Dog theft is on the rise. Protect your Westie with tips from ex-SAS soldier and Channel 4 drill instructor, Mark ‘Billy’ Billingham.
Dog theft in the United Kingdom is reported to have increased by 250% during the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a report produced by the BBC. Many insist this is due to greedy breeders hiking up puppy prices while others take the view that social media influencers are flaunting ‘designer’ dogs and in doing so are highlighting just how expensive pedigree pups can be, causing thieves to become more brazen in Britain’s towns and cities.
“Thieves should do time and I mean like a proper 10-15 years. These people who are stealing people’s dogs should be charged with kidnapping. There’s no reason why people won’t go out and try and make a fast buck in Britain, there’s no deterrent, it’s easy pickings,” says Mark ‘Billy’ Billingham MBE.
“Some people haven’t got any morals and will do it and they’ll sell, breed, or use the pet as dog bait. It’s what these creatures do,” states the ex-SAS soldier who has been decorated by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, on two separate occasions, once for leading a rescue mission to Iraq to bring home a British hostage.
Britain’s Dog Theft Crisis
The theft of a dog in Britain is currently a criminal offence under the Theft Act 1968 and carries a penalty of up to seven years in prison. The reality, however, is that this maximum penalty never appears to be enforced and one of the reasons for this is because dogs are seen under the law as ‘property’ meaning the theft of a dog is counted in the same way as the theft of a handbag or a mobile phone and therefore attracts a lesser sentence.
“When a theft takes place, it’s not just a dog, it affects an entire family, not just one person. It has a ripple effect that isn’t taken into consideration when sentencing is handed out by the courts,” he states.
“I think thieves should be treated as kidnappers. Many people suffer with mental illness and one of the best cures for anybody who’s suffering or who is lonely, is an animal, mainly a dog. So that little dog is not just a pet he is a lifeline for people. If a little old lady has her dog stolen, she’s probably just been sentenced to death herself. The dog is an absolute member of the family and it’s more than that. In families that are having a bit of trouble, the dog brings peace and unity to everybody, it bonds a family,” says Billingham.
Billy, as he’s been known since his army days, is in day two of lockdown in Australia at the time of this interview. He says he’s ‘imprisoned’ in his room and is training three or four times a day for the next two weeks as he prepares to film the Australian version of Who Dares Wins. Billy and his wife, Julie, (a fashion designer) are pet parents to British Bulldog, Alfie.
“Alfie is our life, he’s our everything. He’s our baby. I don’t think anybody is stupid enough to try and take Alfie off me, but you never know. When Alfie is with me, I allow him to be off the lead because he’ll listen to me more than my wife, he knows he can get away with stuff when he’s with Jules, so I always make sure she’s got him on a lead all of the time,” he says.
“When we first got Alfie, (Alfie is one and celebrates his birthday on St. Valentine’s Day), we had a deal – he can’t eat at the table, he can’t come into our bedroom. I can tell you that today he’s eating salmon which should tell you something,” he laughs.
Many people say that Bulldogs are lazy, but Alfie loves to be out on walks, according to Billy.
“One of the things he does is, I’ll get his harness and call him, and he’ll run under the table, roll on his back, and play dead! but he loves going out and he’ll jump in my suitcase if he thinks I’m leaving – as it turns out we pretty much take him everywhere with us when we can. He has this big baggy face”.
The Best of British in America
Alfie is currently at home in America, a nation that Billy says is totally clued up when it comes to proving quality outdoor spaces for dogs.
“The Americans are brilliant with dogs, they’ve got so many brilliant parks, they’ve got water parks for dogs, it’s immaculate, people pick up their poop and it’s cleaned every night and the dogs get to meet each other and it’s amazing. If I had enough money, I’d open dog parks,” he says.
“Alfie gets to meet all the dogs and he’s always the smallest there so it’s hilarious to watch him…when I think about it, he just brings joy to us. Sometimes he’s like a drunken paratrooper as his snoring is unbelievable, I’d come home and think there’s somebody in bed with my wife…and it’s Alfie. It’s just brilliant, he’s just such a character,” he reveals.
While Alfie is clearly the celebrity in Billy’s world these days, he has spent part of his life working with the human kind.
“The last celebrity I worked with was Sir Michael Caine – what an absolute pleasure. He’s such a brilliant guy. Down to earth, a legend at what he does and such a nice charitable person as well. He’s such a humble guy and you wouldn’t believe what he’s done and stuff. He’s really good at what he does and he’s humble with it. A lovely, lovely bloke,” he says.
“We all kind of think that celebrities are a bit stuck up but to be honest all the ones I’ve worked with are not. They have to be guarded and have to have a different way of living because of their lifestyle unfortunately, but they’re not the way we tend to think they are.
