family dog stolen that they did not primarily care for. Inclusion criteria stipulated participants to have lost their dog at least 2 months before data collection, reducing risks of psychological distress during interviews, however, the majority of the interest on social media forums for dog-theft, where the study was advertised, was from recent victims who had lost their dog within the last month and therefore had to be excluded from the sample. Participants diagnosed with a mental illness were also excluded to prevent psychological distress that the researcher was not clinically trained to manage. There were also additional obstacles to recruitment, including scammers who posed as victims to receive the £10 voucher compensation, and scheduling conflicts with the participants’ time constraints.
Participants were female; their names and those of their dogs and any subsequent identifiable information have been anonymised: LAENA and GERARDYS hand-reared their dogs, LILITH and JASPER, until 8 and 78 months, respectively, and lost them 18 and 6 months ago, respectively. RHAENYRA and ALICENT lost two dogs, the first looked after DAMSEL and WOOLY for 120 and 84 months, respectively, and the second looked after MARIGOLD and ROSE for 31 and 22 months, respectively. RHAENYRA was reunited with their dogs after 2.5 days but ALICENT’s dogs were stolen 17 months ago and remained missing as of December 2022.

PROCEDURE

Participants were sent ethically approved detailed recruitment documents: ‘Participant Information Sheet’, and a ‘Consent Form’, confirming eligibility and ensuring informed consent prior to data collection.
Interviews were conducted using Microsoft Teams, facilitating data collection via audio recording and transcription saved onto a password-protected laptop. A back-up audio recording was undertaken on a password-protected smartphone. Questions were clarified, and participants were reminded of their rights, withdrawal period, and research procedure; verbal consent was confirmed before beginning.
Participants were thanked post-interview for their contributions and debriefed using a standardised Debrief Form, which was also emailed to them, and requested permission to collect secondary data from their social media. Particular attention was brought to their right to withdraw within 5 days, contact information for queries and complaints, and psychological support resources.
After the withdrawal period, each transcription was edited for accuracy with the audio recordings and anonymised for analysis. Coding and theme formulation was completed using Taguette software. The audio recordings were then deleted as per ethical protocols, and the transcripts were uploaded to the secure university database.
For secondary data collection, participants’ public social media accounts were screened for textual content since the date of the theft and all posts about the event and related to their dog up until the date of the interview were collated, anonymised, and similarly analysed on Taguette.

MATERIALS

The interview schedule consisted of 14 core questions that had multiple prompts to facilitate discussion (Supplementary Material). The questions were formulated on the basis of the researcher’s explorative intention given that the research is focused on novel topics that have not been qualitatively studied previously, however, given that guardian perceptions of pets are comparable to those of parents of their children (Harris, 2018) the study drew parallels from research on parental grief related to child disappearance (Hollander, 2016) when creating qualitative research materials.
The schedule was structured with three sections: (i) ‘owner’s relationship with their dog’, (ii) ‘the event of theft’, (iii) ‘the consequent psychological and social needs of the owner’, for example:
What is your relationship with your dog like?
When and how did you lose your dog?
How does it feel to not know where and how your dog is?
How did your family and friends react?
This schedule was reviewed and approved by the study supervisor and the University of Buckingham Ethics Committee. As is the nature of qualitative research and semi-structured interviews, the reflexive process led to questions being used flexibly with appropriate follow-up questions that are not within schedule, but in the transcripts.

ANALYTICAL STEPS

Using the standardised Reflexive Thematic Analytical framework (RTA; Braun and Clarke, 2019) guided a recursive and iterative process based on researcher reflexivity (Braun and Clarke, 2021b), therefore, advantageously facilitating explorative research that collects rich data with breadth and depth. The inclusive appraisal of the dataset based on the critical-realist onto-epistemological approach allowed the researcher to inductively extract semantic and latent meaning and facilitated the identification of consistent patterns across the breadth of the data.
Analysis for primary and secondary data sets was conducted as per the steps dictated by Braun and Clarke (2021a) with guidance from Byrne (2022): (i) familiarisation with the entire raw data corpus, and separate primary and secondary datasets, (ii) intuitive coding of semantic meaning and latent interpretations within the datasets, (iii) categorisation of codes into distinct themes that are relevant to the research questions, (iv) review of codes and themes as reflective of the datasets, (v) formation, naming and defining of super-themes, themes and sub-themes, as relevant to the research questions and the broader context of existing literature, (vi) formulation of an illustrative thematic map, (vii) presentation of a reflexive, narrative interpretation of the dataset that answer the research questions with the inclusion of revelatory quotes where necessary. The transparency and integrity within the reflexive process was ensured with the use of a reflexive journal that guided the review of, and changes to, the codes and themes, and resulted in a cogent and cohesive interpretation.

