The Yellow Dog Project
By Susie DiDonato
You may be wondering what we mean by a “yellow dog.” Are they all blonde? Cowardly? Slightly jaundiced? And what is that bow all about?
In fact, the yellow ribbon is exactly what it is all about. Yellow dogs are as variable as individuals. They come in all shapes, sizes, breeds, and temperaments. Owners tie a yellow ribbon to their best friend’s leash to denote their status and support the campaign, so that anyone who passes will be aware.
All a yellow dog is, is a dog that needs some space. These are dogs that you should not walk directly up to and pet, or allow your dog to run up to (whether on leash or not) and greet. Regardless of your good intentions, these dogs need for you to be considerate of their space, and give them time to gain distance to go around you if necessary.
The first point to be aware of is that there are a variety of reasons that a dog may be a yellow dog, or a DINOS (Dog in Need of Space). These dogs are not “mean” dogs. If a dog is aggressive and may bite, it is an owner’s responsibility to keep them out of that situation, or to muzzle them. A yellow ribbon is not a substitute for a muzzle, or an excuse to be careless or irresponsible. Here are some examples of situations that might result in a yellow dog status:
- Illness or disability. If a dog is hurt, or recovering, it may delay the healing process to encounter a stressful/exciting situation. If a dog runs up to them and roughhousing ensues, the unhealthy dog may have wounds reopened, or exposure to something that its weakened immune system can’t fight.
- Training. Training a puppy or new dog takes time, and cannot occur all at home. If a dog is to learn how to walk nicely on a leash in everyday life, it must learn to deal with distractions in the real world. An owner may do everything in his or her power to keep the focus of their pet, but that is made more difficult when people or other dogs consistently approach them, and maybe inadvertently encourage poor behaviors such as pulling or jumping.
- Shy/Reactive. Some dogs are simply frightened of strange people or dogs. This may be because they’ve been attacked/abused in the past, or because they haven’t been properly socialized. It takes time for them to overcome these fears, and the only way to do so is to make every new interaction a positive one.
- Old. Dogs, like people, can become less tolerant in old age, and for good reason. If a young pup runs over and jumps on an older dog, that dog could be in pain with sore joints, and it might hurt. Their reaction time may not be what it once was in order to avoid unwelcome advances.
- In heat. If a dog is in heat, avoidance is best for all involved. It may be harder to control a dog who is interested in her, and she might be unusually testy.
Why yellow? Some people wonder why not red, or some other casual color choice. Yellow is one of the most noticeable colors of the spectrum, so its first purpose is to catch attention. Where red screams “WARNING,” yellow offers more of a “Caution, Slow Down” message. This is far more conducive to the purpose of the Yellow Dog Project than any alternative.
I personally work with a yellow dog named Sophia. “Sophie” is a small rescue mutt, perhaps a Chihuahua mix. Not much is known about Sophie’s past or why she behaves the way she does, but it took her loving adoptive mom some time to win Sophie’s affections. She continually has to work with Sophie’s fear of new people and animals.
Little Sophie has never bitten anyone, but she alarm barks, quite loudly and startlingly, when new individuals come too close. It took Sophie and I several weeks to get to the point of being friends, where she will come up and request my attention, and doesn’t bark when I approach. This is an improvement for Sophie, who has had certified trainer Holly Godfrey of Diamond in the Ruff Dog Training working extensively with her to make certain her interactions are positive.
Sophie wears a yellow ribbon so that informed people know not to come up to her without asking permission.
Now, the situation is a little more clear in Sophia’s case than some. If a dog is barking when you come close, you will likely be less inclined to approach. However, dogs all express their discomfort differently. Some, instead of being vocal, will shrink away with body language that not everyone will notice or understand. This is still a negative interaction for the dog, and not helpful towards learning that new people and dogs can be friends. A yellow ribbon will indicate the presence of something you may not know about a dog.
Be mindful that it is always a good idea to ask before approaching someone’s dog. Whether we realize it or not, most dogs require an appropriate introduction in order for a meeting to be postive. The comparison is often drawn that you would prefer a stranger to walk up to you and shake your hand, rather than to run over and tackle you, as “friendly” as their intentions might be. Not only would it be ideal for this program to gain awareness and widespread use, but it is important for people to understand more about dog behavior and how we can make better our interactions with one another.