Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Approach with caution

Yellow Dog Project uses coloured ribbons to signal that a dog may not be sociable

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In 1973, Tony Orlando and Dawn scored a worldwide hit with the song Tie a Yellow Ribbon.

It tells the tear-jerking story of a just-released prisoner who writes his love and begs her to tie a yellow ribbon around "the old oak tree" if she wants him back in her life.

More recently, for patriotic citizens throughout North America, the yellow ribbon has become a symbol of passionate support for the military.

And now an online movement known as the Yellow Dog Project is mounting a global campaign to promote yellow ribbons as the latest step in doggie etiquette and pet safety.

Started in June 2012 by Tara Palardy, a dog trainer in Red Deer, Alta., the project is trying to educate dog owners to tie a yellow ribbon or another visible yellow item on the leash or collar of their pet as a warning their dog should not be approached.

In other words, it's the dog owner's equivalent of wrapping a pet in yellow police caution tape, a highly visible way to alert others that your dog, for whatever reason, needs a little space and should be given a wider berth.

That message is being spread through the movement's website, theyellowdogproject.com, and its Facebook page, which has thousands of followers and has spread to about 50 countries around the globe.

"Yellow dogs are dogs who need space -- they are not necessarily aggressive dogs, but more often are dogs who have issues of fear; pain from a recent surgery; are a rescue or shelter dog who has not yet had sufficient training or mastered obedience," Palardy's website explains.

"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,'" it advises. "They also seek to promote the use of yellow ribbons to identify yellow dogs needing extra space."

Manitoba writer and dog lover Colleen Baldwin is spreading the word about the importance of warning others about dogs that need space.

"I am going to use this on Danny the collie... because so many people come up to him with their dogs and go, 'Oh, Lassie!' and in the meantime, he is being dominant with the other dog and the fight is on," Colleen tells me in an email. "He is generally a very good dog, but his alpha kicks in when on a leash and he is almost 70 pounds."

My initial reaction was to scoff at the notion that dogs need to be colour-coded, because common sense says any strange dog should be approached with caution.

On the other hand, I am the owner of two small dogs, one of whom, Mr. X (a.k.a. "Bogey") is as unpredictable as the weather and, despite being the size of a canned ham, has been known to lunge at dogs three times his size and angrily yap at the volume of a heavy metal drummer.

Moreover, local animal experts point out that common sense isn't very common and anything that raises awareness that some dogs -- even pint-sized ones like Mr. X -- need extra space is a huge step towards curbing a growing number of biting incidents.

"I just think it's a good thing," says Aileen White, director of communications and public affairs for the Winnipeg Humane Society. "Anything that's going to bring more awareness for people to learn not to approach every dog they see is good."

Dog ownership is increasing rapidly, meaning it is more important than ever to learn how to behave around dogs, not all of whom want a friendly pat on the head, she notes.

"The yellow ribbon sounds like a good thing," she says. "Is it a cure-all? No. But it can help. It certainly can't hurt. It doesn't mean a dog is (Stephen King's) Cujo; it just means it may not be comfortable with people that it isn't familiar with."

Her only concern is that, because yellow ribbons are so strongly tied to support for the military, it could create confusion and mistakenly encourage someone to approach a dog.

That concern is echoed by Winnipeg dog trainer Dawn Piche, owner of Canada's Canine Academy on Keewatin Street, a retired 15-year member of the Canadian Forces and an expert in rehabilitating aggressive dogs.

Piche praises the idea, but warns a yellow ribbon could backfire, leading people to mistakenly think a "yellow dog" is a military therapy dog or a veteran's dog.

"I'm not so sure it's the best colour," the trainer says. "The concept behind it is excellent, but I think a bit more thought needs to go into the implementation. Dogs should have something, like a leash that says 'Please Do Not Approach' or a T-shirt or a bandana."

For the record, those items are available on the non-profit Yellow Dog Project website -- along with bumper stickers, hoodies, ball caps, iPhone cases and other products -- with the cash being used to create more products.

Noting her academy works with 15 biting dogs in a typical week, Piche says the need to increase awareness has become critical. "There are more aggressive dogs out there than people realize," she says. "Something needs to be done to make people aware. Less and less are training their dogs and more and more dogs are becoming aggressive."

Asked for tips on how to approach a strange dog in a park, the trainer was blunt, saying the bottom line is you should never approach a strange dog. Wagging tails can fool people into thinking an animal is safe.

"Sometimes it can be happy it hasn't bitten somebody in a while, so it wags its tail," she says. "If a dog's tail is wagging and its mouth is closed, it's dangerous. That usually means it's going to bite.

"If the rear legs are closer together, it means it's going to go forward and it's not safe. If the ears are going forward, it's not a good sign."

You simply can't be too careful around dogs you don't know, she says, citing a recent close call in her own office. "I had my life put at risk by a lady who takes her dog to the dog park," she recalls. "It was a 175-pound St. Bernard. I was in front of it, talking to the lady and it lunged and bit me on my chest.

"When I looked down, he was coming at me again. I had to literally jump on its back. The lady was just scared the whole time and didn't help me. She had brought her dog in because it had gone after an older man at a local dog park."

doug.speirs@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 3, 2013 C5

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