ETHICS

The researcher ensured that participation was predicated on voluntary and informed consent, without deception, and participant comfort throughout the data collection process. Participants were made aware of the purpose of the study, their rights to confidentiality, anonymity, and withdrawal, and essential contact information. Participant and researcher safety was ensured through online data collection. All data was collected, anonymised and managed in a pre-approved process on password-protected devices and deleted after the submission of the final report. The submission will be securely stored in a university database for 5 years as per university ethics protocol. Future use of this data will need to be separately approved by the university ethics committee.

REFLEXIVITY

Qualitative research in grief is often both analytically and emotionally challenging. Grief is not easily expressed or interpreted, and this becomes more difficult when grief, presented in raw tears and ragged voices, affects the researcher. I cried in every interview, because every time I was shocked by how deeply these people were affected. While challenging to analyse and interpret, grief is easily understood, which brought up my own painful losses in life. When initially coding the data, I made 100 of codes, but following the recursive process of RTA and becoming familiarised with the data gave me objectivity that made me realise how much of my coding was based on emotional impact and not analytical value. The iterative attribute of the RTA process also led to re-coding and redefining themes, leading to a drastic change in the extracted meaning from the beginning to the end of analysis and has contributed towards a balanced presentation of both illustrative and analytical elements in the final report.

Results

Exploring the overlap between the loss of human and non-human loved ones, this study’s findings empirically support the notions that ‘owner’-dog relationships equate with familial relationships. It also posits that emotional turmoil experienced after dog-theft equates that of missing loved ones, with additional complex experiences like disenfranchised grief and ambiguous loss (Stephens and Hill, 1996; Boss, 2000; Cordaro, 2012). Analysis reveals that guardians cope similarly to those missing a loved one and proposes social media as an adaptive mechanism of grief management. Five superordinate themes were developed (Tables 1 and 2), and the relationships between these are illustrated in Fig. 1.
Table 1.  Master theme list for primary data.
Master themeSub-themes
Anthropomorphisation: ‘They’re their own people’.Companionship, comfort, and joy
Habits, personalities, and valuable qualities
Our boys, our babies
Ownership: ‘They were just our everything’Uniquely irreplaceable two-way bond
The serious ethical responsibility
Fear of separation
Emotional turmoilFeeling vigilant and unsafe
Ambiguous loss
Rumination
Rollercoastering: hope and its effects
Physical and emotional load of searching
CopingSocial support: family, friends, police, DogLost
Online journaling (see Social Media)
Seeking closure to end emotional turmoil
Social media: Stranger support 
Table 2.  Master theme list for secondary data.
Master themes
Emotional expressions
Please and thank you
Fig. 1.  Thematic map for primary and secondary data.
Anthropomorphism: ‘They’re their own people’ is taken from ALICENT’s remark, calling her dogs ‘stubborn and wilful’. Each sub-theme encapsulates guardians anthropomorphising their dogs into mothers, companions, and children – RHAENYRA called her dogs ‘the boys’, equating them with her daughters – who have valuable qualities that made them teachers, warriors, inspirations, and role models, with habits, preferences, and distinct changeable personalities (Habits, personalities, and valuable qualities):
‘(DAMSEL) was so wild. But then, WOOLY was just such a big part of his life. That changed him in such wonderful ways, I think he was so boisterous and wild. […] WOOLY was just his calming…’
No participant got their dogs due to loneliness during lockdown, instead deciding intentionally to adopt or rear pets to share life with as family or companions complementing their lifestyle, supporting existing literature on the anthropomorphic guardian-dog bond (Boni, 2008):
‘Spaniels are […] crazy. They’re […] chaotic and I thrive under pressure’.
Dogs are sources of comfort (Companionship, comfort, and joy), serving pivotal purposes in their guardians’ lives (Zasloff, 1996); they provide structure through daily life, parenthood, and grief:
RHAENYRA: ‘We were in a routine with them, and we never lost that, and I think that helped us through the early times of parenthood’
GERARDYS: ‘They got me up in the morning, they get me out of the house because otherwise, what else have I got?’
ALICENT: ‘They were just coming to comfort us because we’ve lost our other dogs and to bring more joy into our lives, which they really did’
