Fact Check

Colored Stickers Target Homes of Dog Owners?

Rumors that criminals are marking homes with colored stickers or bags in trees in order to steal dogs for use in dogfighting events are unfounded.

Published Mar 11, 2013

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Criminals are marking homes with bags tied to trees or colored stickers in order to steal dogs for use in dogfighting events.

Warnings about dog-snatchers tagging homes with colored stickers to facilitate the stealing of canines for use in dogfighting events were originally circulated in the suburbs of Perth, Australia, in February 2013 before being relocated to a UK setting the following month:

Any dog owners beware, leaflet droppers or anyone walking around housing estates.
Keep your eye out for small coloured STICKERS on gates or doors, gangs are marking how many dogs live there to steal and they are using them for DOG BAIT FOR FIGHTING.
Ring the police immediately if you see any and inform the home owners.
Remove the stickers immediately!
Red stickers are for big dogs
Yellow for medium and
Pink for small breeds
Please re-share and keep your dog safe!
This is already happening in the Goole Yorkshire area, UK and could be spreading across the country. This is disgusting

The same rumor has also been spread involving plastic bags in trees:

I've seen on Facebook that people's homes are being marked by plastic bags tied in trees indicating they have a dog. This is a sign for criminals to abduct the dog for it be used as bait in dog fighting rings. This just doesn't seem feasible.

Officials in the former area quickly got out the word that this warning was a hoax:

The internet has been flooded with chilling tales of an organised underground dog fighting ring operating out of Perth's suburbs.

Family pets have been systematically stolen from their yards to be trained as fighting dogs, according to reports appearing on social media and online classified websites.

While many in Perth claim to know somebody who knows somebody whose pet has fallen prey to a kidnapping, authorities and social media experts have dismissed the warnings as a viral hoax.

Animal welfare authorities in Perth, who have been inundated with phone calls since the messages started to appear, said the warnings were "completely unfounded."

"It's a viral hoax," RSPCA spokesman Tim Mayne told Fairfax Media. "Police and the RSPCA have no solid evidence on this at all.

"We've been monitoring this situation and still, to the best of our knowledge, it's a viral hoax."

Curtin University internet studies lecturer and social media expert Tama Leaver said the lack of specific details in the messages was a dead giveaway for a viral hoax.

"If people were really trying to stop something there would be specific details about it and who they could contact," he said.

He said the messages were so vague they had managed to cover "the entire spectrum of Perth".

"If something like that is appearing for two weeks and there's no official information released whatsoever — there's no police follow up — and there's no evidence of an actual fight, you'd have to question it," he said.

Similarly, in March 2013 UK officials in Yorkshire issued a denial that area dognappers were placing stickers or other markings on vehicle tires to identify the homes of dog owners (a variant of a similar rumor that such a method was being used to target gun owners):

Police in Whitby and other areas of the county want to reassure residents that there are no gangs of dog thieves operating in the area and placing stickers on vehicles.

A local officer who was called by concerned residents, has enlisted the advice of a local tyre fitter to prove that marks left on vehicle tyres are not the work of dog-nappers.

Rumours have been circulating on social media sites that dog thieves have been placing stickers on vehicle tyres to mark the homes of dog owners, ready for them to go back and steal the dogs. This is not the case.

The red and yellow dots seen on tyres are placed there by tyre manufacturers. The red dot denotes the heaviest part of the tyre and a yellow dot denotes the lightest. They are not the work of dog thieves.

The rumor traveled to the U.S. in early 2015, when it emerged in the form of a warning involving plastic bags tied to trees as a harbinger of dognappers. According to the rumor (which spread widely on Facebook), criminals marked dog-owning homes by tying grocery bags to trees so pets could later be kidnapped for dogfighting rings. There was no explanation of how those who became wise to the purported ruse managed to differentiate bags purposefully tied to trees for signaling from discarded grocery bags that coincidentally came to rest among the branches after being blown about by wind. And as with prior variations, no instances in which pets were abducted were linked to plastic bags mysteriously found in trees prior to the canines' disappearances.

