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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Tuesday, July 22, 2014

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There are many reasons why a dog might react badly to being greeted by a person or another dog.
There are many reasons why a dog might react badly to being greeted by a person or another dog.

Tie a yellow ribbon 'round that shy dog's leash

Do you know about the Yellow Ribbon? If we spread the word about it, we could help a lot of dogs.

Some dogs are fine when people and other dogs walk, or run, up to them. Some dogs are fine ... as long as they’re left alone. The "Yellow Dog Project" is an effort to help those dogs.

There are many reasons why a dog might react badly to being greeted by a person or another dog. She might be recovering from illness or surgery. She might just be shy. Perhaps most important, she might be in training to feel more comfortable with people, dogs, or both. She might have taken weeks to progress to a point where she’s calm when a stranger is 20 feet away.

If you or your dog walk up to her, even though you only want to say hello, she (and the person she’s with) might have to do all that work over again.

If you’ve had a dog like this, you know reactivity can be heartbreaking and even dangerous. A dog who is reactive to people or dogs on-leash puts others and herself in danger – but is often a true best friend, loving and calm, at home.

A protocol like Behavior Adjustment Training, or similar approaches to building confidence, can make a huge difference for dogs like this, but they take time, and space. This training works by finding the dog’s "threshold" – the distance you need from the scary thing so your dog can pay attention to you without freaking out – and working from that point, gradually building the dog’s confidence so the distance gets smaller.

Your success depends on controlling how far away the scary things are. So when you hear "Don’t worry, he’s friendly," or "Don’t worry, dogs love me," your blood runs cold. When people and dogs run up to your dog, the distance is suddenly zero. At best, you lose ground, and at worst, someone is hurt. If someone is hurt, a dog could be punished. Or killed.

Enter the Yellow Ribbon. The idea is simple. From their website: "If you see a dog with a yellow ribbon or something yellow on the leash, this is a dog who needs some space. Please do not approach this dog with your dog. Please maintain distance and give this dog and his/her person time to move out of your way." Distance equals calm equals time to gain confidence equals saved lives.

It will only work, of course, if people know what the yellow ribbon means. Right now, most people don’t. But simple visual symbols can take hold very quickly if we give them a boost. The pink breast cancer ribbon, the little envelope that means E-mail, the triangle of arrows indicating recycling – all these have grown from nonexistent to universal in my lifetime. If we spread the word, the yellow ribbon really could be commonly understood.

I’ve seen people in the dog world expressing concern about the yellow ribbon idea. Will people think that if a dog doesn’t have a yellow ribbon, it’s a signal they can safely startle the dog? Will judges and juries use the yellow ribbon as proof the person knew the dog was a risk? Will dog owners stop watching out for their dogs after they’ve put a yellow ribbon on the leash? All sensible questions, but I don’t think any of them should prevent us from giving this a try. We have careless people, careless owners, and an unpredictable legal system now. If the yellow ribbon becomes widely understood, we’ll still have them, but the ribbon will help prevent some harm.

The Yellow Dog Project is online and on Facebook. Last Sunday it was even in USA Today. This could go places.

Speaking of dogs, Steve (in the picture) is waiting at our Ozaukee Campus for a home! Read more about him here.

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