A New Way to Tell If a Dog Is Safe to Interact With

From New Zealand comes an innovative way of avoiding dog bites

Posted Feb 05, 2019

Creative Commons License CC0
Cautious when interacting with people
Source: Creative Commons License CC0

A woman approached me while I was leaning on a fence watching some dogs playing in an off leash area of a park. She had a distressed look on her face and a little girl in a pink jacket hanging off of her hand. She pointed at another person who was also watching the dogs and said

"That lady over there says that you know a lot about dogs so maybe you can help me. My daughter Emma is 6 years old and she loves dogs. Yesterday, while we were out shopping, there was this woman with a fluffy white little dog on a leash. Emma ran up to pet the dog and it immediately spun around and started growling and snapping at her. The woman pulled her dog away and said to me that people were always coming up to her dog because it looks so cute and cuddly. She told me that that perception was wrong because he really doesn't like to be touched by strangers no matter how lovable he appears to be. I thought to myself that if that dog really didn't want people to interact with him he was probably displaying some doggy signals which indicated that he shouldn't be approached but which I missed. I was hoping you could tell me whether there were one or two signals that Emma could learn to recognize so that she doesn't risk getting bitten in the future."

The sad thing is that kids are most often the victims of dog bites. Based on statistics from the United States, children below the age of 15 years account for approximately 60% of all serious dog bites. The most vulnerable group is kids around 5 to 9 years of age. Part of the reason is because young children just don't recognize negative emotional signs in dogs, such as fear, tension, or potential aggression. In 2014 a team of researchers headed by Nelly Lakestani, who was then a Research Fellow at the University of Lincoln, found that four-year-olds failed to accurately judge the emotional state of dogs 54% of the time, six-year-olds misjudged 42% of the time, eight-year-olds 35% and 10-year-olds had an error rate of 27% (click here to read more about that). Given error rates which are that high when reading the emotional state of dogs, it is not surprising that a lot of people, especially children, end up being the victims of dog bites.

Many years before this 2014 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), and Teresa Lewin (an animal behaviorist who specializes in rehabilitating problem dogs, particularly those with aggression and anxiety issues), founded an organization called Doggone Safe (www.doggonesafe.com). It was originally incorporated as a non-profit corporation in Canada and more recently in the US. Its purpose was to provide free and low-cost educational materials for teachers and community organizations, to help teach children how to recognize warning signals in the facial expressions and body language of dogs. That website provides a large library of freely downloadable material, including photos of dog body language, to help accomplish this task (just click on the "bite prevention" tab at the top of the page on the site). Joan and Teresa still maintain a Canadian presence (https://doggonecrazy.ca) where you can even find an educational 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 caution signals. It won the 2005 Innovation Award from the International Positive Dog Training Association. While such efforts to teach kids how to recognize canine emotional signs and how to avoid dog bites are making some progress, only a small percentage of schools currently provide formal presentations or instructional programs to give children information on how to identify which dogs are safe to interact with and which are not.

Although education is the best and most permanent solution, there is a new idea which could provide a quick fix that might help to reduce the probability of dog bites. This innovative program was launched by the Department of Conservation in Dunedin, New Zealand in November. It is called Lead the Way. While primarily oriented toward maintaining dog safety around wildlife, it also included the creation of a series of dog leashes in bright traffic light colors. Each of the colors says something about the personality and behavioral tendencies of the dog at the end of the leash. Therefore green (go) means that the dog is friendly, orange (caution) indicates that the dog is cautious when interacting with people or other dogs, while red (stop) means that the dog prefers to keep himself and should not be approached. Thus a quick glance at the color of the leash would indicate to a child (who presumably has already learned the meaning of traffic lights), which dogs are safe to interact with and which are not. There is also a yellow leash which indicates the dog is blind or deaf. Profits from the sale of the leashes are being used to support a wildlife hospital. The choice of the leash color depends upon the dog owner's assessment of his own dog's social behavior rather than upon formal testing. So if a dog owner knows that his pet apt to snap at strangers he could simply signal this by choosing a red leash and thus reduce the likelihood of any unpleasant or dangerous encounters.

This idea of a highly visible leash color indicating something about the social behavior of a dog seems very appealing to me. It certainly is something that SPCA's or humane societies might pick up. Of course there would need to be some publicity so that people will understand what the meanings of the various colored leashes are, but I am sure that the media would pick up on this idea so that it would rapidly become broadly known. Any profits from the sale of the leashes could go to help support canine welfare programs. Once the idea that leash color has a meaning, then commercial leash manufacturers could also get on board by making the various leash colors available in their line of products and people could simply choose the appropriate leash to indicate their dog's temperament.

To me this seems to be a simple and creative way of reducing the likelihood of dog bites for children (and adults) without the requirement of any special training.

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