As noted in our article about a similar putative home-marking scheme, there's no practical reason for persons seeking to perpetrate crimes against property to surreptitiously mark the homes of their intended victims rather than simply recording the addresses of those homes. A related warning was originally circulated in March 2012 (and again in March 2013) about a man named Michael Anthony Burdis who was reportedly attempting to obtain dogs from animal shelters to "use as bait in dog fighting":

This is Michael Anthony Burdis — watch out for him in all rescue centres as he's trying to get his hands on a dog to use as bait in dog fighting! Please share this far and wide — we have to stop this evil man!

This warning was apparently based on information originating with the UK-based Scruples Whippet Rescue, who posted on their Facebook page back in March 2012 that:

There is currently a statement being posted all over facebook about a Michael Burdis. It is claimed that the statement was written by Scruples Whippet Rescue and is badly written and reads like Michael is a volunteer for us. The statement was NOT written by any member of the Scruples team.

Michael Burdis is NOT in any way a Volunteer for Scruples or in any way associated with our Rescue. He wrote on our Facebook page last week enquiring about young dogs and was REFUSED a dog and was BLOCKED from our page due to his dog fighting links. This man is currently under investigation by the RSPCA .

All our Volunteers are very strictly vetted and home checked and Scruples Whippet Rescue will not have, and never have had anything to do with anyone involved in the barbaric illegal activity that is dog fighting.

We are very concerned that this badly worded statement that has been written by someone unknown to Scruples is making people believe that we are involved with Michael and his activities and we are asking all Facebook groups to delete the incorrect post and post and share this statement instead.

However, we found no evidence that someone named Michael Burdis is (or was) being investigated by the RSPCA in connection with dogfighting activities, and the Scruples Whippet Rescue notice states only that someone using that name inquired of them about some dogs via Facebook. The photograph circulated with this warning (not reproduced here) appears to be a picture of someone by the same name from the U.S. who has no connection to any of the claims.

A similar unconfirmed warning was circulated in April 2013 naming Dell Schanze as the person going to animal shelters to obtain dogs for use as bait in dog fights. And in May 2017, the "bags in trees" version of the rumor re-emerged on Facebook, purportedly confirmed by a police department in Pennsylvania:

SHARING!!!!I usually don't post much on Facebook however, I just wanted to spread the word/ make people aware of this.

So I came home yesterday and noticed a bag hanging from a tree that had not been there when I left my house for about an hour, if that. The bag immediately caught my attention for some reason and it's placement looked like it had been put there on purpose rather than trash that blew into the tree. It was positioned right at the corner of my fence. For some reason, I thought I remembered hearing someone tell me that there had been other cases of this and that it was related to marking houses for people who apparently steal dogs. When I walked out and looked at the tree and the bag, I noticed that the bag was tied in 3 different places to the tree meaning someone clearly put it there for a reason, so that alone was strange to me.

Even though I thought they would tell me I was psycho for calling, I called 911 and explained the situation to them and asked if I should contact SPCA or something with this problem. I was surprised to hear that this was a concerning problem and that I was correct for calling/ report it to the police. I was even more alarmed when the 911 dispatcher asked me if I had any dogs and if so if they were inside to which I replied that my dog was inside. He then asked me if I was aware of the several recent cases of dogs being stolen/ going missing while in their own backyards. I was instructed to lock my doors, keep myself and my dog inside, not to touch the bag or any evidence at the scene and that they were sending out a police officer right away.

I was told that this "tagging" or "marking" is thought to be used for people who are scoping out neighborhoods/ homes in which people have dogs that go outside or are left outside alone even for brief periods of time. They mark the house with a plastic bag tied to a tree at the home to leave a mark for people who will then come later and apparently lure dogs out of their yard and steal them. Although not absolutely certain why they are stealing them, they are apparently being used for dog fighting. Smaller breeds, larger breeds, or medium breeds. As I knew many of my friends here on Facebook have dogs or many of us have dogs of course, I wanted to spread the word. I was told by the police officer as well as the 911 dispatcher that even if letting the dog out for 5 minutes to go with them.

bag in tree dog theft

Yet again, the warning to dog owners was shared tens of thousands of times. We contacted the Dallastown Police Department in Dallastown, Pennsylvania in an attempt to confirm that police validated the user's concerns about bags in trees and dog theft. An employee with whom we spoke denied they received any reports of dog kidnapping overall, including the sort connected to bags in trees.

Kim LaCapria is a former writer for Snopes.

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