Study Shows Training Children To Interpret A Dog’s Behavior Reduces

Lori Ennis
by Lori Ennis
A new study confirms what many dog parents already know–the more we understand how dogs communicate, the less risk there will be of dog bites for adults or children.

Researchers who were investigating how parents and their children observe and interpret a dog’s body language found that neither children nor parents accurately interpreted a dog’s display of distress or anxiety, and that could lead to increased bite risk if the humans don’t get appropriate training.

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Some of the dogs’ behaviors even included snarling or growling and still, the children and the parents consistently underestimated the dog’s distress level and in real life, this could put them at risk for bite.

There were three phases of the research project and the children were three-, four- and five-years-old. There was another group of parents. Each group was shown video clips of dogs that showed them doing different things behaviourally. The behaviors were things happy dogs did as well as distressed dogs who were about to be involved in conflict (such as growling, snarling or even biting) did, and the groups were asked to rate whether they thought the dogs were ‘very happy’ to ‘very unhappy or very angry.’

After, each group was then trained on the behaviors they again watched in the videos, with someon explaining why dogs were doing what they were doing. For instance, the group members were told things like “if the dog is licking its nose, it may be worried and you should leave it alone.” The participants then watched other, new videos with the same behaviors and were again tested to see what they believed the dogs’ behaviors meant. The study was long-range, with the participants being tested similarly again six months later and a year later to see whether they’d maintained any training info as well as how they rated behaviors.

What the researchers from the University of Lincoln’s School of Psychology found was that after the training, both children and parents understood what behaviors meant more. Younger children had a harder time to accurately interpret distressing signals from dogs (growling or snarling), with 53% of the three-year-olds misinterpreting the dogs’ behaivors. Of that 53%, 65% of the chidlren thought those snarling, growling dogs were ‘happy.’ Concerningly, 17% of the parents misinterpreted distress behaviors as well.

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But after the training, when older children and adults, behaviors like staring, growling or snarling were noted to be distressing and with risk. Before the four-year-olds were trained, only 55% were able to assess high-bite-risk behaviors abut after the training, 72% of the four-year-olds recognized the risk. And the training seemed to last with 76% of the four-year-olds assessing accurately a year later though age may play part of that recognition the researchers noted.

Kerstin Meints is the lead researcher for the study and said that the kids would try to explain the dogs’ risky behaviors as they would for why a human would behave the same. For instance, children who saw a dog’s teeth because it was snarling might think it was ‘smiling’ and be at risk for dog bite if they were to approach the snarling dog.

Meints says her research suggests that training and giving intervention to adults and children about what a dog’s behaviors can mean may raise awareness and lower bite and injury risk.

Pretty much what we’ve always said; make sure your young child knows how to approach and recognize a dog’s behavior signals.

Lori Ennis
Lori Ennis

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