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Teaching children and adults about canine stress signals could be the first step in reducing the risk of dog bites, a new study by the University of Lincoln has found.

Psychologists at the University’s School of Psychology 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 project consisted of three phases involving a group of children aged three, four and five years old and one group of parents. Initially, the groups were shown a series of short video clips displaying a range of behavioural signals from happy dogs through to high-risk behaviours. Participants were asked to rate their perception of the behaviours on a scale from ‘very happy’ to ‘very unhappy/very angry’.

Participants were shown videos of dogs displaying a full range of behaviours

The groups then took part in a training phase where the videos were repeated with an explanation of the behaviour the dog is displaying, followed by a safety message such as ‘you should leave the dog alone’. Participants then saw videos displaying all behaviours and once training was complete, participants were tested to establish their judgements of the dogs’ behaviours. They were then tested again after six months and after one year to measure if the training has a lasting effect.

The findings showed over half (53%) of three-year-olds who were shown videos of dogs displaying stress misinterpreted high-risk signals such as growling or snarling. Of the children who misinterpreted these high-risk signals, over 60% thought that the dogs they were shown were happy – a mistake that could potentially have dangerous consequences in a real scenario. Results also showed 17 per cent of parents also incorrectly interpreted these behaviours.

Following a simple training programme, both children and adults showed significant improvement in correctly identifying the dog’s body language and even retained the knowledge a year later. Before the training, only 55 per cent of four-year-olds were able to correctly interpret high-risk dog behaviours with this rising to 72 per cent post training. Twelve months later this figure rose to 76 per cent.

Children and adults showed significant improvement following a simple training programme on dog body language

Lead researcher Professor Kerstin Meints from the University of Lincoln’s School of Psychology said, “We observed that children often try to apply an explanation for the dog’s signals that would be appropriate to explain human behaviour. For example, children often wrongly interpreted a dog snarling and showing its teeth to mean that the dog was happy, which could put them at significant risk if they were to approach a dog displaying these signals.

“This project is the first to offer an intervention to significantly enhance children’s and adults’ abilities to correctly interpret dog signalling and has shown that with simple training we can improve this awareness, knowledge, recognition and interpretation skills.”

The full paper, Teaching Children and Parents to Understand Dog Signalling, has been published in the journal Frontiers in Veterinary Science and is available to read online at https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fvets.2018.00257/full

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