Each participant called their dog(s) a family member – supporting existing research claims of their equivalence to familial ties (Barker and Barker, 1988; Beck and Madresh, 2015) – and described a positive reciprocal relationship with them (Morley and Fook, 2005; Laing and Maylea, 2018). The sub-theme Our boys, our babies characterises the dogs’ intimate position within family units, documenting each participant’s perception of their dog(s) as their child(ren), like the women in the Powell et al. (2019) study. Thus, making their loss equivalent to that of a child. Two participants hand-reared their dogs, the gravity of this illustrated in LAENA’s explanation of the time and energy invested, the influence of her dog’s presence, and her sacrifices:
‘I actually bred her… I basically spent all the time with her and so every decision I made was based around her […] It was like having a child […] where your whole life revolves around them’,
and the impact dog-theft has had on her: ‘For me, it felt heart-breaking. It was like losing a child’.
RHAENYRA, a mother, also felt similarly: ‘they’ve (the dogs have) just always been our boys. We’ve got our girls. We’ve got two daughters, and our boys’., and so this experience cannot be dismissed as one pertaining to those without a relative measure for parenthood.
This relationship is explored in Ownership: ‘They were just our everything’. Sub-themes Uniquely irreplaceable two-way bond and The serious ethical responsibility challenge the use of the term ‘owner’. The exploration of responsibilities the participants lovingly carried out challenges the notion of ‘owning’ and justifies the adoption of the term ‘guardian’.
LAENA: ‘There’s […] massive boots to fill, which I think puts me off even considering another dog for the moment because it’s definitely still too fresh even though it’s quite a long time’.
LAENA saw rearing LILITH as an ‘opportunity’ to have as her personal companion instead of a ‘family companion’, implying that the intensity of owner-dog bonds varies with levels of responsibility and ownership. This made RHAENYRA’s husband their dog’s ‘person’ and ‘Chief Walker’ and dictated the differences in GERARDYS’s relationship with her two dogs. While JASPER saw her as a sole provider, the most intimate was BASILISK, who was hand-reared and displayed an anxious attachment to GERARDYS.
GERARDYS: ‘My relationship with BASILISK was completely different to my relationship with JASPER, but that was solely because […] he didn’t have a dog mum, he just had me[…]
We still had a bond, but our bond was never quite as strong as BASILISK’.
This supports the application of attachment theory to owner-dog dyads (Payne et al., 2015), and characterises the parent-child dynamic, which is irreplaceable, providing poignant meaning to the loss.
Owners also embody this commitment to the attachment through their seriousness towards their ethical responsibility.
GERARDYS: ‘If I went on holiday, I would always choose somewhere they could come with me because I didn’t get a dog to leave it behind […] I haven’t been abroad for nearly ten years and I’m fine with that’.
ALICENT: ‘with Little Matilda […] I’m terrified […] I don’t want anybody to know we’ve got her. We’ve kept her really, really quiet’.
RHAENYRA felt guilty for neglecting her dogs once busy with her daughters and was uncomfortable leaving them unattended for even 3 min, agonising over that fatal mistake that led to her ‘worst nightmare come true’. Her fear of not knowing how to be without them and her culpability in having ‘not done enough’ is common with unexpected separation – participants experience ‘sheer panic’, and act ‘crazy’, searching for them without food or sleep, ‘desperate’ to retrieve them. This fear, the Fear of separation, can gravely impact owners’ personalities and ownership attitudes.
Fear initiates complex emotions including disbelief, grief, desperation, and despair, captured within Emotional turmoil. Participants cried at their dogs’ loss and during interviews, displaying behaviours from common grief models: ‘denial’ (DABDA; Kübler-Ross, 1989), and ‘shock or disbelief’ (Bowlby, 1980) which LAENA articulates: ‘I just can’t believe she got stolen from my house’. RHAENYRA recounts: ‘everything went from underneath, like [her] world literally just broke in two’; admitting to losing them was the worst thing her husband felt he had to do, mirroring psychological issues of people with missing loved ones (Heeke and Knaevelsrud, 2015; Lenferink et al., 2018; Kennedy et al., 2019). Loss-acceptance in human and non-human relationships is equally challenging to mental function as victims rationalise the situation, like Bowlby’s (1980) ‘searching and yearning’ grief phase. Participants forwent food and sleep (Heeke and Knaevelsrud, 2015; Lenferink et al., 2018; Kennedy et al., 2019), obsessively searching and questioning what went wrong, which led to ‘anger’ (Kübler-Ross, 1989): LAENA expressed frustration at ‘ridiculous’ lack of consequences for dog-theft; ALICENT irrationally blamed neighbours (Kennedy et al., 2019). Stress in these situations brought back chronic emotional issues like ALICENT’s anorexia and insomnia. They displayed ‘bargaining’, hoping for news that their dog was either dead or in a loving home to end their fear, and feeling bitter when others got closure:
