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Yellow ribbons on dogs' leashes...and other ethical dilemmas

Posted by Stephanie St. Martin  March 5, 2013 08:10 AM

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There is a poster making the rounds on Facebook. I've seen it at least seven times in the past two weeks. Besides presenting a cute photo, it informs readers who may see a dog with a yellow ribbon on its leash, to recognize that it's a sign the dog needs space and that respect should be given.

My initial reaction was "what a great idea." I appreciate a universal sign to let people know that the dog needs his space. Maybe he's being rehabilitated, maybe he doesn't do well with other dogs, and maybe he doesn't do well with people. Whatever the case, it reminds people to keep their distance. Dogs can get the exercise they need and can slowly become more comfortable with their new surroundings.

But, being the person I am, I thought more about it.

I was raised to always ask owners if I could approach a dog and say "hello." In fact, I typically announce my intention about 15 feet away just in case the answer is "no" and I have to change my walking path. Growing up, many of my friends had dogs. Some were friendlier and some were a bit more skittish, and I quickly learned when a dog wants to be left alone.

I was taught to be responsible for my actions. Not once would my family or I hold responsibility with the owner's family.

No offense to my parents, but was this the right lesson?

Think about this: If you saw a yellow ribbon on a dog's leash, what would you think? And let's assume you are educated to know it means to keep away (and don't think it's similar to a luggage ribbon - hey, there's my dog!).

Would you be relieved that the owner "alerts" you to the situation?

Or, would you be worried? Here's an owner announcing to the world that the dog needs space. Would it cross your mind that maybe the dog shouldn't be outside? The owner is basically proclaiming that the dog has "issues." There are some of us who may be offended to see a "unsafe dog" on our neighborhood streets or in our parks. And we can only hope that the owner has control of him.

Let's take it a step further. If a child is at a friend's house and the family's dog attacks the child, who would be to blame? Maybe it's the child's fault - she played too rough with the dog, pulled its tail, etc. The dog would have no way of telling her to knock it off. Or is it the family's responsibility? Regardless if the animal has a short fuse, should the owner have to play chaperone and watch the child interact with the dog?

This is the ethical dilemma we faced in Massachusetts: A young child was attacked by a dog and the town of Mansfield voted to euthanize the animal. We can argue back and forth about whether or not this was the right decision, but it happened. I read all sides of this story (don't forget, readers, I'm a philosophy professor) and my heart goes out to everyone involved.

Now here's an ethical dilemma I want you all to think about: What if a child approaches a dog with a yellow ribbon on their leash? Let's assume they weren't raised in the St. Martin household. The child runs up to the dog and the dog attacks the child. Now what?

The owner could argue that they had the yellow ribbon on the leash, which acted as a warning, so therefore they aren't at fault. The parents should have controlled the child or educated them. If the child is under three, could they even understand a lesson about the yellow ribbon?

The parents argue that it's the dog owner's fault. An "unsafe" dog should not be around the public, but rather in a secluded area of the park. I can only imagine "yellow ribbon area" becoming the new "peanut table" in school cafeterias.

What's the right answer? The truth is, I don't know. My guess is that a judge will decide a case similar to this in the next five years.

Here's a final scenario (and this actually happened to my friend): Her dog was recently attacked by another dog while the two were at doggy day care. Her dog needed stitches and a couple of days in the "cone of shame." Roughhousing got a little too "ruff."

But should that dog (the one that attacked her pooch) have been in day care in the first place? Like the yellow ribbon warning, maybe the owner knew that the dog doesn’t play well with others and yet it was allowed to play at doggy day care. This could also be the first time this dog is being labeled a "bad dog." Do we quarantine him from the other dogs? Should the dog deserve to be euthanized because he attacked my friend's dog?

Like most things in this world, answers aren't always crystal clear. The right decision for some may be the absolute wrong decision according to others. During classroom debates, I would always tell my philosophy students to come prepared to argue their side. The debates never get out of hand (chairs have yet to be thrown) and the students leave for the evening with a newfound empathy for the other side.

So readers, what do you think? Is the yellow ribbon just a glorified "Beware of Dog" sign? Or is it a useful tool to help dogs and people interact safely?

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