Preventing Dog Bites in Children: An Evaluation of the Blue Dog Project's Influence on Parents

A young girl sits on the lawn and shakes hands with a dog
Photo: Sofya Apkalikova/Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

An assessment of how parents behave when an unknown dog is near their child shows much still needs to be done to prevent dog bites in children.

Children are at greater risk of dog bites than adults. The Canada Safety Council estimates that 460,000 Canadians are bitten by dogs every year, of whom 75% are children under the age of ten. If bitten, children are more likely than adults to be hospitalized because of their small size and the closeness of their face to a dog’s mouth. 

The Blue Dog Project was designed to increase children’s knowledge about dogs and alter the behaviour of both children and their parents. While earlier studies show it successfully increases children’s knowledge, little is known about whether parents are more cautious around dogs as a result. Barbara Morrongiello (University of Guelph, Ontario) et al set out to evaluate its effect on the behaviour of a parent when their child is in the presence of an unfamiliar dog.

The study took place in Guelph, Ontario and in Birmingham, Alabama. Parents with a child aged between three and six years old were recruited to the study and randomly assigned to one of two conditions. All parents came in to the lab with their child, then had a period of three weeks at home in which they had to watch a DVD with the child, and then came into the lab again.

One group watched The Blue Dog DVD. This is a cartoon in which various scenes are shown, such as a dog sleeping in its bed. The child is asked how they should respond to the dog. If they make the wrong choice, the blue dog becomes growly, but if they pick the right choice then the dog and child in the animation have a nice, positive interaction. The DVD comes with a guide with advice for parents about dogs and children.

The alternate DVD was about fire safety and also used a cartoon format. Diaries completed by the parents showed that each group spent the same amount of time studying the DVD (about an hour).

On each of the two visits to the lab, the researchers set things up so that the child would meet an unfamiliar dog. The dogs were of assorted breeds and all had passed the Canine Good Citizen or the Delta Society Pet Partnership.  The dog’s handler was in the room, but sat in a corner and pretended to be busy; parents were not told this person had a connection to the dog. In the second session, a different dog was used so that it was still unfamiliar.

The child went into the room first, without knowing a dog would be there. The parent followed a few minutes later, having been informed there was a dog in the room because a lab member had brought one to work that day. 

The researchers studied how the child interacted with the dog, whether the parent encouraged or discouraged interaction, and whether the parent stayed within arm’s reach or not. This distance was chosen because a parent could not expect an unfamiliar dog to respond to their voice, hence for reasons of safety they should stay close. 

Both groups of parents behaved the same in the first encounter, as you would expect. Most parents were within reach of their child at the first and subsequent interactions with the dog, and they were more likely to pay continuous (rather than non-continuous) attention. 

In the second session (after the DVD work), parents from both groups were less likely to be within reach of their child than they had been in session one. There was no difference in their attention levels.

The researchers also found that in both sessions, parents tended to begin by encouraging their child to interact with the dog, becoming more protective later on. When the child was being cautious, parents tended to encourage approach. They also modelled approach and interaction, which is significant because one of the ways children learn is through copying others.

Unfortunately the Blue Dog intervention did not have an effect on parent’s behaviour. Parents were just as likely to encourage their child to interact with the dog, which is risky behaviour, and those in both groups became more lax at the second session.

It is possible that because the study was about child safety, parents assumed that a dog in such a laboratory would be calm and well-behaved. If the study were repeated, perhaps the researchers could pretend the dog was linked to another lab down the hall or something similar. Nonetheless, because the dog was unfamiliar, parents should have shown more caution. (It’s worth mentioning that caution is also necessary with familiar dogs; young children in particular are at risk of being bitten by a dog they live with (Reisner et al 2011)).

The dogs were well-behaved, but this does not seem to have been a factor in how parents behaved, because they did become more protective during the interaction. 

The authors say, “Over time, parents seemed to adopt a ‘watchful-waiting approach’ in which they watched the child-dog interaction from a beyond-reach distance. This supervision strategy is unlikely to be sufficient to prevent a dog bite injury given the size of the child, their proximity to the dog, and the parent’s minimal readiness to intervene from a distance.” 

These results are disappointing, because even though the DVD is designed for children, it also aims to change parent’s behaviour. This is a common problem in health intervention research: unfortunately, even when interventions are shown to increase knowledge (like this one), it does not necessarily translate into less risky behaviour. This study is an important one which shows the need to consider parents’ perceptions of risk as part of the wider picture of improving children’s safety around dogs.

What do you teach children about interactions with dogs?

Morrongiello, B. A., Schwebel, D. C., Stewart, J., Bell, M., Davis, A. L., & Corbett, M. R. (2013). Examining parents’ behaviors and supervision of their children in the presence of an unfamiliar dog: Does The Blue Dog intervention improve parent practices?. Accident Analysis & Prevention, 54, 108-113.
Reisner, I. R., Nance, M. L., Zeller, J. S., Houseknecht, E. M., Kassam-Adams, N., & Wiebe, D. J. (2011). Behavioural characteristics associated with dog bites to children presenting to an urban trauma centre. Injury prevention, 17(5), 348-353.

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