How children and parents interpret dogs’ body language

Meints, Kerstin, Brelsford, Victoria, Just, Janine and de Keuster, Tiny (2014) How children and parents interpret dogs’ body language. In: ISAZ 2014, 19 - 22 July 2014, Vienna.

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Item Type:Conference or Workshop contribution (Poster)
Item Status:Live Archive


With bite figures from interview data as high as 47 % (Beck & Jones, 1985; Spiegel, 2000), and
National Health Service statistics in the UK showing a 40 % increase in dog bite figures in 2008
and even higher increases, at times of over 100 % in more recent years (NHS, 2008; 2012), we are
addressing a serious and wide-spread – but largely avoidable – problem. 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).
This study investigated cross-sectionally and longitudinally how 3-, 4- and 5-year-old children
interpret dogs’ stress signaling (N = 43, 34 and 36 respectively). We tested at Time 1 (before and
after training intervention), Time 2 (after 6 months) and Time 3 (after 1 year) by showing dog
videos according to the escalation steps of appeasement signalling (Shepherd, 2002). Videos had
been assessed independently by four experienced dog behaviour experts and were then grouped
into four categories (high, medium, low distress and “happy”). We investigated children’s evaluations
of dogs by using a 5-point scale with faces ranging from happy (1) via neutral to unhappy
(5). We recorded their looking behaviour using a Tobii Eye-tracker. Parents (N = 33) also took
part in separate sessions and underwent the same procedure. We collected questionnaire data, e.g.
on dog ownership, SES, demographics, bite incidents.
First results on correct answers (pre and post) show a main effect of Age – knowledge improves
significantly with age (F(3,122) = 15.05; p < .0001). We also observed a highly significant main effect
of Learning (F(3,122) = 56.61; p < .0001) with risk judgements improving from pre-training
at time 1 to test at time 1 and 2. Most significant improvements in learning take place in 5 yearolds
and adults (F(3,122) = 6.80; p < .0003). We also found a main effect of Distress Judgement
(F(3,366) = 243.90; p < .0001) – participants show some, but not full awareness of risk and least
distress recognition was shown by 3-year-olds. There were no main effects for Gender or Dog
The error analysis shows that errors are made in all distress categories (high, medium, low). The
lower the distress category, the more errors we find. The younger the participants, the more errors
occur and the more serious the errors are – again, we find significant misinterpretation errors of
highly distressed dogs as “happy” – these errors occur before training to 50–65 % in 3–5-yearolds
and 17 % in adults and are reduced after training to 17–28 % in 4–5-year-old children with
reduction to no errors in adults.
We conclude that successful teaching of dog signalling is possible. Especially children from 4
years onwards profit from the intervention and show significant improvements in knowledge
straight after the intervention and also over time. Increased awareness and knowledge can lead to
safer behaviour with dogs, risk reduction and potentially less bite incidents while dogs profit as
they are treated more appropriately.

Keywords:Human-Animal Interaction, Injury Prevention
Subjects:C Biological Sciences > C820 Developmental Psychology
Divisions:College of Social Science > School of Psychology
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ID Code:18790
Deposited On:13 Jul 2016 09:02

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