‘Never leave your child alone with a dog’ is a common piece of advice given to parents. A recent study has shown that more than half of adults living with children and dogs do not follow this advice. In this post, the results of this study will be reviewed, and I’ll be asking how we might adapt advice given to parents in light of these findings.
Researchers from the University of Vienna were interested in the attitudes of parents and guardians to the supervision of dogs and children. They were also interested in the type of interactions that were most likely to be stopped.
The study involved a survey of over 400 adults who lived with children (up to 6 years) and dogs. Questions dealt with topics such as supervision and management of children and dogs, intervention in child-dog interactions and risk awareness.
Worryingly, researchers found that most people who took part in the study admitted to leaving their children and dogs unsupervised. Additionally, researchers found that adult supervision alone is not enough to prevent interactions that might lead to a bite. The study showed that photos of interactions described by experts as ‘risky’ (including a photo of a child being held above a dog and reaching towards its face) would not prompt the majority of parents/guardians to intervene.
The authors comment that the behaviour of parents and guardians would perhaps be different if they understood low-level stress behaviours shown by dogs, including subtle signs like lip licking, head turns, body stiffening and ‘whale eye’. Below is a poster from the wonderful Dr. Sophia Yin, illustrating some behaviours that are shown by fearful or anxious dogs (but please note that not al of the signs of social discomfort are included on this poster). I can also recommend this video for a comprehensive breakdown of different behaviours, with example clips.
Perhaps the time has come for a concerted effort by health professionals to educate parents and guardians as to the behaviour of dogs and the type of interactions that are safe. Promoting the supervision of all interactions between children and pets is still important, (particularly in light of evidence that children often misinterpret snarls as smiles) but it is clear from this study that messages about the importance of supervision are either not being heard, or not being heeded.
In addition to supervision, there are many other ways in which the risk of dog bites to children in the home can be reduced. Here are some other precautions you might consider to keep children safe around family dogs:
- Provide the dog with a safe space to which it can retreat from unwanted attention
- Learn about behaviour signs that dogs display when they are stressed or uncomfortable
- Teach children about safe ways to interact with dogs using resources from Stop the 77 and The Blue Dog Project
- Never force a child and dog together (even if it makes a cute photo!) The campaign #putthecameradown has done a lot of work to discourage parents from taking pictures of unsafe interactions between children and dogs
Let me know if you have any thoughts on this issue, particularly if you live with a child and dog. Do you think it’s feasible to supervise your child and dog all of the time? Do you have any other top tips for other parents/guardians about keeping children safe around pet dogs?