Sir Michael Caine used to walk the streets of London when I worked with him as his security. He didn’t really need security in terms of somebody attacking him. It was more so that he wasn’t overpowered all the time, but he’d talk to everybody and he remembers everybody, he’s brilliant. He really was a pleasure to work with. He is a national treasure and rightly so. Alright he’s an actor and he does great things for entertainment, he’s not a politician, but he’s a real good guy”.
So, what tips can this ex-military man who spent over 27 years in the army including nine years in the Parachute Regiment and 20-25 years in the SAS Regiment give Westie owners?
Carry a walking stick – it will protect against other dogs and if someone wants to come at you, swing the stick and scream and shout – bring attention to yourself.
Keep your dog out of your front garden – don’t let your dog go into your front garden all the time. Keep him in the back and make sure the gate is closed and that your garden is completely secure. You don’t want to overly advertise your dog to people walking by. People are opportunists and these thieves are now doing reckies of people’s houses and they’ll just sit in a car and watch or do a little walk past your house a few times and they’ve got time to make a plan of how they’re going to get in and out of your garden or your house, so don’t give them help!
Walk on the opposite side of the road – with the vehicles coming towards you. If somebody wants to take your dog it will normally be in a vehicle that is just crawling behind you, and they’ll just pull in and you may not even notice it until they’re suddenly right beside you. If the traffic is in front of you and a car slows down, you can see them, and even if you’re a bit suspicious you’ll have time to prepare your personal protection alarm or have time to turn around. You could even walk on the road as you’ll have plenty of warning when a car is coming, and it will give you the chance to go left or right and you’ll be able to see what’s happening on both sides of the street.
Make sure your dog is chipped – I know chipping isn’t the be all and end all and many dogs that are chipped are still never returned to their owners, but it gives you an opportunity.
Keep it real – Look, the last thing you want to do when you’re planning on going for a nice stroll with your dog is to go out looking like you’re dressed for battle, you have to keep it real and simply make sure you’re aware of your surroundings. We can’t avoid everybody; we’ve got to be normal. Just be aware of your surroundings and if it doesn’t feel right turn around and go another way. It’s sad to say but we’re not going to avoid all of this, some of it is still going to happen.
Change the direction and timings of your walks. Try not to stick to a routine all the time. I know this is hard and we’re all guilty of this to some degree but if you can’t afford to change your route just change your times. Just take a minute or two to be aware and to look around. Nine times out of ten something you’re suspicious of might be nothing but you need to be aware of it so that you’re ready to react if there is going to be a problem.
Try to walk your dog in pairs – with your partner or a friend and take a torch.
Avoid dark or unnecessary alleyways – Just because you’ve lived in your area most of your life doesn’t mean you should walk down the alleyways at night on your own with your dog. Don’t forget that thieves are opportunists. Stay where it’s light.
On your phone – If you must take a phone call, do it, but look up and around and not down at the floor. I see people doing this all the time.
Knives & violence – What I would say is if somebody is coming at you with a knife, I wouldn’t get into a fight with them. The biggest weapon you’ve got is noise. Scream, shout, hit the car next to you and hopefully you’ll set off the alarm. Create as much of a scene as you can and they’re going to think twice. It will give you a few seconds whereby hopefully a decent person will see or hear you and get help.
Feeling suspicious – If you don’t feel comfortable and are getting spooked, jump into somebody else’s garden and slam their gate, make a noise, and then hopefully somebody will come out quickly and it will deter the thieves and now you’ve got a barrier between you, the dog, and the thieves too. This is what I call a jumping off point in case something should happen.
Be observant – When Jules goes for a walk, Alfie likes to sniff and pee everywhere, it’s roughly every 10 metres and his face is always on the ground, and I say to my wife, let him have his sniff and at that stage you should have your head up and be looking around because I’ll tell you what happens and I see it all the time, when you go for a walk with your dog – walk your dog. Stop talking on your phone or doing your work, people need to get into the habit of simply walking their dogs and being aware of their surroundings. It’s only for 15 or 20 minutes maybe if you’re walking your dog at night-time so put your phone in your pocket and make sure you’ve got it in your pocket so you can call someone if you need to. Try to have your camera ready on your phone so if something does happen you can quickly take some pictures or video which will help you get someone’s ID or vehicle registration number and vehicle type. This is the worst-case scenario but it’s good pre-preparation.
As one would probably expect, one of the most important tips from Billy is, Trust your Instincts.
