Teaching Children and Parents to Understand Dog Signaling

Teaching Children and Parents to Understand Dog Signaling

Dogs communicate their emotional state and intentions to others by means of sounds, signals and body language, specifically facial expressions and body postures. They use these signals to communicate their intentions and should be interpreted correctly in order to ensure the personal safety of others. Safe human-dog relationships thus require an understanding of dogs’ signalling.


Dog Signaling and Dog Bites

The positive benefits of owning a dog include effects on human health and wellbeing and on child development and learning. Dogs act as social facilitators as in the case of therapy or service dogs, and as pets are regarded as friends, companions and family members. Dogs are amongst childrens’ favourite pets. Despite the benefits of dog ownership, there are also risks involved. Approximately 1.5% of the general population suffers a dog bite that requires medical attention, and the incidence amongst children is twice that of other age groups. Most injuries tend to occur in those under 15 years of age, with rates peaking between 5-9 years. Recent figures from the National Health Service on dog bites show that admission to hospital for serious dog bite injuries was on the rise with 17% being related to children under 10 years of age, and whilst these estimates are considered low due to underreporting, when schoolchildren were interviewed directly, 47% reported having been bitten. Dog bites are a worldwide problem, with countries such as Australia, Netherlands, Alaska, Belgium, Switzerland, Canada and Spain showing the extent of the issue as well.

The majority of bites occur in the home and involve children being bitten by a familiar dog. Child interactions such as approaching a dog while eating or surprising it while sleeping seem to trigger up to 86% of accidents at home. Injuries also occurred during feeding treats or play. Injuries in children occurred more often in the face, neck and upper torso. The implications of a bite are not just physical, but have psychological impacts and consequences.

Given these high figures and the incidence of a child’s interaction with a dog triggering a biting incidence, there needs to be an increase in parent awareness about home contexts and child actions that may trigger a dog to bite, as well as improving a child’s ability to assess how a dog reacts to their actions and when not to interact with a dog. Children don’t seem to understand a dog’s facial expressions and can mistake a very angry dog as being friendly.

Without adequate teaching, children tend mainly to look at the fact and ignore a dog’s body language. Overall research shows very little knowledge regarding dog behaviour and safety practices for dog-child interactions and this is essential to avoid injury to the person and distress to the animal.

It is also important to know how to behave in public around unfamiliar dogs, and families need to be aware of potential risk situations with a family dog as well as how to avoid or de-escalate risk situations. Realize that petting or hugging a dog is perceived to humans as friendly, but that these seemingly benign actions can cause intimidation or fear in a dog. It is therefore important to promote awareness in children and parents about how their dog behaves, which signals the dog presents when being hugged or approached in different situations, for example, if they are stressed they may present signals such as nose-licking or turning away, and if these signs are ignored, they may resort to aggression.

Key Points To Consider:

The following help put together a complete process of prevention and action.

  1. Knowledge of stress signalling
  2. Recognize and interpret correcting stress signalling
  3. Be aware of the situation and act accordingly
  4. Recognize future contexts and avoid risk


If children and parents can be taught how to interpret these stress signals correctly, and be aware of the actions that trigger the signalling and act on their knowledge, then both adults and children will better understand a dog’s distress signaling, risk situations will be reduced and the dog will enjoy more respectful behaviour.


Details of the Study:

In this study, children aged 3-5 years of age and parents were investigated to see how they perceive and interpret dogs’ distress signalling gestures, and then taught how to link their perceptions of the dog with the correct interpretation of a dog’s behavioural signals.

The study designed by Kerstin Meints, Victoria Brelsford and Tiny De Keuster, comprised of video clips demonstrating dogs with a full range of behavioural distress signals, including yawning, blinking, nose licking walking away, stiffening up, growling, snapping and biting. Then video clips of relaxed dogs were shown. Children were tested in schools and nurseries in a quiet room. They were shown a baseline of video stimuli followed immediately by a training phase of videos and then tested with new videos afterward to see if their knowledge had improved. They were then retested 6 and 12 months later without any additional training to see if they had retained their knowledge.


The results of the tests indicated the following:

  • Older children showed more correct results than younger children
  • After intervention, children improved in their judgements but even the oldest did not come close to the correct ratings
  • In adults, there was also improved understanding after intervention
  • All age groups significantly underestimate and misinterpret dogs’ real distress signalling, with younger children making the most misinterpretations, especially in 3 year olds.
  • Results indicate that both children and adults benefit from the intervention and improve their knowledge of dog signalling.
  • Good success for all age groups on the meaning of conflict-escalating distress signals, and learning how to correctly recognize and interpret the signals as well as the learning success is still evident after 1 year. However, the data also shows that participants, including adults, find the more subtle signals of a dog’s distress hardest to judge.
  • An increased understanding of dog signalling means that dogs are better understood, which leads to greater wellbeing of the dog in the household.



The results show an increase in learning for children and adults gave a greater understanding of signaling after intervention. We can thus be taught to interpret distress signaling more correctly and is the first important step in understanding the dog’s perspective and ensuring safe interactions.


Link to full original research article:

Front. Vet. Sci., 20 November 2018



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