Young Children, Dogs, And Behavior Interpretation
One of the hardest things about cohabitating with companion animals can be how to successfully integrate them with children. Adult humans have a hard enough time interpreting animal behavior, even among cats and dogs, but it can be even more difficult with kids. On one hand, children may not pick up on cues that an animal is stressed or even aggressive. Likewise, the behavior of children can also be unpredictable and difficult to interpret by companion animals. This kind of misinterpretation can have serious consequences, with research suggesting that there is an increased risk of dog bites among children due to such misunderstandings.
The present study was conducted to “investigate whether the ability to interpret simple dog behavioral states” is different based on age group. The authors’ aims were for the results to be useful in developing dog-bite prevention programs for kids. The researchers studied 4-, 6-, 8-, and 10-year-olds, as well as adults, by showing them videos of different dog behavioral states and asking them to interpret them. The researchers also studied the subjects’ previous experience with dogs, such as whether they had lived with dogs or been bitten before. It’s worth noting that the study was broad in scope: 430 children were studied in total, from Italy, Spain, and the U.K.
Of the children studied, 21% lived with a dog, 32% lived with other companion animals, and the remaining 47% didn’t live with any companion animals. Overall, the study found that 65% of the responses to “how is the dog feeling?” were correct. Importantly, the likelihood of correct interpretation went up with age: 46% of the answers were correct for 4-year-olds, 58% for 6-year-olds, 65% for 8-year-olds, 73% for 10-year-olds, and 87% for the adults. Among all age groups combined, the overall ability to recognize aggressive behavior was high (92%). However, correctly interpreting fearful behavior was relatively low (41%). Surprisingly, the researchers found no difference among children who lived with dogs or other companion animals and those who did not. However, they did find such a difference among adults.
In summary, this study found that most participants were “reasonably good” at interpreting dog behavior. Even children as young as age four could make accurate interpretations. That said, 4-year-olds were “especially poor” at identifying fear and tended to misinterpret fear as the dog being “happy.” It seems clear that misinterpretation of fearful behavior as “happy” can be very dangerous. In addition to teaching children to recognize fear in dogs, “they also need to be taught that a fearful dog should not be approached.” Overall, the study provides a wealth of useful information for companion animal advocates that could be useful in guiding dog-bite prevention programs.