A dog-sitter at the centre of a row over pets which allegedly went missing while in her care has been banned from keeping the animals for five years.
Louise Lawford, who ran Pawford Paws in Sutton Coldfield, West Midlands, admitted an animal welfare offence and three business licensing breaches connected to her now defunct dog-boarding firm.
Mrs Lawford, of Flackwood Road, Birmingham, pleaded guilty to four charges in total after a prosecution brought by Birmingham City Council.
Its investigation was triggered after an incident in June last year, when Mrs Lawford claimed to have “lost” five dogs left in her care, while walking in Hopwas Woods, near Tamworth, Staffordshire.
Missing pets Pablo, Maggie, Charlie, Ralph and Jack became known as the “Tamworth Five”, as their owners appealed for information.
However, the court heard a further five charges relating to that alleged incident had been withdrawn.
Explaining in court why, Jonathan Barker, prosecuting, said they had been “predicated on the defendant’s own explanation that the dogs were lost as she took them for a walk”.
“That’s an explanation that the prosecution simply do not accept,” he added.
Mr Barker said that none of the missing dogs had ever been returned to their owners and their fate remained a mystery.
Mrs Lawford sat, with her head bowed, in the dock at Birmingham Magistrates’ Court on Thursday, for what district judge Joanna Dickens called “a very strange case”.
Behind her, the owners of the five dogs Mrs Lawford has accepted she lost, packed in to the public gallery, listening intently to the proceedings.
The 48-year-old, who owns a rescue Labrador, pleaded guilty to boarding more than the maximum number of three small dogs allowed at her kennels between June 18 and June 23 last year.
She also admitted boarding dogs from different households without written consent from their owners, and without ensuring dogs were vaccinated, flea-treated and wormed, over the same period.
Mrs Lawford further pleaded guilty to failing to seek veterinary treatment for a West Highland Terrier, named Charlie, after he developed a skin infection on his muzzle, while under her care.
The court was told that her council licence was revoked last year.
Opening the case, Mr Barker said: “The investigation commenced when Lousie Lawford came forward and notified the animal welfare team on June 25 last year that she had lost five dogs while walking them, and had complaints from owners about their dogs having gone missing.
“She has always claimed that she lost the dogs while walking them in Hopwas Woods, near Tamworth.
“That explanation is not accepted by the prosecution.
“However, a police investigation resulted in no charges being brought against her and unfortunately we are unable to say with any degree of certainty what has happened to the dogs.
“We are therefore in a position where we are unable to bring charges in respect of that issue.
“It would be artificial to mount a case against her based on an explanation we do not accept.”
He added: “There was a search and, despite being chipped, the dogs were never recovered.”
The court heard that among those who provided statements to the prosecution was her husband, Richard Lawford.
Mr Barker said: “He talks about a great number of dogs housed by Mrs Lawford, clearly in excess of the number of dogs permitted by her licence.”
But the judge also heard that the couple had separated in March 2019.
Tom Walkling, in mitigation, said “life-long animal-lover” Mrs Lawford was under “extreme pressure and stress” after the breakdown of her marriage.
He said: “Can I start by expressing her extreme and continuing remorse for what happened to those dogs and for her conduct in June last year.
“I am conscious, on her behalf, that the police, Crown Prosecution Service and council have decided not to charge her in relation to what might well be understood by others as the graver part of her conduct.
“Despite that, she does want to offer her apologies and sincere remorse for the pain she knows those dog owners suffered, as she is herself a life-long dog owner and lover.
He added that the Pawford Paws business, which had been running for three years by early 2019, had provided a “very high level of service”.
But in March 2019, Mr Walkling said, Mrs Lawford suffered a nervous breakdown after her marriage fell apart.
“She had to move out, she was suffering a great deal,” he said.
“She had a nervous breakdown and foolishly decide to continue with her obligations, looking after other people’s dogs.
“It was a very bad decision to make.
“Her behaviour in June, her out-of-character behaviour, was because of extreme emotional pressure and stress, which started in March and reached a peak in the summer.”
He added that, since the dogs’ disappearance, Mrs Lawford had received anonymous death threats on social media.
In court, Mr Walkling told the judge that someone in the public gallery had muttered “dog killer” at Mrs Lawford as she walked past.
Sentencing and banning Mrs Lawford from keeping dogs, the judge said: “I consider that, in deciding this issue, I have to take account of lost dogs.
“It would be wrong not to.”
She added: “It’s a very sad and difficult situation. I want to be absolutely clear – my powers are extremely limited because of the nature of the charges the prosecution have chosen to proceed with.”
Mrs Lawford was also fined £800 for the offences and ordered to pay £2,616 costs.