PhotoEver since the Iran hostage crisis of 1979 a yellow ribbon has symbolized something of a welcome, or a wait for a return. In other words, a welcoming symbol.

When you see a yellow ribbon on a dog's leash, however, it means something entirely different.

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) a yellow ribbon tied to a leash serves as a warning. It means the dog at the other end doesn't like to be approached and petted by strangers, and that you should keep your distance.

Always ask

AVMA says it's always proper etiquette – as well as prudent – to ask permission before petting someone's dog but not everyone understands that. They think that just because their dog adores them that all dogs do. That isn't always the case.

The association is trying to encourage owners of less-than-friendly dogs to adopt the yellow ribbon warning system when they take their pet out for a stroll. It is also trying to encourage parents to warn their children about approaching strange dogs – and in particular those with a yellow ribbon on their leash.

Dr. Ilana Reisner, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist and consultant on dog bite safety, says the threat of children being bitten by a dog can be greatly reduced with active supervision by a parent or other adults.

Aimed at reducing dog bites

State Farm Insurance and the U.S. Postal Service, two entities very concerned about dog bites, recently sponsored Reisner's appearance at the National Press Club in Washington, DC.

“Supervision is not well understood,” Reisner said at the event. “Dog owners in general are lacking knowledge about what kinds of things dogs and children do that can be a risk. For example, they might go out of the room and prepare lunch while the child is alone with the dog maybe 10-20 feet away, and that’s not active supervision. If that’s one message we can get across I think it would prevent a lot of bites.”

Then there is the whole issue of what Reisner calls “breed bias.” It works two ways.

While parents might be careful with their children around breeds with a reputation for being aggressive, they may drop their guard for breeds with a reputation for being friendly.

“Just because you happen to have a dog that’s considered to be a great family pet doesn’t mean that it would be safe for a toddler to crawl up to that dog and give him a hug when he’s sleeping,” Dr. Reisner said.

Bad body language

In addition to looking for a yellow ribbon it's also wise to observe a dog's body language. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) says a dog will telegraph its mood and disposition. According to HSUS, here are some things to watch out for:

  • tensed body
  • stiff tail
  • pulled back head and/or ears
  • furrowed brow
  • eyes rolled so the whites are visible
  • yawning
  • flicking tongue
  • intense stare
  • backing away

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Even if you don't observe any of these behaviors it's never wise to approach an unfamiliar dog, in particular one who is on a leash or in a confined space. HSUS says you shouldn't even pet your own dog without letting them see and sniff you first.

Don't disturb a dog while she's sleeping, eating, chewing on a toy, or caring for puppies. Be cautious around strange dogs. According to HSUS, you should always assume that a dog who doesn't know you may see you as an intruder or a threat.

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