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Thursday, February 21, 2013

To tie one on...or not?

Photo: 123RF.com
I've noticed a new trend in the dogosphere: the promotion of colored ribbons used to designate 'safe' vs. 'unsafe' animals. I suppose the idea isn't so new. When I was young and used to show horses, I knew that a red ribbon in the tail of a horse meant that the horse was known to kick. At first I questioned why I needed to know that. My 4-H leader's response was "So you don't ride up that horse's butt".  Well, I had a really good 4-H leader so I already knew not to ride up the butt of ANY horse. Most horses don't like another horse on their heels, so the ribbons seemed superfluous to me. It seemed to me that the horses were being marked for behaving in understandable ways. Having said that, there was invariably that rider who would ride their horse right into another horse, get kicked, and then blame the 'kicker's' rider for not tying a red ribbon in the horse's tail. The incident was usually followed by a bunch of hullabaloo and the announcer providing yet another tired lecture on the importance of red ribbons and understanding what they mean. The point is, the horse who kicked did exactly what horses do when another horse is invading their space, but that horse's rider was always the one taking all the guff. The idiot who rode like she was bowling was treated as an innocent victim. Seriously.

And now there are folks promoting the use of colored ribbons for dogs. Um, okay. I've seen flags, bandannas, patches, badges and most recently The Yellow Dog Project has launched a campaign to promote the use of yellow ribbons. Their message is a simple one: If your dog needs space, tie a yellow ribbon to the leash. If you see a dog with a yellow ribbon on the leash, give it space. I have no desire whatsoever to pick on these folks and what they are doing, but I do have a couple of problems with this system. 1) The folks who most need the reminder to back off aren't the ones who are likely to know what the ribbons mean. Non-dog people are pretty unlikely to have seen the promotional material, as are new dog owners, and 'fur-kid' folks (people who think of their dogs as furry children who can do no wrong). I have used badges and patches (my dog is a service dog) and have STILL had issues with other dogs and people getting in my dog's space. 2) I think a ribbon system can have unintended, negative consequences. It can lead to the assumption that any dog NOT sporting a ribbon is totally cool with being harassed, and that's the OPPOSITE of public education. In fact, as this movement spreads, I have already begun to see this happening.

If we have the opportunity to educate the public, why don't we REALLY educate them? If folks knew the truth about dogs, signs, symbols, ribbons, etc. would become unnecessary and domestic dogs everywhere could heave a collective sigh of relief. I really like Suzanne Clothier's common-sense approach, and highly recommend reading her blog post He Just Wants to Say "Hi" for an insightful look at what many dogs are subjected to in their daily lives. I also suggest checking out Dogs In Need of Space. They are an excellent educational resource and support system for owners who are feeling challenged or for those who just want to know more about appropriate behavior around dogs.

The truth is simple: ALL dogs should be given their space. A dog should NEVER be allowed to run up to a strange dog and get in their face (outside of a specifically designated dog park). A person, adult or child, should NEVER pet a dog without asking. Leash laws should ALWAYS be obeyed. These are basics here folks. This should be common sense to the point where I almost feel silly having to write it. I mean, how foolish would it be if we had to walk around wearing signs and ribbons to prevent strangers from harassing us? WHY do we assume then, that dogs are public domain?

I think too many people misunderstand what it means to be a 'social species'. WE are a social species, but we would still find it incredibly upsetting to have a stranger running at us and touching us and getting in our face. So it is for our dogs. While I have had a few dogs who tolerated this, I have only ever had one that really enjoyed the attention of strangers. It is more uncommon than people want to believe. THAT is what the public needs to learn. Unfortunately for dogs, most of what the public has learned has come from animated children's films about dogs; all the dogs speak in human voices, share human morality, are endlessly devoted to all people, and by gosh by golly all they want is to just be dogs, free to romp and play and sing songs. And if you happen to be the owner (or guardian, parent, whatever) of a dog who doesn't fit this fantasy stereotype, either you are a failure or your dog has something wrong with it. The truth is that most of the behavior exhibited by dogs who would be considered "Yellow Ribbon" worthy, is a natural and normal response to the rude, inappropriate behavior of another dog/person. I think that's the take-away message here.

We shouldn't need anything special to prevent  harassment  by people and other dogs. Common sense and hey, just good manners should be all that is necessary. But an awareness of how rare both of those attributes are these days does lend some credibility to the need for education. Since we are attempting to provide this education, I think we should treat the problem instead of just being okay with addressing the symptom.

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