Children up to nine years old are at highest risk of being bitten by a dog. A new study confirms previous research that children are not very good at recognizing fear in dogs and reveals an additional issue: even when they do recognize fear, children are just as likely to approach a fearful dog as a happy one. This has important implications for how we educate children and parents to minimize the risk of bites.
The study used images and video clips of dogs showing behavior signals in three categories: frightened/aggressive, defensive/aggressive, and happy/playful. These were reviewed for accuracy by an experienced dog trainer with a bachelor of science degree in animal behavior. They were shown to children ages 4 to 5 and 6 to 7 years who were then asked questions to assess how well they identified the dog’s emotional state, how confident they were about their interpretation, and how likely they would be to approach the dog.
Children rated the dogs’ emotions on a chart using cartoon images and a five-point scale. They also rated on a five-point scale questions about how they would act toward the dog, including “Would you pat this dog?” “Would you cuddle this dog?” and “Would you sit next to this dog?”
The children were relatively good at recognizing angry dogs but less able to recognize frightened ones: only 56 percent of 4- to 5-year-olds and 76 percent of 6- to 7-year-olds accurately recognized frightened dogs.
Knowledge Doesn’t Mean Safety
However, the ability to recognize a frightened dog did not mean that a child would behave safely by avoiding that dog. Children were unlikely to approach an angry dog, but 81 percent of children answered that they would approach dogs they recognized as frightened. Statistical analysis also found no difference in the likelihood that children would approach a frightened dog compared to a happy one.
Children’s intuition about how to behave around an angry dog seems good, so why the difference with fearful ones? Coauthor Sarah E. Rose of Staffordshire University says, “It is possible that young children may think that it is okay to approach a frightened dog as when they themselves feel frightened, physical comfort can be reassuring. They fail to recognize that the dog’s feelings and reactions in this situation may be different to their own.”
The study also looked for effects of age and whether children lived with a dog or not but did not find consistent differences. “Children do show some improvements in correctly recognizing the emotion with age, and there is also some evidence that those growing up in a house with a dog may be a little better at recognizing the emotions,” she says. “But these findings are not consistent for all emotions.”
Lisa Radosta, DVM, DACVB, says, “This study shows at least one reason–there may be others–that children are the most common bite victims. They are not adept at recognizing frightened dogs, and even when they are able to recognize them, they don’t know how to interact with those dogs.”
This has implications for parents, behaviorists, and the design of dog-bite prevention programs. Dr. Radosta says parents need to educate themselves and their children. “The best practical advice is to prepare the dog for the child before the child is born and educate little ones with pictures that they can comprehend as soon as they are born,” she says. “We read with kids from day one, why not read picture books about dogs and cats?”
Adults also need to be aware of both their dog’s signals and the risk that a child may approach a fearful dog. “Adults don’t recognize fearful behavior and they do not understand that any animal can bite if the circumstances are stressful enough. As a result, chances are taken that should not be taken,” she says. “Make sure to practice proactive supervision all the time.”
The authors note that while there is evidence for at least short-term benefits for dog-bite prevention education programs, this mostly evaluates children’s ability to recognize risky situations and their performance on tests of knowledge, rather than their ability to recognize dog signals and how they behave in response. The results of this study suggest that programs should explicitly teach children both how to recognize behavior and that fearful behavior means that a dog wants to be left alone, rather than wanting the hug that they themselves would find comforting.
“Children seem to have a relatively good understanding that they should not approach an angry dog, but this is lacking for frightened dogs,” says Rose. “We recommend that children should be explicitly taught not to approach frightened dogs.”
This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.
Linda Lombardi writes about the animals who share our planet and our homes for magazines including The Bark, websites including National Geographic and Mongabay.com, and for the Associated Press. Her most recent book, co-authored with Deirdre Franklin, is The Pit Bull Life: A Dog Lover’s Companion.