What Does a Yellow Ribbon on a Dog Mean?

By PetMD Editorial. Reviewed by Katie Grzyb, DVM on Mar. 11, 2019

Reviewed for accuracy on March 12, 2019, by Dr. Katie Grzyb, DVM 

While out on a walk, you observe a dog retreat behind his owner with a growl when approached by another dog. Eventually, a scuffle erupts—and thankfully, the owners are able to pull the dogs away without serious incident.

In an ideal scenario, a nervous dog who needs space will not be approached at all until he’s ready to be social, says Tara Palardy, founder of The Yellow Dog Project

The Yellow Dog Project is a global movement that helps educate the public on the fact that not every dog should be approached. It also helps educate owners of anxious dogs to understand and communicate their dog’s need for space.

Origins of The Yellow Dog Project 

A graduate of Animal Behavior College, positive reinforcement trainer Palardy established The Yellow Dog Project in 2013 in response to an increase in the number of clients that were distressed by their dogs’ reactive behavior.

“My dog barks uncontrollably at X or reacts when X happens. What do I do?” were issues not tackled in basic training, Palardy explains. 

The problem is especially significant in cities where reactive dogs are subject to stimuli like crowded sidewalks, sirens and baby strollers. Just as frightening are dog-loving strangers approaching to affectionately engage every dog. 

To identify anxious dogs from a distance, Palardy bought yellow craft ribbon and attached it to the collars of the reactive dogs she worked with. This was the beginning of The Yellow Dog Project.

Yellow is seen as a cautionary color—probably due to its use in traffic signals where it alerts drivers to be prepared to stop. Enlisting this color in helping nervous dogs get the space they crave seemed intuitive.

Palardy explains that the color yellow quickly communicates to the public, “Our dog doesn’t want to say ‘hi’!”

Palardy also points out that by choosing a color to represent their cause, they have been able to spread their initiative globally. 

Characteristics of a Yellow Ribbon Dog 

There are many reasons why a dog may be a good candidate to don yellow. A yellow ribbon does not necessarily mean that a dog is aggressive. A yellow ribbon is actually more helpful for fearful dogs, shelter dogs who haven’t mastered their cues, dogs who might have pain due to a health condition or service dogs in training.

Megan Stanley, board chair of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers, notes that most people can easily recognize common aggressive reactions, such as ears back, body lowered, barking and lunging. These actions signal “a threat display,” Stanley explains.

However, in the majority of cases, these dogs are terrified—not mean—and need our help to make them feel at ease. “The best thing strangers can do is not approach them,” says Stanley.   

Dogs should also wear yellow if they react using the “language of avoidance,” Stanley says. These dogs are skittish and shy; they’ll respond to their fears by trying to run or hide behind their owner. They may have previously had a negative encounter with strangers or dogs, or they may have had limited socialization.

While dog lovers might see this as a dog being a little shy and continue to approach anyway, this is actually a dog communicating their discomfort with the situation. While it is up to the owner to stand up for their dog and tell the stranger no, a yellow ribbon can help stop the awkward interaction from taking place altogether.

By ensuring your dog has the space they need to feel comfortable, you can help to reduce their stress and establish trust. 

Stanley emphasizes, “Yellow ribbon dogs should have a certified high-rewards trainer so they can work through their fears and help build confidence.” 

Sometimes, Dogs Are “Forever” Yellow Ribbon Dogs 

A dog may be a forever yellow ribbon dog for a variety of reasons, some of which may be entirely out of their control.

Palardy has a dog who suffers from intervertebral degenerative disease, which makes it painful for him to be pet. “This dog reacts when he sees people because he’s thinking, ‘I see somebody. The stress of them petting me causes me to bark and ask for space,’” explains Palardy. As a result, he will forever be a yellow ribbon dog.

When it comes to a dog that has a bite history, the decision for them to be a yellow ribbon dog needs to be between the owner and their trusted veterinarian or qualified dog trainer. “It’s very situational with dogs, and this is where it’s again so critical that you’re working with a trainer,” says Stanley. 

Palardy cautions, “This is a conversation for owners and their veterinarian, veterinary behaviorist or their dog trainer to discuss to determine if there’s a behavior management issue.” If there’s reason to believe that a dog’s reactive behavior cannot be trusted to ever fully change, this dog is a forever yellow ribbon dog. 

Responsibilities of a Yellow Ribbon Dog Owner

Simply attaching yellow to a reactive dog’s leash doesn’t let owners off the hook, Palardy warns. “A yellow ribbon is not permission to allow your dog to be aggressive. It shows an awareness that your dog has a reactive tendency and you’re dealing with it.”

Owner of Dogma Training, Stanley says to avoid putting your nervous dog in situations where their fears may be triggered. Choose to go outside during quieter periods of the day or to places known to be less busy. 

Palardy says that owners must explain the meaning of the yellow ribbon when strangers approach their nervous dog. This helps your dog feel safe while also educating the person about respecting a dog’s space and the importance of asking permission.

By taking initiative, dog owners can demonstrate active care for their yellow ribbon dog while simultaneously furthering public awareness around the project. 

Tools That Can Be Useful for Yellow Ribbon Dog Owners

Having the right safety tools is critical, Stanley says.

Talk with your dog trainer or veterinarian about whether using a head collar, like the PetSafe Gentle Leader chic headcollar and leash, or a basket-type dog muzzle, like the Baskerville ultra dog muzzle, would be beneficial for your dog and their routine.

It is also helpful to have a dog leash that offers multiple lengths. Leashes, like Prima Pets dual-handle reflective dog leash, allow you to give your dog a little freedom in less stressful situations but also have an additional handle to keep him close and at your side in stressful situations.  

You can also use a leash attachment, like the Leashboss padded handle short dog leash, which gives you an additional leash handle to help you maintain control in tough situations.

It’s critical, however, to avoid adding tension to whatever length of leash you use. It will only increase your dog’s reactive response tendency rather than calm them, Stanley warns. 

Engage With The Yellow Dog Project 

Expanding the reach of the project requires spreading the word one neighborhood at a time. To help, you can start by advocating for your yellow ribbon dog by attaching a ribbon or anything yellow to their dog collar or leash.

Besides educating everyone who approaches your dog about The Yellow Ribbon Project, Palardy urges the community to take advantage of the free illustrated flyer on the website. It can be downloaded and displayed or made available at veterinary clinics, dog parks or doggy daycares.

Alternatively, spread the word about the project by wearing a variety of yellow ribbon dog apparel available on the website or partner sites. Donations are always welcome to help grow the project scope and the global team of representatives necessary to advance the mission. 

By: Kathryn Streeter

Feature Image: iStock.com/Eudyptula

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