New study: “Stop teasing the dog.”

More than 4.5 million people in the US are bitten by dogs each year, most commonly children, and many by family pets. How can parents reduce the risk?

By teaching kids not to do things that scare the dog, according to a new study on dog bite prevention.

It sounds like common sense, but researchers say the trick for parents is recognizing a frightened dog in the first place.

In the online survey of 402 German parents, researchers found that, unexpectedly, dog owners were less likely to recognize signs of fear in their dogs during a dog-child interaction than non–dog owners.

Researchers say that parents seem to trust their dog not to act aggressively with their child independently of the context of the interaction. Which means that even if they see a whining dog actively trying to avoid the hand of an overly excited two-year-old, parents may not step in.

It may seem obvious that kids don’t know better, but even adults have problems interpreting their dog’s body language.

In most dog bite cases, the kid started it. Grabbing at the dog was the behavior most likely to provoke the dog to bite. Specifically, pulling her tail, tugging his hair, or yanking a paw.

Age plays an important part, too. Toddlers tended to be more antagonistic to dogs, gleefully pulling tails, while preschoolers were more passive, opting instead for an affectionate pat on the head.

The age of the dog appears to be equally important: children were bitten more often by dogs that were older than the child. Usually, the older dogs had lived with their owners before the child entered the picture, so were used to having the house (and the owners’ attention) to themselves. These dogs tended to show more fear-related behavior toward children.

Researchers say that even apparently benign behavior by children causes discomfort and fear in many dogs. In one study, dogs showed stress by retreating when a child tried to hug them in 18 percent of cases.

Since the most common sign of anxiety in dogs is when the dog turns his head from from whatever’s annoying him, it’s no wonder many parents don’t recognize the signs of an impending incident when all they see is the family dog swiveling his head out of the way when a kid tries to hug him.

Researchers say that, ultimately, the outcome of any child-dog interaction depends on the dog and how he perceives the situation. They suggest that a key to avoiding dog bites might be the ability to recognize the dog’s emotional state, and that “parental supervision quite effectively shapes the child’s interactive behavior.”

The researchers concluded that parents need to be proactive in teaching children how reduce the risk of dog bites. But they can’t do that until they learn to recognize the signs of a stressed-out dog, themselves.

Photo credit © TzuReyes

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