ALICENT: ‘If I knew that they’ve been sold, and they’re being loved and looked after… then I could live with it’.
GERARDYS: ‘I am really bitter because they’ve got the answers… Why are these dogs being found? […] And my dog’s not being found […] why is my dog still out there?’,
because there is ‘so much emotional turmoil in not knowing’. Participants suffer depression and anxiety; ALICENT analogises her dealing with pain to a dog:
‘I’m like a dog in pain. I can’t stay still. I’ve gotta keep moving. […] I still can’t think. I can’t let my brain …I can’t sit in’.
‘I have to have something that keeps my mind active, otherwise I just plummet into… Despair’.
Victims’ concentration and anxiety issues mirror symptoms in people with missing children (Hollander, 2016). GERARDYS admits to being ‘broken’, with ‘no reason to get up in the morning’, even skipping work; ALICENT knows she is ‘never gonna be the same’. Participants were preoccupied with loss and ruminated on their dogs: LAENA felt she was going ‘mad’ and GERARDYS felt so mentally unstable she had frequent breakdowns of hysterical sobbing, inability to eat or work, and wished she was put in a ‘straitjacket… in a cell’ to scream it all out. These interviews were evocative of guardians’ suffering, validating dog-theft as perhaps a highly equally serious offence as kidnapping. Approaching acceptance seems herculean, and uncomfortably challenging for LAENA due to societal judgement:
‘you had to try a lot, but you still had to live your life, if you stopped trying, you’d given up…if you said, ‘I don’t think I’ll get her back,’ you were being negative…if you said, ‘I think I’ll get her back’ then you were lying to yourself’
The difference between missing a dog and a human seems arbitrary as grief similarly branches out into aspects well-researched in the latter (Heeke and Knaevelsrud, 2015; Lenferink et al., 2018; Kennedy et al., 2019), categorised here into subthemes under Emotional Turmoil: Feeling vigilant and unsafe, Ambiguous loss, Rollercoastering: hope and its effects, Rumination, and Physical and emotional load of searching. Two thefts were from private property, and two in familiar safe environments within a matter of minutes; participants expressed vulnerability at feeling unexpectedly unsafe in assumed-safe spaces. ALICENT’s installation of CCTVs in addition to the secrecy about having a new dog is influenced by vigilance: ‘I felt so safe down here before all of this’. RHAENYRA protects unaccompanied dogs and promotes caution, and LAENA’s courage took time letting her other pets out again. Guardians publish their contact information when advertising their missing dog, leaving them and their family ‘exposed’ to threats and extortion, further deteriorating wellbeing and compromising safety, similar to the loss of loved humans (Heeke and Knaevelsrud, 2015; Lenferink et al., 2018; Kennedy et al., 2019). Fear at separation combines with the conflicting emotional process of ambiguous loss – not knowing where and how their dog seems torturous – GERARDYS is a veterinary nurse and has reunited guardians and dogs but is bitter about others finding answers. Her bitterness is fuelled by the sense of being in a ‘crazy limbo’:
‘I go through phases of “He’s been stolen. No, he’s not. He’s dead in the woods. No, he’s been stolen. No, he’s dead”, you know. And I wave it backwards and forwards’.
‘I will never stop because not knowing is just horrific. This limbo is the worst… and I can’t stop until I have an answer’
ALICENT believes ‘nothing compares to […] not knowing’, implying the absence is worsened by the inability to stop looking – to let go – leading to rumination where atrocities are imagined based on threats and internet information, from cage-breeding on ‘puppy farms’ to dog-fighting, torture, and dismemberment; all participants preferred that their dog be dead. This is mitigated with hope at any helpful information, however, greater amounts of hope in ambiguous loss correlate with heightened psychological issues (Heeke and Knaevelsrud, 2015). Participants hope because it comforts them, and without it they have neither their dog nor the promise of finding them, only despair:
GERARDYS: ‘In my position I have to hope. Because if I don’t have hope, then I really have nothing… nothing is scary’.
However, this leads to severe emotional instability with every scam giving comforting hope and revoking it:
GERARDYS: ‘I’m [gasps] and then I realise it’s a scam. I go from up here to back down straight away and […] my brain can’t cope with any more of that’.
