yellow dog project

An innovative way to identify dogs who need some space


Unfortunately, Bella is really cute. She has big Yoda ears, and a long tail with a white tip, and big brown eyes. People are drawn to her—especially children. They want to meet her and touch those enormous soft ears. They walk right up to Bella, hand outstretched to pet her head. Bella sends clear signals that she needs her space. She’ll put her ears down, back up and try to hide behind my legs. If pressed, she’ll start to growl. But there are a surprising number of people who ignore her communications and just keep moving forward. I know that if Bella feels cornered, she will nip, and one of the worst things in the world is having your dog try to bite someone.

So I have to become that grumpy dog owner who crosses to the other side of the street or, when interaction can’t be avoided, says, “Don’t touch my dog. She’ll have your hand!”

I’ve often wished that there was some way to warn people way ahead of time—before they are trying to touch her—that Bella is afraid and needs her space. I’ve thought about making her a wearable sign that says, “My name is Mrs. Bitey.” A much better solution is the Yellow Dog Project. The idea, introduced by dog trainer Tara Palardy, is that dogs who need their space would all have a yellow ribbon tied to their collar or leash. This yellow ribbon would indicate a dog who shouldn’t be approached without asking. Yellow dogs are ones who might be aggressive, fearful, unpredictable, or perhaps needing space because they post-surgery or elderly or have a painful health condition. They might also be dogs who are very friendly but are in training. Or shelter dogs whose behavior we don’t yet know well. Or they might be service dogs. 

The yellow ribbon serves as a warning but also, more importantly, as an opportunity for education. Many people who haven’t lived with a dog (and even some who have) don’t understand that not all dogs like to be approached. In particular, young children often haven’t been coached in how to safely interact with dogs. If the yellow ribbon tied to the collar could become a universal symbol of “proceed with caution” it could help alleviate a lot of stress for owners of dogs like Bella who need their space. It could help prevent unpleasant interactions between dog owners and their neighbors. And, most importantly, it could prevent some dog bite injuries.

As of today, Bella is going to start wearing a pretty yellow ribbon. I’m not sure that very many people will know what it means, at this point, but it can be a conversation starter. Bella can become an agent of change in her own little corner of the world.

Visit The Yellow Dog Project website and Facebook page for more information. And spread the word!

Originally published on Psychology Today and republished here with the kind permission of the author, Jessica Pierce, Ph.D.

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Yellow Dog Project – Editor’s Comments

The yellow dog project seems like a great idea to warn others that dogs wearing yellow ribbons like their space and so should not be patted. This method will need to be widely adopted to be really successful. The alternative is to have to tell everyone who may be tempted to pat your cute dog who likes their personal space not to do so! Do you have a dog that likes it’s personal space? If so please share with us how you deal with people who invade your dog’s personal space?

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Bioethicist and writer Jessica Pierce, Ph.D., is the author of Run, Spot, Run: The Ethics of Keeping Pets (Chicago, 2016) and The Last Walk: Reflections on Our Pets at the Ends of Their Lives (Chicago, 2012). Additional authored and co-authored books include Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible (New World Library, release date of Feb. 6, 2019, with Marc Bekoff), The Animal's Agenda: Compassion and Coexistence in the Age of Humans (Beacon Press, 2017, with Marc Bekoff), Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals; Contemporary Bioethics: A Reader with Cases; The Ethics of Environmentally Responsible Health Care; and Morality Play: Case Studies in Ethics. Some of the questions she explores in her writings on death and dying in animals are: Do animals have death awareness? Why is euthanasia almost always considered the compassionate end point for our animals, but not for our human companions? Is there ever a good reason to euthanize a healthy dog? Why do people often grieve more deeply for their pets than they do for people?