Commentary: Encouraging responsible dog ownershp

Delaware is a pet-friendly state and we encourage pet ownership. That’s why making sure your pet is a match for your lifestyle, level of activity, work schedule and living situation is so important.

Small, gentle dogs are well suited for apartment, townhouse or condo living, while larger dogs often need homes with expansive enclosed yards. All dogs need human kindness and attention, and gone are the days when it was acceptable to tether or cage your dog outside all day and night.

But what if you have a dog with behavior issues that prevents you from taking peaceful walks at a local park without anxiety? If you find that your dog is developing behaviors that seem fearful, shy, or aggressive you should take action.

First, understand that as a dog owner, you are liable for the damages done to another person or property as a result of the actions of your dog. There are resources available to help you identify what may be causing or contributing to those behaviors and how to address them. Unwanted behavior is one of the most common factors that cause pet owners to contemplate surrendering their dog or cat.

The Brandywine Valley SPCA has certified trainers on staff to help keep pets in their home by working on common behaviors with pet owners and keeping families together. When seeking the help of a professional, national certifications are great credentials to look for when considering formal guidance or training.

Pet owners often unknowingly send the wrong signals to their dog, thinking they are doing the right thing. A common example is if a dog is growling or barking when approaching a new dog or person, the owner may pick them up to stop the commotion or prevent embarrassment. Some owners may think will calm down if they sooth their dog by petting them.

Stephanie Hansen

Although this may seem like the right thing to do, this can actually cause the dog to continue growling or barking when meeting new dogs in the future because the dog has been rewarded for the behavior. The reward is in bringing the dog closer by being picked up or by petting the dog when it is barking or growling. Here, the owner is reinforcing that behavior with affection. This is an extremely common scenario.

An even worse human reaction is violence towards their pet, which can cause increased fear, aggression, and an escalation of the situation for everyone involved. Remember, your dog will feed off of your emotion, so the calmer you are under stress, the less your dog will be reactive. Dogs and their owners can (and do) interpret interactions differently, but a qualified trainer or behaviorist can help both get on the same page.

So, along with seeking out a qualified trainer to understand and correct your dog’s behavior, what else can you be doing in the meantime when you are out in public with your dog?

There is a global movement called The Yellow Dog Project that is gaining momentum for its ease and simplicity in sending a message that your dog needs space and should not be approached. The color yellow is used because it is commonly known as a color signaling caution. Here, a yellow ribbon or bandana tied to the dog’s collar or leash is a signal to others that your dog should not be approached. This could be because of aggression issues, or because the dog is fearful, has a painful condition, or is in training.

The Office of Animal Welfare and BVSPCA are currently designing a yellow bandana with our state emergency contact number and a logo that can be used for dogs who need extra space in public and should not be approached.

In the meantime, any yellow ribbon or bandana should work. Let’s pick up this concept here in Delaware and continue encouraging thoughtful, responsible pet ownership.

State Sen. Stephanie Hansen, a Democrat, represents the 10th District, which encompasses parts of Newark, Middletown, Glasgow and Odessa; Mark Tobin is chief of the Office of Animal Welfare; and Walt Fenstermacher is senior director of operations for the Brandywine Valley SPCA.

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