We need to talk about … yellow leashes

We all need a little space, and canines are no exception. Now, dogs enrolled in the Dumb Friends League K9Courage program use yellow leashes to indicate they may not be receptive to unexpected greetings and pets.

It can be difficult to resist the urge to reach out and pet a dog especially when they’re on a leash, and the assumption is made that they’re harmless and safe. However, some dogs have endured unknown traumas, and while they have the potential to be loving family pets, they need time, patience and gentle training to help them overcome their fears and form positive relationships with humans.

“The behavior team and volunteers have often struggled with setting up situations in the busy shelter environment that allow fearful dogs to meet new people in a way that doesn’t overwhelm them,” explained Zoë Knox, behavior technician. “We would sometimes end up with clusters of people surrounding a dog that is no longer making progress due to becoming inundated. The key to helping dogs, cats and even humans overcome a fear is to slowly pair the sight and presence of the trigger with positive reinforcement. If we go too fast and the animal is surrounded by too many scary things at once, then they are unable to learn, often sending them into fight-or-flight mode instead,” said Knox. Since May, League staff and volunteers began using yellow leashes as a “caution signal” not because a dog is aggressive or means harm but rather to let wellmeaning people know the dog needs some space.

Dogs on a yellow leash can have a variety of behavioral concerns, many that are not apparent at first glance. The League works with high arousal dogs that are practicing on staying focused on their trainers, mouthy dogs and puppies, dogs with body handling issues, dogs being assessed to gather more information to address behavioral concerns, as well as those fearful, shut down dogs. “Some of our K9Courage dogs appear happy and relaxed, but they have one of these underlying concerns, so the yellow leash is a heads-up not only to protect the dog but staff and volunteers as well,” said Knox.

“Our dogs have better training sessions when we can control more of the variables of their surroundings,” said Knox.

If you come to the League and see a pup on a yellow leash, wait to be asked by the handler before greeting the dog. If it’s OK, be sure to crouch down, speak in a soft voice, respect the dog’s body language and follow the handler’s directions. In general, these are advisable guidelines to follow when approaching dogs in any setting—yellow leash or not.

The Yellow Dog Project also uses yellow leashes, but the League is not a part of this program.