Downward spirals ensue, exacerbating vigilance and distrust, extinguishing hope, leaving guardians hopeless and devastated and in more pain, added to which is the physical and emotional toll of taking criminal action against scams, managing leads, and societal pressure, depleting time and energy and demanding severe lifestyle changes:
LAENA: ‘It just put more pressure to keep doing all those things. I found myself staying up all night trying to tick those boxes, to then go to work to do my actual job for the day and then come back and respond to all the responses I got, and it just became so unsustainable’.
ALICENT: ‘the people we’re having to deal with, the places we’re having to go…it’s scary…it’s not our world […] we’ve got a pay-as-you-go phone that we’ve been using… we’ve got pseudonyms that we’re using …’
Participants are left drained, explaining ALICENT’s husband’s aversion to hope, and while social media was every participant’s immediate solution that brought a lot of positivity, there was added judgement and criticism from online and offline acquaintances.
Coping explored how guardians manage these struggles and found similarities to behaviours found in those missing loved humans (Lenferink et al., 2018; Kennedy et al., 2019): (i) problem-solving through proactive attitudes to find their dogs, and manage work and family amidst this, and (ii) support-seeking, defined within Social support: family, friends, police, DogLost, by speaking to family, partners, people they have met online with similar experiences to process their reality that they are in shock about. However, the support needed varies – being too hopeful was ‘annoying’ for LAENA and ALICENT did not appreciate friends encouraging her to move on. While usually dog-guardians were the biggest support for participants, ALICENT was pressured to move on by one and LAENA’s stepmother was afraid for her own dog and criticised her and her locality for being unsafe. For two participants, speaking to people was difficult, having to put up a ‘brave face’ and avoiding the topic because it made them upset, indicating (iii) depressive-avoidance. LAENA was ‘bored’ of having the same conversation that only reiterated her loss, which is reminiscent of numbness displayed in parents with missing children (Hollander, 2016). Participants felt they were wasting time that they did not even use to process or grieve. They indicated they preferred ‘absent’ support instead of people being present but unhelpful.
‘Absent’ social support included sharing the load of tasks like advertising posters locally and on social media, speaking to vets and groomers, cooking, etc. and mitigated the negative coping attitudes of participants. RHAENYRA’s ‘community was incredible’ and so were GERARDYS and ALICENT’s friends, forming search parties and providing equipment, and driving distances to verify leads, leading them to feel immense gratitude for helping get through their turmoil. Organisational support from DogLost was also greatly beneficial in providing social media presence and search dogs. However, police were helpful to two participants and negligent with two – checking every tenuous lead and protecting ‘owners’ in the formers’ situations and requiring ‘owners’ to provide evidence and leads and dismissing threats in the latter’s’, including not helping GERARDYS retrieve £100 she lost to scam because it was an ‘insignificant amount of money’. The dejection participants felt exacerbated their ‘disenfranchised’ grief (Stephens and Hill, 1996).
Participants looked for meaning in their trauma, started campaigns, and engaged in legislative change within dog-theft, finding dogs, capturing scammers, evidenced in their social profiles dedicated to their dogs. This shows (iv) positive cognitive restructuring, like RHAENYRA delving into self-improvement, mindfulness, and journaling. Social media also played a role, facilitating Online journaling for the expression and validation of the pain they underwent, the time and energy they put into advertising their dog online, justifying small expressions of what this loss means to them. They found it ‘therapeutic’ to ‘use words and pictures to process everything’. However, maladaptive coping mechanisms, (v) negative cognition and (vi) distraction, were seen in participants’ rumination on the horrific alternatives of not finding their dog, and ALICENT’s dog-like reaction to pain with distractions that kept her feeling of helplessness away.
Previously unidentified in literature on grief and coping strategies of those missing loved ones, this study found an additional coping phenomenon: Seeking closure to end emotional turmoil, outlining the desperate need to end the limbo, the suffering induced by ambiguous loss, seeking news that the dog is either deceased or loved elsewhere. ALICENT fears that the limbo will define the rest of her life; the ambiguity of the loss is perceived by the participants as a barrier to moving on, living life healthy and whole:
