Did you know that there is a colour-coded system that dog owners can use to warn other dog owners or members of the public about behaviour or health issues?
Coloured leads, harnesses, coats and collars are a simple way to indicate if your dog is aggressive, shy, blind or is in training. You can also buy coats or leads with the words written on them.
Even if your dog doesn’t need any of this specialised equipment, it is really important to know what they all mean if you see another dog. You may need to keep your dog away, approach the other dog gently or keep your dog on a lead.
The meaning behind colour-coded dog leads & harnesses
Colour-coded leads and harnesses/collars help to show people about a dog’s behaviour before they interact with the dog. They’re mostly used to warn the owners of other dogs, but can also be used to warn people without dogs not to approach and try to stroke the dog.
It is worth saying that a dog wearing a certain colour may just be wearing that colour as the owner thinks it stands out, not necessarily as a warning. Dogs will usually be dressed in one or two pieces of the same colour, with writing on the pieces.
Traffic Light System
The colours below operate in a traffic light system, with red being a firm ‘no’ and green basically meaning ‘go’.
- Red – Caution
A red lead or harness usually is a sign of caution. The dog will need some space because they could become aggressive if approached by a dog or human they don’t know.
- Orange – No dogs
Orange usually means that they can be approached by humans, but not by dogs. You should keep your dog away from these dogs, or on leads when around them.
- Yellow – Nervous
These dogs are nervous about new places and things. They won’t like to be crowded by humans and other dogs, so you should give them space. They haven’t shown signs of aggression but could be unpredictable if crowded.
- Green – Friendly
These dogs love to be approached by dogs and humans. Caution should still be taken when introducing two dogs, but these dogs have never shown signs of aggression or unhappiness. This can be especially helpful if people tend to avoid your dog because of the breed’s reputation.
The colours below tell others about assistance dogs. An assistance dog provides help to its owner and is allowed in shops and similar settings.
The colour usually indicates how they help their owner, which in turn could help members of the public know what kind of behaviour the dog needs to carry out. Most assistance dogs will wear a coat with information on it, so the colours are not to be confused with those above.
- White with fluorescent strips – Guide dog
Possibly the most well-recognised support dog harness for members of the public. A guide dog helps a blind or visually impaired person to move around. They will direct the person, helping them to cross over roads and avoid obstacles. Most will also be able to assess height so owners don’t go into spaces that are too small.
They’re trained to follow commands but will also override these commands if it is not safe to carry them out.
- Bright blue – Buddy dogs
Ever wondered what happens to the guide dogs who don’t quite have absolutely everything it takes to graduate? There can be various reasons why they aren’t suitable to work as mobility assistance dogs, but most will go on to work as Buddy dogs.
They are often paired with blind or partially sighted children, who aren’t independent of parents and guardians yet can benefit from help from a trained dog. They help towards sensory and personal development. It can also help a child to decide whether they want a Guide dog when older.
Buddy dogs don’t have the same legal permissions as Guide dogs, nor are they meant to help to cross roads etc, but they are still perfect as calm, friendly family pets.
- Blue – In training or in support service
These dogs are – or will eventually be – service dogs. They are either in training or have passed their test with flying colours and are now support dogs. You shouldn’t allow your dog to approach and play with them, nor should you distract them.
The support they can give their owner differs from owner to owner. Some can detect seizures, and others can be companions and assistance for those with autism, epilepsy or physical disabilities.
Autism dogs, who are trained by Dogs For Good, can help autistic children to feel relaxed. They are also trained to perform a “headrest”, where they place their head on their knee to help them feel comforted.
- Purple – General assistance
These dogs are often trained by a charity called Canine Partners. They provide their owner with everyday assistance, such as grocery shopping, undressing, unloading and loading the washing machine or accessing the fridge. The ‘partners’ are carefully matched to their new owners.
They help people who otherwise find these tasks painful, difficult or impossible to perform. This can commonly be due to disabilities and medical conditions such as fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, arthritis or a stroke.
- Brown/Burgundy – Hearing assistance
Hearing assistance dogs will alert their owners to particular warning sounds that they could otherwise not hear. This includes fire alarms. They can also alert their owner to less serious sounds such as the doorbell or telephone.
- Red – Medical detection dogs
These dogs can usually detect a variety of medical issues with their owners. They often do this by odour, being able to sense if there is an impending medical event that needs urgent action.
Some may be trained to detect low blood sugar or severe allergies. Others can detect Addison’s disease or Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (PoTS).
The charity Medical Detection Dogs trains and partners dogs with their owners.
Below are a few other colours or messages you may see when on walks with dogs.
- White – Deaf/Blind
Dogs wearing white will often be deaf or blind. This means they cannot hear you or see you, or other dogs, but will be able to sense you. Some may not like being approached as they can’t tell what is going on, and the reaction of other dogs.
This harness will often be the same as one of those for a Guide dog, but without the yellow fluorescent strips.
- Bright yellow – Up for adoption
These dogs are often walked by rescue centres in public to say they are available for adoption. It is more popular in the USA than in the UK.
- Purple – Do not feed
If you have treats in your pocket for your own dog, it can be easy to think feeding one or two to another dog that comes over is okay. A purple lead or coat tells others this isn’t okay.
Are there assistance dogs for anxiety or depression?
In the UK, emotional support dogs are not legally recognised in the way that assistance dogs are. You are unable to register an emotional support dog, too.
There are campaigns in place to change this, but right now, registering an emotional support dog is not possible. People may still use colour codes such as red coats and harnesses, or yellow ‘nervous’ jackets, to tell people not to approach both the owner and the dog, however.
Tips for taking your colour-coded dog outside
The colour-coded system is popular in countries like Australia where it is thought to have originated, but in the UK it is a newer system that many people are still unaware of, especially when it comes to the Traffic Light System.
As well as colour-coding what your dog wears, it is also a good idea to have words on the harness, lead and coat. This may make things clearer to other people. You can buy equipment that has words on it, but if your dog needs specialist equipment such as a strong harness, you can often buy patches or velcro add-ons that can be attached to the pieces.
Don’t be afraid to be vocal in warning other dog owners about your dog, either. Shout out to people that you’d like them to keep their dog on a lead, or not allow their dog to approach yours. Whether people don’t know about the colour coding, can’t see it or choose to ignore it, vocalising your warning should be a good indicator to a responsible owner.