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Children & Dog Bites

Clinician's Brief (Capsule)


|February 2016

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The inability to interpret behavior may contribute to an increased likelihood of a dog bite. Given the higher incidence of dog bites in children, this study sought to compare the abilities of children (4-10 years of age) and adults in interpreting dog behavior. 

A total of 430 children and 120 young adults were presented with friendly, aggressive, or fearful behavior. Each was shown 3 short video clips of each type of behavior and then asked “How is the dog feeling?” The choices were “happy,” “sad,” “scared,” “angry,” or “I don’t know.” They were also asked “How do you know the dog is feeling that way?” Responses were grouped into 4 categories: movement/posture, sound, tail, or face.

Overall, 65% of responses to “How is the dog feeling?” were correct, and the percentage of correct responses increased with increasing age. The most identifiable state was aggression; fear was the most difficult. This held true across age groups. Findings suggested that dog bite-prevention programs, including instruction on recognizing and avoiding fearful dogs, should particularly focus on younger children.


I am always amazed by owners who expect their dog to tolerate absolutely anything a child does. Because children cannot read dogs as well as adults can, it is up to the adult to interpret the situation and make appropriate changes to ensure the child’s and dog’s safety. Most dog bites affecting children occur when interacting with familiar dogs in normal situations.

The examination is a prime opportunity to educate children and adults on canine body language displays (eg, lip licking, yawning) that can suggest a dog is fearful or anxious. When time allows, I will talk to the child about being a “stump” or a “log” when in an uncomfortable situation with a dog. If the child is standing, they should be a stump; stumps do not have branches (arms/hands) and are firmly planted in the ground (unable to run). If the child has been knocked down by a dog, they should be a log (ie, stay face down with arms protecting face, ears, and neck). It is an easy concept for children to understand, and parents seem to appreciate the time spent.—Sandra Sawchuk, DVM, MS

This capsule is part of the One Health Initiative.


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