Children unaware of the risks of approaching frightened dogs

“Young children are relatively good at accurately identifying the emotion that a dog is displaying. However, children's understanding of safe practices around dogs are lacking."

Dr Sarah Rose, Lecturer in Developmental Psychology

Psychologists at Staffordshire University have discovered that children understand the risks of approaching an angry dog but they are unaware that they should show the same caution around frightened dogs.

That is one of the findings of a study by Dr Sarah Rose and Grace Aldridge from Staffordshire University who presented their findings at the 2016 British Psychological Society's Developmental Psychology Section annual conference in Belfast this month.

Dr Sarah Rose, Lecturer in Developmental Psychology, said: “UK statistics show that young children are at the highest risk of being bitten by a dog with nearly 1200 admissions to hospital for under 10's during 2013-2014. This study explored whether the explanation is that they are unable to accurately recognise a dog’s emotions when approaching one.”

Two groups of children aged 4 to 5 (57) and 6 to 7 years old (61) were asked to watch 15 videos and look at 15 images showing real life behaviour of dogs.  Video clips were all between 6 and 11 seconds long, the only auditory information was the barking of the dog. Only images and videos were used for which two vet nurses and two laypeople had agreed on the emotion being shown.

Both groups were then asked questions relating to their intention to approach the dog (Would you play with this dog?) and what emotion they thought the dog was experiencing (How happy/angry/frightened do you think this dog is feeling?).

Analysis of the results showed that the children recognised happy, angry and frightened dogs in videos and images at above the level of chance. Furthermore, they recognised angry dogs more accurately than happy or frightened dogs.

However, although the children were less likely to approach an angry dog there was no difference in their inclination to approach a happy or frightened dog.

Sarah added: “Young children are relatively good at accurately identifying the emotion that a dog is displaying. However, children's understanding of safe practices around dogs are lacking as they only demonstrated caution about approaching angry dogs. They appeared to be unaware that there might be problems approaching frightened dogs. This finding should help inform dog bite prevention campaigns.”