Dogs are cute! However, the only thing that makes them scary sometimes if they fear of getting bitten by one. A recent study suggests that a better understanding of the way dogs convey their distress could be the first step in reducing the risk of dog bites for both children and adults.
Psychologists investigating how children and parents perceive and interpret dog's body language found that both groups significantly underestimate and misinterpret the way that dogs display distress or anxiety including behaviours such as snarling or growling, which can cause a significant risk to children.
The study consisted of three phases involving children aged three, four and five years old and one group of parents. The full findings of the study were published in the Journal of Frontiers in Veterinary Science.
Initially, each group was shown a series of short video clips of dogs displaying a full range of behavioural signals which ranged from happy dogs to high-risk conflict-escalating behaviours such as growling, snarling or biting.
The groups then took part in a training phase where the videos were repeated. This time accompanied by simple information explaining the type of behaviour the dog was displaying. For example, when a dog licks its nose, it means the dog is worried. The video also projected a warning message such as 'you should leave the dog alone'.
Participants then also saw novel videos with all behaviours. Once the training phase was completed, participants were immediately tested to establish their judgments of the dogs' behaviours then testing again after six months and once more after one year, to measure whether the training had a lasting effect.
Results showed that younger children found it harder to correctly interpret dog distress signals with 53 per cent of three-year-olds misinterpreting high-risk signals such as growling or snarling. Of the children who made mistakes, 65 per cent thought that these dogs were happy. Results showed that 17 per cent of the parents also incorrectly interpreted these behaviours.
After the training intervention, both children and adults showed better understanding. Most improvements were found on conflict-escalating signals such as staring, growling or snarling with adults and older children showing the highest levels of improvement.