Let’s Talk Disgruntled Dogs: Do You Know One?

A dog might need a little space for many reasons. Learn to recognize and respect the behavior.


It would be nice if all dogs were happy little critters who skipped through life with a song in their hearts and a wag in their tails. These are the “gruntled” dogs, a word I always somehow assumed related to those happy sounds comfortable puppies make, or that my Greyhound makes when she has a freshly washed micro-plush blanket, has the air conditioning on, and all is right in her world. (Actually gruntling is an old world for grumbling, so disgruntled just means unhappily grumbly.)

But some of us know we have a disgruntled dog, one who is so not interested in the morning walk turning into a meet-and-greet. Or maybe you have a new dog who has come from the shelter with some baggage and isn’t quite ready to mix freely with dogs, kids, or even adults. Or maybe this dog has a painful condition and has learned that being touched causes pain. There are a lot of reasons why you might end up with a dog who wants to be given a little space.

For example, when I got my dog Avon he tended to freak out when any dog or child rushed up to him. In a few steps he would transform from benign to nervous, to a snarling cowering wreck. I would hear a voice behind me saying “Oh, isn’t he cute!” or a parent would say “It’s okay, she’s good with dogs” as a toddler careened towards unreliable Avon. There was something about his “I am really not happy with this situation” expression that some people saw as irresistibly enticing. On one occasion I had to literally pick up a 40-pound dog and hold him up in the air to get him out of the reach of a persistent kid who had backed us into a hedge as her parents beamed at me, oblivious to my panic.

You can’t always find an isolated spot or go walking in the lonely hours of the early morning, so you need to find a way to let people know your dog is the “look but don’t touch” variety or, at the very least, the “approach with caution” type. Because people can be surprisingly oblivious to those subtle signs of the dog who is snarling and snapping, or literally crawling up a wall to get away from them.

People have come up with some ideas for easy visual signals that indicate your dog should probably be left alone. Unfortunately, there is no single uniform scheme, but here are some options — or things that others should look out for:

The yellow ribbon

A prominent yellow ribbon on the leash or collar. This is probably the best known scheme and is used in many different countries. It is a nonspecific signal that relates to any reason to avoid the dog, including aggression, illness, or a dog in training who should not be disturbed. I think the leash ribbon is one of the less visible and more ambiguous options, but it is the best known approach in the United States and overseas. For this reason I would suggest going with this method of signaling a standoffish dog. Sometimes it is just easier to get on the biggest bandwagon available.

The red bandana

This is a fairly widely accepted signal of a dog who tends to be aggressive. But it is also often used for fearful or sensitive dogs. The general message is to not get too close. In other areas, people use a yellow bandana. Just keep in mind, a conspicuous bandana might be there for a reason other than to look pretty.

Dog flags

Small flags that fit on leashes are made in a range of colors and messages. If you see a colored flag on a leash it probably means something, so evaluate before approaching. The flag color codes include red for aggressive and yellow for shy. Green is a positive signal that a dog is friendly.

Because there is no standardized code, always be alert to dog or human accessories (such as message T-shirts or badges) that might be intended as a signal. Make sure the owner sees you, and be ready to react to a palms-out “stop” signal or any other requests. In general, even before you get near a dog, attract the owner’s attention and ask if it is okay for you or your kids or dog to approach. The dog and owner will probably send out all the signals an observant person needs to see whether this is a good time to interact, but even if you don’t see any it’s good to ask.

These days Avon knows the drill. He sits and waits patiently while kids and adults pat his admittedly cute and fluffy head. He politely sniffs hands, accepts treats, and offers to shake hands. This, I explain to him, is the price of being adorable. But after a while he gives me a look that says: “This kid is bugging me, is it okay if we move along?” So if it were up to him he might still go for the yellow ribbon even now.

About the author: Emily Kane is a New Zealand-born animal behaviorist of the throw-back radical behaviorist type, albeit with a holistic-yuppie-feminist-slacker twist. She spent many years as an animal behavior researcher and is now more of an indoor paper-pushing researcher. Her early dog-related education came from Jess the Afghan Hound and Border Collies Bandit and Tam. It is now being continued by her own dogs and extended dog family and some cats (and her three aquatic snails Gala, Granny and Pippin — they think of themselves as dog-esque).

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