Helen Clarkson talks about life with a ‘yellow’ dog, and why it is important everyone understands the meaning of the colour more and more nervous dogs are wearing…
An off-lead dog bounds towards us from across a field. My heart sinks. In the past there was nothing I liked more than a dog wanting to say hi but now it’s the thing I dread most. My dog, Monty, starts barking and lunging and we hear the dreaded words, “My dog’s friendly!”
Whilst their dog prances around us ignoring their owner calling him, Monty is petrified and is doing his best to make the other dog go away. His cortisol levels (triggered by stress) are rising, as are mine. The other owner says, “My dog just wants to play” or “He needs telling off anyway!” But mine doesn’t want to play and it’s not his job to teach other dogs’ manners.
When we first got Monty he found the world a very overwhelming place. We weren’t enjoying our walks and neither was he.
Monty is a reactive dog. A reactive dog is a dog that overreacts to things in the environment that they find frightening. The more reactions they have, the higher their cortisol levels go and the longer it takes for these levels to go back down. In the meantime they’re more likely to react to things that they could usually cope with.
When we rescued Monty, we had no idea how much our lives would change. We don’t know Monty’s history but he is reactive to strangers and dogs. This means that when he deems them to be too close he’ll bark and lunge to try to make them go away.
We knew that Monty was an anxious dog when we adopted him but had no idea how much our lives would change. When we talked about getting a dog we imagined ourselves having relaxing walks in the countryside and play dates in the park but instead have found ourselves going out in the dark to quiet places to walk, hiring private fields and never walking anywhere without Monty’s yellow “I need space” vest and armed with plenty of high value treats!
When we first got Monty he found the world a very overwhelming place. We weren’t enjoying our walks and neither was he. Monty was barking and lunging at the things that worried him and we were finding it stressful trying to walk him in public. Around that time I learnt that a day off walks a week can REALLY help reactive dogs. It gives their cortisol levels time to go down and there are loads of enrichment activities that can be done at home to tire them out mentally.
If you see a dog wearing yellow (or any dog on a lead) you can make someone’s day by popping your dog on their lead until you’ve passed them.
We learnt that yellow is a colour that means that a dog needs space. They might be wearing a yellow vest, ribbon, lead, harness or bandana and if the owner is as “cool” as I am they might be wearing a bright yellow tabard or a hoodie too! The dog might be wearing yellow because they’re old or arthritic and don’t want to be jumped on, they’re in training or they’ve got an injury – but whatever the reason, they all need space! You can read more about them at www.yellowdoguk.co.uk.
If you see a dog wearing yellow (or any dog on a lead) you can make someone’s day by popping your dog on their lead until you’ve passed them. It’s really heartbreaking when you’ve spent weeks training your dog, even paying for and working with behaviourists to change your dog’s emotions around the things that they find frightening only to have an off-lead, “friendly” dog run up to them which sets your training back and undoes all that hard work.
We’ve found that working with qualified, force – free (positive) behaviourists on counter-conditioning has really helped us to help Monty with changing his emotions when he sees triggers (things that scare him).
This is a really slow process of pairing the scary thing with high value food so that the dog learns that great things happen when their trigger appears. It needs to be done in controlled situations so that you don’t run the risk of the dog crossing their threshold and reacting. You can find highly qualified, positive trainers here.
We’ve also learnt that the most important thing is to be able to increase the distance between Monty and the trigger, so that he is not constantly reacting. Teaching Monty a U turn that he does on cue has been really helpful in managing tricky situations and also scatter feeding (throwing treats in the grass for him to find) for times when we cannot avoid the trigger.
Monty has filled our lives with happiness, laughter, trust, love, snuggles on the sofa, plenty of fur – and lots of yellow!
People with reactive dogs will often tell you how fabulous our relationships with our dogs are as despite how stressful things can be, we’re constantly advocating for them and in the case of human reactive dogs we’re often the only people our dogs fully trust.
Getting Monty changed our lives. We have fewer holidays and evenings out but Monty has filled our lives with happiness, laughter, trust, love, snuggles on the sofa, plenty of fur – and lots of yellow!