Looking behaviour angry relaxed

Meints, K., Brelsford, V. & De Keuster, T. Teaching children and their parents dogs’ body language.

When trying to enable safe interaction between children and dogs, it is vital that children are able to interpret the animal’s signalling correctly to avoid injury and distress. However, it has been shown that children and adults often do not understand dogs’ body signalling (Reisner & Shofer  2008). Without tuition, children look mainly at the dog’s face. In addition, children often confuse a fearful or angry dog with a friendly one (Meints, Racca & Hickey, 2010). With bite figures from interview data as high as 47% (Beck & Jones, 1985; Spiegel, 2000), and with recent National Health Service statistics in the UK showing a 40% increase in dog bite figures (NHS, 2008), we are addressing a serious and wide-spread – but largely avoidable - problem.

This study investigates how 4- and 5-year-old children interpret dogs’ stress signaling. We tested 22 4-year-olds and 24 5-year-olds showing them videos of dogs according to the escalation steps of appeasement signaling (Shepherd, 2002). We investigated children’s evaluations of dogs in various situations and degrees of being distressed (e.g. licking nose, turning away, growling) or relaxed. Using a 5-point scale with faces which ranged from happy (1) via neutral to unhappy (5), we asked children to tell us which expression suited the dog’s feelings best. For stimuli that showed more aggressive dogs (e.g. growling), we showed all those videos to parents first and asked their written permission to show the stimuli to their children. Children enjoyed taking part. If children made mistakes, e.g. with misinterpreting angry dogs as happy or smiling and approachable, we included an extra session with them after testing to explain the meaning of the dog’s behaviour in more detail and in child-friendly terms using the same videos.

First analysis shows a main effect for video type (F(3.102)=29.45; p<0001). Children cannot discriminate between medium and low risk groups. Significantly lower scores were found for videos of friendly dogs - this shows that children interpreted these stimuli correctly. While scores for the high risk group are higher than for the other groups, overall, these scores are still lower (average of 3.2) than expected, possibly due to 81% of children scoring some of the dog videos as “very happy” (1). The reason for the overall low scores in the high risk condition may lie in the fact that children often chose “very happy” when dogs exposed their teeth. Furthermore, we also compared a group of children on a subset of the high risk group (i.e. growling and snarling dogs) by showing them the video stimuli with and without sound to investigate if audible sound increases children’s correct answers. While there were no age group differences, there was a significant increase in scores when stimuli were shown with sound, raising their mean scores to 3.8 (F(1.34)=19.48; p<0001)).

This research highlights the need to teach children to recognise and interpret dogs’ stress signalling appropriately to avoid future injury. Further implications will be discussed.

Research funded by NIH. 2-year-project grant. “Teaching children and parents dog signalling”. $ 99.824, May 2012 – April 2014.

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