LAENA: ‘I started to hope that…we would just find her dead…because it would mean that it was done, and she wasn’t suffering, and we could just start to move on in a way’
ALICENT: ‘We just wanted to find their bodies and know what happened and bring them home’
Social media’s role in protecting dogs is outlined in Social Media: Stranger Support. Facebook helps in spreading awareness of dog-theft, advertising dog-theft, reuniting dogs – being used by even veterinary clinics, and directly decreasing the chance of scams. ALICENT was delayed in creating a Facebook group due to her denial and calls it her ‘biggest regret’. Much of the community is positive in the support they provide by listening and empathising with fellow dog-guardians, and going to great lengths to help one-another, including managing others’ groups, teaching them how to get traction online:
ALICENT: ‘she had it all set up. And then she started caring- um because I was feeling like nobody cared…,’
and representing their lost dogs at dog shows and fests, therefore being a tool for networking with organisations resources and running policy campaigns.
The benefit participants experience from social media is immense, especially in managing their biggest priorities: the emotional turmoil and finding dogs. The secondary data taken from the participants’ social media posts revealed two themes that elaborate on their safe space online to process their situation and the immense support they receive for it. Emotional expressions encapsulate introspection of complex emotions, keeping time since theft, and messages for dogs and their captors. They express and address the challenges they are facing, from admitting that ‘every day is difficult’ and that they ‘long for some normalcy…long for a day that’s a good day…long for a day when (they) don’t cry’, to their disbelief that their dogs have been stolen, to feeling better equipped to deal with scams: ‘I can cope with these better now, I defo feel more prepared’. They journal their bad days when their posters have been taken down, or when leads do not pan out, and in RHAENYRA’s case, her joy and relief having been reunited with her dogs. She publicly introspected on her guilt at leaving her dogs unattended and commented on the effect of the criticism she received, and also recognised when she needed a break. This is not comparable to the expression with friends and family, because guardians get more emotional space in the dialogue to go beyond tears and sadness to articulate what they feel and therefore process it. Participants create dialogue for the recognition of various aspects of dog-guardianship, from lacking law enforcement to social support, and express gratitude for the community that engages with and supports them, for example:
‘One of the reasons I struggle to share some lost dog photos some days is because it’s too heart-breaking to bear.
Do you ever find it too much to take? Like you would rather sit in your bubble and pretend it’s not happening […]?
[…] do you know the things I actually remember the most? It’s the community, it’s the power of good people and kind words, it’s the phone calls I had with strangers at my worst and it’s the love that we were shown’.
They also keep time: 6, 8, 17 months since theft, and milestones: birthdays, adoption anniversaries, which work as a medium to recollect what they miss and how much. These are often written as messages to their dogs, personifying them, and giving an outlet to their ‘searching and yearning’ as part of their grief management (Bowlby, 1980) and can be compared to the online ‘memorial’ that guardians mourning their dog keep (Eason, 2021). Messages to the unknown thieves are also posted, bargaining and raging at them (Kübler-Ross, 1989) to give the dogs back, to realise the devastation they have caused, one particular message was written as a poem which indicates to the constructive nature of this expression – using creativity to experience catharsis.
Please and Thank You describes the give-and-take relationship the participants have with their online community, with open requests to share their adverts and provide answers, to search for them and support causes and with RHAENYRA, even donate for the medical costs of the retrieved dog. Simultaneously, an abundance of gratitude accompanies every post, for specific reasons and specific people, therefore offering genuineness to their expressions. The community responds with high engagement, for example, a young girl’s letter to the Queen, and monetary donations thus validating the relationship initiated by the victims. Varying levels of online engagement were observed including sharing own and others’ posts and expressing themselves. Those with greater fatigue, like LAENA, posted less and those whose disbelief and grief was still at its peak, like ALICENT, posted more and often.

