Not all dogs are social butterflies. I call dogs in need of greater personal space “Give Me Space Dogs” or “GMS Dogs”. GMS Dogs that are comfortable with their owners’ ability to keep them safe may appear fine in public. Just because a dog looks happy and relaxed, does not mean he will be everybody’s buddy.
There is an online movement encouraging dog owners to put yellow ribbons on the leashes of dogs who are in need of space. Though I applaud those trying to educate owners and the public about dog safety, concerns have been raised by about the method used. For those with family in the military, what does a yellow ribbon imply? A dog wearing a yellow ribbon in this area (I live in an area with many large military bases, Marines, Army, Air Force, Navy) may attract attention because the ribbon stands for military support. Yellow roses imply friendship. For some yellow is considered a healing color. To horse people, a yellow ribbon means a horse is a stallion. Yellow is not a universally recognized symbol to give space.
Now there are leashes and collars being sold with CAUTION, FRIENDLY, DOES NOT LIKE DOGS, CAUTION I BITE, etc., emblazoned on them. These also have a liability. In some countries and areas of other countries, anything announcing your dog may have a behavioral issue or be at greater risk of biting in enough to have your dog confiscated. What if your dog has a “friendly” leash and a child runs up, your dog is having an off day and nips the child? You were announcing your dog was friendly and now he bit someone! I was in a local, used to be dog-friendly, store. I saw a man with a medium-sized, very terrified dog. Attached to the dog was a CAUTION lead. The store was crowded, the dog was in a panic, the risk was high. The owner was using the lead as an excuse to take the dog places and warn people away. WRONG! This dog should NEVER have been in that store at all. He was behaviorally not ready for this level of stress. A few months later, the store ended its all friendly dogs allowed policy. The manager kindly told me there had been too many incidents with irresponsible dog owners.
Know your local dog laws and insurance policy. If there is an incident, could a sign your dog needs space be interpreted by your insurance as your dog was a known risk? If there is a problem could one of these signals be enough for your insurance to decide not to cover any incident? Could they increase your liability such as in some areas “Beware of Dog” signs can increase your risk. Laws on this topic will vary state to state and community to community.
One thing I recommend to clients is get a simple dog coat, lead or tag hung from the lead with “IN TRAINING – do not touch” emblazoned on it. PLEASE this is never ever EVER to be used as a way to pass your dog off as a service dog and take him in places only service dogs are permitted. The only thing this idea should be used for is to hopefully get people to stop and not touch your dog. This may get people to pause before approaching (or not – some people are just flat out fools).
Seek a trainer who teaches counter conditioning, desensitizing and management without using stress inducing punishment or stress inducing tools. Learn to identify subtle stress signals and how to help your dog instead of worsening the situation. Understand that not all dogs can handle all situations NOR should they be expected to deal with everything we demand. ADVOCATE: be your dog’s voice! In a kind but firm manner instruct people to please leave your dog alone. Do not knowingly put your dog in situations he is not ready for: remain alert. If you see a possible situation looming, get out before something happens. Never rely on others to use common sense.
For everyone else: when around dogs, keep your dog, your children and yourself under control. You cannot always tell by looks or behavior alone if the dog is a GMS dog or a socialite. Respect the space of all dogs no matter how friendly they look or behave. Always ask before greeting. Respect the owner’s answer even if you do not like the answer. No means no. One bad experience can have lasting effects.
During a quiet, Sunday morning outing with a dog, several out of control children entered the pet supply store. They raced to my dog. I stopped the children, spoke to Mom, asked her to get the children to back off and I moved away. Mom told her kids to go ahead and pat my dog. I advocated again, sterner this time and walked to the door. Mom told the kids to go on, hug the cute dog. They tackled my dog to the ground. It took over a year to undo the damage – he now feared children. He was my new Therapy Dog hopeful. This event almost ruined him for Therapy work. I chewed the Mother out. As I left, the children were assaulting other canine patrons and management had to intervene.
Please, respect dogs and give space. Owners, advocate for your dogs.
Karen Peak is owner/operator of West Wind Dog Training in Prince William County, founder of The Safe Kids/Safe Dogs Project, a published author, wife, mother and the manager of a multi-dog, multi-species household.