People Mistakenly Think Anxious Dogs Are Relaxed Around Baby

Dog owners are even worse than non-dog owners at interpreting canine body language in interactions with children, according to research.

Dog-owners are worse than non-dog-owners at interpreting canine body language in interactions with children, study shows. Photo shows toddler and his dog look out of the window

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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Young children, in particular, are at risk of getting bitten by dogs. According to the AVMA, between 2010 and 2012 359,223 children in the US were bitten by dogs. Younger children are most often bitten in the home by a dog they live with (Reisner et al 2011). To prevent dog bites, it's best not to let a child approach a dog that is lying down or sitting still, and to closely supervise all interactions between children and dogs. But what if people don't know what to look for?

A recent study by Dr. Yasemin Salgirli Demirbas (Ankara University) et al asked people to observe three videos of interactions between a young child and a medium or large dog.

In one video, a baby crawls towards a Dalmatian who is lying down next to a ball; in another, a toddler walks around and touches a Doberman; and finally, a Boxer follows and licks the face of a crawling baby.

In all three cases, the interactions were risky, as the dogs were obviously showing anxious or fearful body language.

But that’s not how most people rated the dogs. Most people said the dogs were relaxed (68%) and confident (65%).

It made no difference whether or not people had children, but there were differences between the people who owned dogs and those who did not. Far from being better at reading dog body language, the dog owners were more likely to say the dog was relaxed, and it was the non-dog owners who were more likely to recognize the dog had an anxious emotional state.

The authors suggest several possible reasons for this, including that dog owners may be more likely to assume a dog is friendly, non-dog owners may be more cautious and dog owners more confident in their assessments, or dog owners may have less knowledge about aggression in dogs in this context.

The study also found that people (dog owners or not) tend to give overall assessments of the dog’s emotional state, rather than pointing to particular aspects of body language. They gave examples such as “the dog is happy” or “the dog knows that it is just a small child.” This kind of overall assessment was more common in people without children.

Every participant referred to tail wagging as a sign of positive emotions. This is worrying because in fact only some tail wags are a sign of happiness. Tail position and wagging speed, breadth and direction can all vary. Look for a lovely wide wag with a nice loose body in a happy dog; a narrow, rapid wag with the tail held high is a sign of a threat.

Other behaviours people often commented on were moving the ears back (recognized more by dog owners) and avoiding eye contact.

People misunderstand dogs' body language around babies - and this study shows dog owners are worse than those who don't own pets
Photo: debasige; top, brickrena. Both Shutterstock.

The researchers say that even when people were able to recognize the dog’s emotional state, this would not necessarily have been enough to prevent a dog bite. People were still likely to describe the interactions between dog and child as playful or friendly.

The authors say, “This finding shows the importance of bite prevention programs aimed at teaching both the correct description of canine body language and the early signals of aggression, to equip adults with the necessary knowledge to safely supervise child–dog interactions”

The online survey had 71 participants and took place in Turkey. The small size of the survey is a drawback, but the findings suggest more research into how people interpret (or fail to interpret) interactions between dogs and children would be very helpful. Sometimes social media seems to be full of videos of very risky interactions followed by many comments describing them as cute.

And that’s one of the nice things about this study: the dogs in the videos did not show more obvious signs such as growls or air snaps that more people would have easily recognized. Instead they showed the more subtle signs dogs give that they are uncomfortable, such as lip licking, looking away, or moving away from the child.

While it’s not a surprise that most people did not recognize these signs, it is alarming, and shows more needs to be done to educate people about canine body language and safety around dogs.

This is not the only study to find people tend to assume safety around dogs. Westgarth and Watkins (2015) found a belief that dog bites “won’t happen to me.” But especially where children are concerned, we need to be aware that any dog can bite, and learn how to recognize signs of stress, anxiety and fear in dogs.

Educating children has been shown to reduce risky behaviours around dogs, so it is important to teach children how to behave with dogs too.

You will find lots of tips on dogs and children in my book, Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog HappyModern Dog magazine calls it "the must-have guide to improving your dog's life."

And there are also some useful resources at stopthe77.comReisner Veterinary Behaviour Services often provides educational deconstructions of dog bite incidents on Facebook.

Demirbas, Y. S., Ozturk, H., Emre, B., Kockaya, M., Ozvardar, T., & Scott, A. (2016). Adults’ Ability to Interpret Canine Body Language during a Dog–Child Interaction. Anthrozoƶs, 29(4), 581-596.

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