Nestled in the palm of my hand, chihuahua Harrison is offered to me as the latest – and tiniest – designer dog to be trafficked across Europe.
This little mite is just eight weeks old. He is still too young to have vital inoculations – not least the rabies jab.
But cash-hungry dealers in Poland promise to forge a pet passport so he can come to the UK right away.
Harrison is one of 25 dogs we found at the house of just one breeder.
Seller Julia – filmed undercover during a Sunday Mirror probe in Eastern Europe – said she could arrange the dodgy paperwork for £20 so that we could give Harrison as a gift on Christmas Day.
Julia said: “He was born on October 10 so he can easily go. He can go without the rabies [jab], no problem.
“You can go, just take him to the vet and he will make a passport for him, that’s not a problem. I can take him on Friday. It takes, like, 15 minutes.
“We could make it for you, you just have to pay 100 zlotys and we give you the puppy with the passport. If we have a problem with the passport, we will give that he is older than he already is.
“He will be like almost two months older than he really is. But on every other paper, he will have his right birthday.”
Poland is a puppy trafficking hotspot and dogs like Harrison are widely advertised on the internet.
We contacted the sellers on OLX, a site popular with mass puppy breeders in Poland. Most go to the highest bidder with no checks carried out on the buyer.
Such overbreeding means thousands are arriving in the UK with serious genetic health problems.
A probe by the Dogs Trust charity found many Eastern European pups arrive here in cramped postal vans. Frightened and confused, they can travel thousands of miles with little food and water.
EU rules state dogs must be at least 15 weeks old and vaccinated against rabies before they can legally enter Britain. The UK has been rabies free for a century but experts worry the booming puppy trade could see the disease – which can be transmitted to humans – return to the country.
Cases of rabies are still detected in Poland, but Julia played down the risk.
When we asked if it was a problem, she replied: “I don’t think so, no. For now he is too young to do the rabies, but we can do in the passport that he already has it. When you go to the UK, you can do the rabies.”
For reassurance, we asked to see Harrison with his mum. Julia told her mum Renata in Polish: “Just get anyone.”
So there was no way of knowing if the adult chihuahua produced for inspection was related to Harrison in any way.
The women believed we spoke only English and we played along. What they didn’t know was that our photographer speaks fluent Polish. Julia and Renata are a small cog in a huge and lucrative puppy-trafficking machine that churns out dogs and sends them to the UK.
For now, Britain is signed up to the EU pet travel scheme which means dogs can travel between states as long as they are old enough and have had the right jabs.
Over 300,000 pets came to the UK via the scheme last year. Dogs Trust chiefs fear poor border checks mean thousands of the puppies could be getting through underage. Since 2015, it has rehomed 1,000 pups – most underage – which have been trafficked here from Europe. Some 206 were from Poland. Rogue breeders buy passports for older dogs then use the documents to send underage puppies to the UK.
Dogs Trust has identified corrupt vets across Eastern Europe willing to sign passports for underage pups in exchange for cash.
One Polish vet told us she signed passports so pets could travel to Germany before they were old enough for a rabies jab. She moaned checks in Britain had become “ridiculous”.
UK pet travel rules are likely to change when we leave the EU, and greedy sellers are worried their lucrative trade will be hit hard. Julia said: “A month ago, two of our puppies went to London. A lot of our dogs go abroad. It’s going to get worse. After the Brexit , we may have to keep the puppy for six months. The baby will have to do quarantine. We used to have this problem when selling to Norway.”
Julia offered to sell Harrison for £396 – a fraction of the cost through reputable breeders in this country.
Another breeder, Tomasz, tried to sell a nine-week-old French bulldog, even though we told him we wanted the dog to travel to the UK in a week. The pup was among three in a cage. Tomasz told us we could take it away for the equivalent of £317. French bulldogs bred in the UK can easily top £1,000.
When we asked about rabies, he said: “He’s had his first injection.”
But the rabies jab is ineffective if given to puppies under 12 weeks.
The Sunday Mirror did not buy Harrison, saying we were unhappy to take him before he’d had the rabies jab.
Paula Boyden, Dogs Trust veterinary director, said: “These shocking findings support our own investigations into devious smugglers. We call for government action to help end this cruel and depressing trade.
“We have seen horrific examples, such as puppies sedated before they are stuffed under a car seat, and pregnant mums brought in at an advanced stage of pregnancy.”
Pet importation comes under the remit of Defra, which said: “We have the most rigorous checking regimes in the world to make sure any puppies entering are properly vaccinated and old enough to travel.”
When we contacted Julia and Renata, they tried to deny that they’d offered to secure a passport for Harrison while he was still underage.
They told us: “You must understand us wrong. The language barrier is a thing I guess. I told you the puppy has to be three months old to get rabies and then he has to wait three weeks to go abroad.
“I told you he can also leave under age of three months, which is true.
“As I asked my vet, it is true that under three months he can go abroad.”
Fellow breeder Tomasz: “If you take the puppy it’s not my concern, nor
do I care.
“It’s not my problem if you’re from England. I’m a breeder in Poland and sell dogs in Poland. It’s my right.”
I adopted three Frenchies from Poland - one died, other two have fallen ill
A dog lover was left heartbroken when her Polish pup died just weeks after she took him in.
Jo Stuckey, 40, adopted three French bulldogs which were trafficked to the UK.
All had severe health problems – believed to be caused by bad breeding. The first, Vinny, died at just six months in 2017 from a genetic heart defect.
Jo, from Canterbury, Kent, took him in after he was seized at the UK border in Dover for being underage. Mum-of-two Jo, who works for the Dogs Trust, said: “He had a heart murmur and I said I’d take him home and foster him. He was the most gentle soul. The vet told me he had a genetic heart defect and wouldn’t last long.
“You take most pups on a walk and they are all excited, but he would just look back at the house as if to say, ‘I need to go home’. It was heartbreaking. My husband was with him when he passed away. He was beside himself.”
Jo’s other pooches Gus and Gill, both two, also have severe problems. She added: “Gus had to have emergency surgery. He was screaming, panicking and couldn’t breathe. He had to have his nostrils widened and soft palette surgery. If you look at pictures of French bulldogs 100 years ago, they look very different to now.
“His face is so squashed, he has got no muzzle, he’s got all that tissue and the tongue is the same size as if he did. This was blocking his airwaves.
“Unfortunately, people are attracted to these squished-up faces. Gill has a genetic digestive condition. She would feed, but bloat easily. She had quite a few gastric issues.”