The Yellow Dog Project — Giving dogs their much-needed space

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

the yellow dog project

Story at-a-glance -

  • If you see a dog with a yellow ribbon tied to her collar, do not approach her, pet her or otherwise bother her in any way
  • The Yellow Dog Project (TYDP) is a global movement trying to popularize the use of yellow ribbons as a way to educate and alert people about dogs who need their space
  • Dogs wearing yellow ribbons may be rescue or shelter dogs who have behavioral problems, dogs in pain from recent surgery, service dogs in training or dogs who are fearful and anxious
  • If your dog is aggressive, a yellow ribbon is not enough of a warning or a substitute for proper training
  • Avoid approaching any dog you don’t know without first asking the owner’s permission — whether she’s wearing a yellow ribbon or not

If you see a dog with a yellow ribbon tied to her collar, do not approach her, pet her or otherwise bother her in any way. While it’s a good idea to take this stance with any dog you’re not familiar with, The Yellow Dog Project (TYDP) is a global movement trying to popularize the use of yellow ribbons as a way to educate and alert people about dogs who need their space.

Yellow Dogs are not necessarily aggressive or dangerous, but might have issues with fear or be in pain due to recent surgery. If approached, such a dog could snap, growl or become anxious and stressed, which is what the yellow ribbon is intended to prevent.

The Yellow Dog Project identifies dogs who need space

The Yellow Dog Project was founded by Tara Palardy, a graduate of Animal Behavior College, in 2013 to support dogs who are anxious and may display reactive behaviors if approached. The color yellow was chosen for ribbons because it’s widely understood as a cautionary color.1

In addition to dogs who may be fearful or in pain, dogs wearing yellow ribbons may be rescue or shelter dogs who have behavioral problems they haven’t yet overcome. They may also be dogs in training to be work or service dogs. According to the not-for-profit Yellow Dog Project:2

The Yellow Dog Project seeks to educate appropriate ways to approach or make contact with a dog with permission of a dog owner only, whether or not a dog is a ‘yellow dog.’ They also seek to promote the use of yellow ribbons to identify yellow dogs needing extra space.”

The Project makes it clear that putting a yellow ribbon on your dog is not a way to mark her as a bad dog or a confession that people must stay away or risk getting bitten. Some people may avoid using a yellow ribbon for their dog for this reason, but doing so shouldn’t bring about embarrassment.

“Wearing a yellow ribbon is NOT an admission of guilt,” TYDP notes. “Dogs can have space issues for a variety of reasons and you are not the only person with a yellow dog. There are most likely many people in your community who are ‘hiding’ their pet issues rather than working on them. Be proud of your furry family member and the work you are putting into him/her!”3

A yellow ribbon is not a substitute for proper training

As the word gets out about what a yellow ribbon on a dog’s collar means, it may become more common in public places. However, if your dog truly is aggressive, a yellow ribbon is not enough of a warning or a substitute for proper training.

“If you have an outright aggressive dog, you must seek proper training from a qualified professional. This organization promotes the awareness of dogs who need space, but it is not an excuse for lack of training,” TYDP explains.4 If your dog has been abused, has fear aggression or territorial aggression, basic obedience training is important, but so is evaluating the dog’s history and environment to determine what may be driving the problem behaviors.

Behavior problems in dogs can almost always be traced to their environment, past or present, and may include the food they eat, the way they spend their time, the bond they have with their owners, previous training (or lack thereof), training methods and many other factors. Reward-based training is one effective and compassionate way to change unwanted behaviors in dogs, including some forms of aggression.

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Always ask before petting

TYDP is a great idea to alert passersby that they shouldn’t approach your shy, nervous or recuperating dog. Your dog is a good candidate for a yellow ribbon if she behaves aggressively or acts timid, shy or skittish when approached by strangers or other dogs.

If you feel your dog could benefit from wearing a yellow ribbon, be prepared to explain its meaning to strangers, and also talk with your veterinarian, a positive dog trainer or a veterinary behaviorist to help your dog work through any undesirable behaviors. That being said, for some dogs, a yellow ribbon may always be recommended.

It’s a good idea, however, to simply assume that you shouldn’t approach any dog you don’t know without first asking the owner’s permission — whether she’s wearing a yellow ribbon or not.

Sometimes, it’s possible to easily observe a dog’s body language to understand whether it’s friendly, relaxed and open to being approached or frightened, stressed and not interested in interacting. Other times, a dog’s shyness or stress signals can be far more subtle and easy to miss. For instance, yawning and licking her lips are ways your dog may signal that she’s feeling stressed.

Further, many dogs dislike being petted on their heads, especially when it’s from a stranger. Yet, this is the way many strangers approach dogs they’re not familiar with. A far better option than approaching a dog in passing is to ask her owner if it’s OK to pet her. Even then, respect boundaries, let the dog initiate contact first and avoid invading her personal space.