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How Well Can Children Interpret a Dog's Emotional State?

Young children have difficulty identifying certain emotions in dogs.

dog canine pet emotion children fearful friendly happy

I went to a local street fair and was chatting with a friend when a woman walked by with a Basenji on leash. The dog was clearly stressed, probably due to the crowd and the noise, and its emotional state was obvious since its ears were down, its body posture was cringing and low, and it was rapidly panting. My friend's five-year-old daughter, Ella, spotted the dog and began to run in its direction with her hand out to pet it. I stepped between the child and the dog and scooped Ella up and told her "You have to ask Mommy first before you pet a strange dog." By that time the Basenji and its owner had moved on. My real concern in this case was that fear is a motivating factor that often results in dog bites and these frequently target kids. According to one study 56% of all dog bite victims are children below the age of 10. This is five times higher than we would expect since children of this age account for only around 11% of the population. This has led some scientists to believe that one problem might be that children cannot read the emotional state of dogs as well as adults do. Some new data seems to confirm that this is the case for certain canine emotions.

In a recent publication in the journal Anthrozoos*, researchers from the University of Lincoln and the University of Edinburgh explored how well children and adults recognize the emotional expressions of dogs. They used a sample 430 children ranging in age from 4 to 10 years, and 120 young adults (university students with an average age of 21 years — mostly women).

To provide a realistic bit of behavior demonstrating a dog's emotions the researchers used video clips. These provided both motion and sound from a 5 to 11 second sample of dog behavior. The video clips used in testing had been unanimously rated as depicting one or another canine emotional state by three professional pet dog counselors and four veterinary behaviorists. In the end there were three video clips each of friendly behavior, aggressive behavior, of fearful behavior.

At the start of each test session with the children, the researcher showed them four cartoon-style drawings depicting happy, sad, scared, and angry human facial expressions and the kids were asked what they thought they meant. This was done to check that the emotions were recognized correctly. The researcher then showed the children each of the nine video clips in turn and asked “How is this dog feeling?” Each person could choose between "happy", "sad", "scared", "angry", or "I don't know". The cartoon drawings were used as props to make the task more accessible for the children, and the 4- and 6-yearolds were allowed to indicate their response by pointing to a drawing if they were too shy to respond verbally. After the children had judged how the dog was feeling, they were asked: “How do you know it’s feeling that way?”

Age played a big role in the accuracy of the judgments of emotional state. Although the adults scored very well (87% correct) the children scored less and less well as their age diminished. The 10-year-old children had a 73% accuracy score, eight-year-olds 65%, six-year-olds 58%, and four-year-olds only 46%. For all age groups the highest correct recognition scores were for aggressive behavior while the poorest performance was for fearful behavior. When it comes to correctly recognizing aggressive and friendly behaviors all age groups were better than chance. However for the four and six-year-olds their recognition ability for fearful behavior was abysmal. Only 20% of the fearful behaviors were correctly recognized by four-year-olds and 30% by six-year-olds. One worrisome aspect of this is that the fearful behaviors were most frequently misidentified as being happy or friendly behaviors.

The data was also coded to find out which aspects of dog behavior were being relied upon during the judgments. Specifically whether the child or adult was paying attention to the dog's face, how it moved or held its body, its tail, or the sounds that it was making. Most of the correct judgments of aggression (89%) came from individuals who were paying attention to the sounds (growls and barks) and the highest number of errors when looking at aggressive behavior (44%) came from those who were watching the dog's tail. When it comes to accurately perceiving fearful behavior, watching the face seems to be the poorest choice since 41% of the people who reported attending to the face failed to correctly recognize fearful behavior as opposed to only 15% of face watchers who got it right. This seems to be part of the problem for the youngest children since 54% of them report paying attention only to the face.

One of the reasons why the adults seem to do better overall appears to be that they are paying attention to more features of the dog's behavior, while the young kids focus on one or maybe two aspects of what the dog is doing or sounding like, and nothing more.

The fact that the four and six-year-old children do most poorly at recognizing fearful emotional states in dogs may help to explain why the dog bite rate is so high in their age groups. A fearful dog may become aggressive and bite if it feels threatened. That fear motivated bite will be initiated without any growl or bark. Since the kids are dependent upon the sounds the dog might make to accurately identify aggressive behavior, that fear motivated bite will occur unexpectedly and from the child's point of view without any warning.

These new data do confirm the hypothesis that young children do not interpret canine emotions as well as adults. Although young kids might have acceptable rates for correctly recognizing aggressive and friendly behaviors they are not very good at recognizing fear. What is worse is that when children failed to correctly identify fearful behavior they tend to judge the dog's behavior as being happy and friendly. This result seems to have implications for dog bite prevention programs designed for kids. Greater emphasis should be put on recognizing fearful behavior and also on checking out more than just facial signals. Perhaps teaching children to pay attention to body posture and movement could give higher accurate recognition rates and thus reduce dog bite rates in kids.

Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: The Wisdom of Dogs; Do Dogs Dream? 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

Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission

* Data from: Nelly N. Lakestani, Morag L. Donaldson and Natalie Waran, (2014). Interpretation of Dog Behavior by Children and Young Adults. Anthrozoos, (27), pp. 65-80.

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