Dr Kerstin Meints from the School of Psychology at the University of Lincoln, UK, is leading the study, which examines how children aged three to five interpret the warning signs dogs display when they feel threatened of distressed.
The two-year project, funded with a grant from the US National Institutes of Health, builds on existing research by Dr Meints and her colleagues into the risks and causes of dog bites involving children.
Dr Meints, Reader in Lincoln’s School of Psychology, said: “Young children are particularly vulnerable to being bitten by dogs. A common misconception is that these attacks involve strangers’ animals and happen on the street or in parks. In reality, most dog bites affecting children involve the family pet or another familiar dog.
“We know from our existing research that many of these incidents are preventable. Children under six frequently misinterpret the warnings signals dogs give when they feel threatened. For example, very young children often interpret a dog’s snarl as a smile, and will even lean in for a kiss.”
Reducing the number of dog bites involving small children and the family pet is important both as a public health matter and an animal welfare issue. Many dogs which show aggression towards a family member, particularly a child, are euthanised or taken to the pound.
Dr Meints and her colleagues at the University of Lincoln have been instrumental in the development of an international child safety programme, The Blue Dog, over the past eight years. Their educational DVD and accompanying booklet has been translated into 17 languages and licensed in 19 countries.
“Our existing work has indicated that education programmes can effectively educate pre-school children about safe behaviours around dogs,“ added Dr Meints. “This latest research will help us to better understand the situations where problems commonly arise, and from there, to refine effective methods for teaching parents and children how to interpret dogs’ warning signals properly.”
Using pioneering eye-tracking technology developed at Lincoln, Dr Meints and her colleagues are currently testing children aged between three and five years old on how they interpret the distress signals dogs display through their body language when the animals feel threatened or aggressive.
The design of the experiments will enable the researchers to compare the children’s verbal answers with the data from the eye-tracker; giving them a unique insight into the children’s thought processes.
The team first assesses participants’ knowledge, then works with the children and their parents to teach the safe interpretations of dogs’ behaviour before re-testing. The same assessments are repeated after six months and again after 12 months from the project start, to evaluate how effectively lessons have been learnt. Initial results show that children and their parents show significant improvements in correctly interpreting dogs’ body language after a training session.
The research is funded with a grant of $101,563 from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development (part of the US National Institutes of Health) and Mars-WALTHAM®. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is part of the US Department of Health and Human Services. As the USA’s medical research agency, the NIH is one of world’s largest supporters of health-related research.