Is the dog smiling

Meints, K, Racca, A. & Hickey, N. Is the dog smiling? Children from 4-7 years misinterpret dogs’ facial expressions.

Almost half of school children reported that they were bitten by a dog (Beck & Jones,1985; Spiegel, 2000) and in other research, 20% of dog-owning parents reported their child bitten (Wilson, Dwyer and Bennett, 2003, see also Lakestani, Donaldson, Verga & Waran, 2006). Child-initiated interactions with the dog trigger up to 86 % of injuries at home. Recently, it was found that young children do not discriminate a dog’s body signals, but look mainly at the dog’s face (Lakestani, et al., 2006). While there has been anecdotal evidence that children mistake an angry, teeth-baring dog face for a smiling one, there is to date no systematic empirical evidence on the misinterpretation of dogs’ facial expressions.
We tested 4-, 5-, 6- and 7-year-old children and adults on neutral, aggressive and friendly human and dog facial expressions.

Results show that while adults make hardly any mistakes (less than 1%) on both stimulus types (dog and human faces), the majority of 4-, 5,- 6 and even 7-year-olds make mistakes interpreting dogs’ facial expressions. For example, of the 4-year-olds 67% make mistakes interpreting angry dogs’ faces. Looking only at the angry dog faces, 40% of children misinterpret these and 30% misunderstand aggressive dog faces as “happy”. Five-year-olds show 35%, 6-year-olds 25% and 7-year-olds 16% mistakes while specific mistakes to interpret aggressive dog faces as smiling and “happy” occur at 7% in 7-year-olds. In contrast, children presented significantly better performances regarding human faces, often exceeding 90% of correct responses.
These results indicate a severe lack in interpretation abilities in children of facial expressions of dogs which could contribute to the high incidence of dog bites, especially in younger children. Given this result, we can advise children and parents to prevent injuries and inform dog bite prevention programmes to help prevent further dog bite incidents.

Link to article - more research on children and dogs

Research funded by University of Lincoln and Blue Dog Trust.

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