The Yellow Dog Project

Yellow Dog BandanaRecently we had a lovely afternoon at Sophia Gardens in Cardiff, enjoying a free dog show at the Out of the Woods Festival organised by Cardiff Council. The dog show was sponsored by our vets, Langford Veterinary Centre, so we went along to lend our support. Nothing unusual in that, there are similar fun dog shows practically every weekend up and down the country in the summer months. However, for us, this was a huge milestone as we took our beautiful Mick. This was Mick’s first ever outing to a fun dog show, and all of us had a brilliant time.

Mick is a reactive dog. There are a number of reasons, he’s twelve, a bit creaky with arthritis and his eyesight isn’t is as good as it was. Like many greyhounds, he missed out on early socialisation with other breeds. He’d been treated poorly in the past so was nervous with strangers and with strange dogs. Like many reactive hounds though, he has always been much happier around other greyhounds and socialises regularly with several greyhound friends with no trouble at all. When Mick became part of our family, we could see that his nervous and reactive behaviour needed some help. We talked to our dog trainer, Shaun Kenvyn, and he introduced us to a technique called BAT (Behaviour Adjustment Training). BAT was developed by a behaviourist called Grisha Stewart who describes it as “The core of BAT is that it is a dog-friendly application of desensitisation with a giant dose of empowerment to the dog.”

On walks, we made sure that if we saw or met dogs that would likely trigger a reaction in Mick, we would simply take him away from the situation until he was in a calm, unstressed state. By showing Mick that we were sensitive to his triggers, and that we were doing our best to allow him to enjoy calm, stress-free walks, he gradually was able to build his confidence, and we saw noticeable improvements. Of course, real life is never perfect, and one of the biggest problems we faced (and still do) is the off-lead dog whose owner gaily shouts “He’s only being friendly” as a cannonball of Labrador energy comes bowling over, rugby tackles your dog to the ground, covers you in excited muddy footprints and bounces round in circles. Incidents like these can (and, sadly do) put back months of training and hard work.

At the same time as we started doing BAT, we became aware of an American campaign for reactive dogs called Dogs In Need of Space (DINOS) – they do some fantastic free downloads such as posters, handouts, etc. which are well worth a look. We also became aware of the Yellow Dogs idea, basically this is that any dog which needs space when out on a walk should wear something yellow – a ribbon, vest, lead, bandana, etc. The campaign was then brought over to the UK and now has its own website Yellow Dog UK.

This has grown and grown, and is now becoming a more familiar sight on walk, in vet surgeries, and this year for the first time, Yellow Dog Friendly Events took place. If you volunteer for a rescue or any dog organisation, how about making your next show, walk or event Yellow Dog Friendly? The Yellow Dog website has lots of resources, and will even supply you with a free ribbon for your dog.

For Mick, we made him a yellow dog bandana, and these are now part of our stock. As part of our commitment to this scheme, we will never sell a predominantly yellow decorative bandana or fleece, as we don’t want to confuse the message. Mick wears his yellow bandana when he is out and about, and especially if we are somewhere new.

We started work on BAT back in the autumn of 2012, it’s not a quick process. Mick has steadily gained confidence, both with people and with other dogs, and has reached the point where he regularly passes on lead dogs on walks with calmness. He recently said hello quite voluntarily to a cyclist in a local park and has really bonded now with wider family members who he was very wary around to begin with.

We made sure Mick was wearing his Yellow Dog Bandana and armed with treats and poo bags, off we went. There was plenty of space around the ring, so we made sure Mick wasn’t crowded. Mick was joined by his sister Sara and they were both more interested in looking for squirrels than what was going on in the ring! We took them into a couple of classes, and to our delight, Mick won the Best Veteran class. We can’t even begin to say how absolutely thrilled we were – such an achievement for an old boy who would never have coped with all those strange people and dogs two years ago. In fact, his behaviour was impeccable – he was calm, polite, stood very nicely for the judge, and enjoyed having some time out around the park between classes. We came home feeling like we’d had a great afternoon and most importantly, Mick had too.

We’re sharing this tale for several reasons – firstly we get asked occasionally why we don’t tend to bring Mick to dog shows. Secondly, to say that reactive dogs can be helped – there are lots of resources out there, and Mick is a brilliant example of a very elderly dog making quite radical changes in his behaviour.  Even if you don’t have a reactive dog yourself, we hope that by reading our story, you’ll be more aware of the need for space, the Yellow Dog scheme and that you’ll never be one of those “Oh, he’s only being friendly” owners.

Mick has not always been an easy dog. When we walk just the girls, they are so calm and friendly that walks are always easy and relaxing. With Mick, we’ve had to learn a whole new skill set (what Shaun calls being a BAT ninja) but the rewards have been immense. We’ve learned to really study his behaviour and learn his signals and we’ve been able to celebrate along the way, as we’ve watched him relax and grow in confidence. And like all dog training, we suspect that he’s been training us – that the behaviour modification has been a two-way street!

Published: 17th August 2015