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Body Language

Why Children Suffer the Greatest Risk for Dog Bites

New research shows how poorly children recognize canine body language.

Based on the statistics available from the United States, approximately 350,000 to 400,000 people end up being treated in emergency wards for dog bites each year. Most are sent home after treatment, however around 2% do require hospitalization. The statistics are quite clear about who the targets of these dog bites are most likely to be. Children below the age of 15 account for approximately 60% of all of these dog bites, with the most vulnerable group being kids around 5 to 9 years of age. If we break down the statistics a bit more, we find that two thirds of the children that are bitten by dogs are boys.

kids children dog bites aggression canine pets

Why are young children, particularly young boys, at the highest risk for dog bites? A recent study published in the Journal of Nursing, Social Studies and Public Health sheds some light on this problem. Marie Chlopčíková and Adéla Mojžíšová of the College of Health and Social Studies at the University of South Bohemia in the Czech Republic gathered data from 372 primary school children, aged 8 to 12. As part of their testing they showed children pictures of dogs displaying various emotions to see if the kids understood canine body language. Their results were most disconcerting. The children accurately recognized the dog's emotions only an average of 17% of the time. We can break down their results and show the percentage of children who accurately recognized each of the six canine emotions that they were tested for, and this gives us the following pattern of data:

Percentage of Canine Emotional Expressions Correctly Identified by Primary School Children

  • Joy 21%
  • Submission 10
  • Attack 7
  • Threat 8
  • Fear 34
  • Friendliness 21

The worrisome aspects of these results are that only one in three children recognized the body language associated with displays of fearfulness in dogs. It is a worried, frightened, dog who is most likely to bite. Even more of a concern is the fact that explicit threat and attack signals are recognized by less than one child in 10. Although the data were similar for boys and girls, boys seem to recognize fearfulness in dogs even less well than do girls. In this study 41% of the girls correctly recognized the fearful dog by its body language, while only 29% of the boys did.

The inability to recognize the emotional signals that the dog is sending out is compounded by the fact that children tend to think that they have a greater degree of control over the dog than they actually do. In this study children were asked "Who does the dog obey in your family?" More than one third of the children felt that the dog obeyed them better than anyone else in the family. However, the boys were the most self-confident, and 34% of them felt that the dog responded even better to their commands than to those of their father or mother. This was the case in only 28% of the girls. Finally 64% of the children admit that they often walk the dog alone, without any adult supervision.

The conclusions of this study clearly predict that children are going to be hurt by dogs. With this degree of ignorance of the meaning of their dog's body language, the child will like miss warnings of impending aggression by their pet. Furthermore the children, particularly the boys, are overconfident, believing that they have greater control over their dog's behavior than they really do. If they are out walking their dog without the presence of an adult, it is easy to imagine how a situation might arise, involving their dog and/or another dog that they meet along the way, where children can simply blunder into being bitten because they don't recognize the danger signals and do not worry about their ability to control their pet.

It is interesting to note, that many years before this 2010 study was published, a coroner's jury in Stouffville, Ontario, looked into the death of 8 year old Courtney Trempe who was killed by a neighbor's bull mastiff in 1998. Among the 36 recommendations which the jury made, many focused on the need to institute programs to educate children about dogs and dog bite prevention. Two remarkable Canadian women responded to this call. Joan Orr (a scientist with degrees in biology, chemistry, and biochemistry, who operates a private consulting practice in the fields of human health and environmental risk assessment), and Teresa Lewin (an animal behaviorist who specializes in rehabilitating problem dogs, particularly those with aggression and anxiety issues), founded a nonprofit organization called Doggone Safe ( It's purpose is to provide low-cost educational materials for teachers and community organizations, to help educate children about how to recognize negative emotional signals in the body language of dogs. In addition they have a simple program which helps kids learn how to avoid dog bites. Their website provides a large library of free downloadable material, including photos and videos of dog body language, to help accomplish this task. Joan and Teresa even invented a board game for children, in which kids can move their way around the game board by correctly recognizing the emotions detected in photographs of dogs. The game format motivates children to learn how to read the important canine warning signals. This game won the 2005 Innovation Award from the International Positive Dog Training Association.

If you are as disturbed by the results of this recent study as I am, and are wondering what you might do to help protect kids from dog bites, I would suggest that you give the Doggone Safe ( website a look.

Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: Born to Bark, The Modern Dog, Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History, How Dogs Think, How To Speak Dog, Why We Love the Dogs We Do, What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs, Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies, Sleep Thieves, The Left-hander Syndrome

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