“Around99% of the time when something unusual is going to happen your body will tell you. You’ll start to feel that something isn’t right and it’s that classic case of ‘Oh, I knew something was wrong’, and if anybody says that to me again, I’m going to give them a slap! Look, if you start to feel something isn’t right, it probably ain’t! It’s better to be wrong and survive another day than to be in a situation where you’re beaten and knocked to the ground and have your dog stolen from you,” he stresses.
“I don’t care how tough somebody thinks they are – when somebody is up to no good, they don’t even realise it. They sort of do small things like twitch or they can’t keep still. They’re on edge, they’re not normal and you can see those traits”.
And Billy should know. After being a bodyguard for the likes of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, Tom Cruise, Russell Crowe as well as Kate Moss among others, he knows all about people that stand out from the crowd.
“When I was doing bodyguard work, there were crowds of hundreds of people, around 99% are all smiling and happy but so and so over there doesn’t seem to be smiling like everybody else.
When I think back to my days at school and when I had fights, which there were plenty of as a kid, even though I thought I was a little tough guy and I knew I was probably going to win it, I was always, without even knowing it then, rocking and on edge. It’s just human nature so if somebody’s about to steal your dog, and they could be high on drugs or something, there’s a strange behaviour so be aware of that as there are always little traits,” he urges.
Anyone that’s seen Billy on the Channel 4 show, SAS – Who Dares Wins, has probably winced while he puts contestants through their paces as he orders them to run up mountains, leap off bridges, and dip into freezing cold waters. But when it comes to discipline what’s he like with Alfie?
“I think dogs need discipline, but my wife will say, ‘Oh Alfie don’t do that,’ after he’s just bitten through a cable, and I’m like you can’t just say he’s naughty you have to be firm and tell him as that cable just cost us £3,000 quid or something. I’ll give him basic commands, sit, stay, and he’ll do it. Not so much for my wife, says the number one Sunday Times best-selling author of The Hard Way.
“I don’t do it very often but I’ll raise my voice at just the right time so it shocks him a little bit and then he starts to listen. I’ve said to my wife that we’ve got to discipline him, you have to be responsible for your dog otherwise he’s going to attack people or dogs.”
Billy has grown up with dogs and therefore has a good understanding of what caring for one can entail.
“Only people who are dog owners will understand. I think unless you’ve been a dog owner you don’t really get it. My wife never had a pet before Alfie and now she can’t imagine not being with Alfie. Our friends must be bored of us as we’re always talking about him and how funny he is,” he smiles.
“I grew up with German Shepherds and Alsatians. My dad loved them and then as we got a little bit older, we had staffies because my cousin breeds them and Bulldogs which is where we got Alfie. I’ve always had dogs and I love having a dog. We had dogs and cats actually. I’ve had a few dogs of my own over the years, I had a Dalmatian who was bonkers, I had a boxer who was also bonkers, but funny, and I had a cross-Boxer Pitbull called Harry. When I was in the SAS Regiment, he had his own seat on the helicopter. He was the most hideous looking dog you can imagine but he was brilliant. He would sit right in the centre of the Chinook helicopter and I’d put ear defenders on him as it was so noisy, and he’d just sit there while all the lads were sitting down the sides of the helicopter,” he recalls.
In 2010, 250,000 people died following a life-changing earthquake in Haiti. Billy flew to the island to help build a hospital and ended up staying for three years as he fell in love with the people and the ‘oldest culture in the Western Hemisphere’ and this is where he met his wife, Julie. While being an ambassador for charity, REBUILD globally rebuildglobally.org was already a good step in helping to rebuild the foundations in Haiti, Billy wanted to take things one step further and together with Julie they launched the Haitian business, Deux Mains, deuxmains.com to help create jobs for the women of Haiti by creating modern products from locally sourced and recyclable materials.
“Haiti really showed me the real resilience of people and what they really go through and I wanted to give them a chance to stand on their own two feet and to give people a job as that’s what they want, and so I stayed there and that’s where I met my wife. I raise the money and awareness to get street kids into education and for them go to school for five years and then they get a year of job training which I pay for and after that my wife gives them a job,” he shares.
There remain numerous challenges for Haiti even 11 years on with poverty still being top of the list.
“The initial challenge was raising the money and raising the awareness and you’ve still got problems in Haiti, there are still a lot of troubles out there with the government and people are very poor and are not getting the basics like electricity and water and yet we have more billionaires in the world than ever, what the hell is that all about? We should all make a difference and we all here to give back if we can afford to do that,” he says.
Despite not being in the military these days, Billy is clearly as busy as he ever was, if not more. An author of three books, an autobiography called The Hard Way, Called to Kill – his first novel, and his first novel that delves into the conservation work in Africa that Billy has been involved in, all make for tales of a lifetime that most people can’t even dream up. Billy’s novel is out this month.