Discussion

This study explored the experiences and needs of dog-guardians when faced with dog-theft and the results validated an overlap of characteristics between human and non-human relationships, providing evidence of the anthropomorphisation of dogs and the parental accountability of guardians. A consequent overlap of emotional distress at the loss of this relationship is also provided, giving empirical reason to formulate psychological and legal support to this, currently disenfranchised, grief experience. Given the evidence of similar grief and coping markers to the loss of loved ones and children, guardians are susceptible to developing PTSD and PGD (Heeke and Knaevelsrud, 2015; Lenferink et al., 2018; Kennedy et al., 2019), therefore future research is recommended to replicate these findings and create an empirical evidence base for understanding and improving the wellbeing of victims of dog-theft. The study acknowledges the limitations of its explorative nature and small sample size and therefore suggests more qualitative studies with larger samples. Future research can improve validity by proving saturation through empirical methods as suggested by Guest et al. (2020) and finding quantitative measures like questionnaires and physiological markers of the emotional distress guardians undergo will also help towards overcoming the limitations of generalisation within qualitative research. Research should also explore the ways that findings can be operationalised into effective therapeutic practice to provide suitable care. Having established commonalities between human and ‘owner’-dog relationships, there is a need to investigate this relationship with alternative methodologies to ascertain unique ways that dog-theft affects guardians. Guardians are caught-up in their grief, and as such support resources could be created in collaboration with trusted organisations like DogLost to be tailored and flexible to increase the likelihood of them availing psychological help. This and further research could contribute towards the policy change in law enforcement protocols to make it consistently supportive and introduce harsher penal codes for dog-theft to deter criminals and reduce its prevalence.

CONFLICT OF INTEREST

The participants were given financial compensation for their involvement which was funded by the University of Buckingham. No potential competing interest was reported by the authors.

ETHICS STATEMENT

The research was reviewed and approved by the University of Buckingham School of Psychology Ethics Committee that upholds the Code of Ethics and Conduct (British Psychological Society, 2021a) and the Code of Human Research Ethics (British Psychological Society, 2021b).

AUTHOR CONTRIBUTIONS

All author contributed equally to the development of this article.

FUNDING STATEMENT

No funding was acquired from any party for this work.

DATA AVAILABILITY

The data that support the findings of this study are available from the corresponding author upon reasonable request.

SUPPLEMENTARY MATERIAL

Please note: CABI is not responsible for the content or functionality of supplementary files provided by the authors and any queries should be directed to the corresponding author.

Supplementary Material

File (appendix a.pdf)

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Information & Authors

Information

Published In

History

Received: 15 November 2023
Issue publication date: 1 January 2024
Accepted: 24 January 2024
Published online: 25 April 2024

Keywords:

  1. disenfranchised grief
  2. ambiguous grief
  3. social media
  4. coping
  5. qualitative analysis

Language

English

Authors

Affiliations

Akaanksha Venaktramanan
Prospect Park Hospital, Berkshire NHS Foundation Trust, Reading, United Kingdom RG30 4EJ;
Dr. Lindsey Roberts* [email protected]
School of Psychology, University of the West of England, Bristol, Bristol, United Kingdom BS16 1QY

Notes

*
Corresponding Author: Akaanksha Venkatramanan. Email: [email protected]

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